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Thesis Defense

A Word on the Thesis Defense

Mark Christensen, English Department Graduate Director

A graduate thesis defense normally isn’t anything like the aggressive situation implied in the word “defense.” The word is a leftover from centuries past. Usually a thesis defense is a formal but friendly and interested discussion of a candidate’s academic research or creative achievement. The faculty members on the committee are generally there because of their interest in the candidate and/or the candidate’s work, and so they ask questions designed to draw out the candidate’s thinking about that work.

Typically the meeting will begin with a leading question from the chair something to the effect of “What led you to this project, and what do you think it has accomplished?” Generally the thesis advisor makes sure both the project and the student are ready before the defense begins, so the experience tends to be satisfying for all concerned. The outside representative of the graduate faculty is there to ensure that all is done in a professional manner. That representative may ask substantive questions, but is not required to. The committee members from the department are there to ensure that the candidate is prepared to join them in having a graduate degree in their field.

Success is not guaranteed, but generally the defense ends with the faculty members welcoming the candidate to a new standing of accomplishment in the discipline, with all people in the room having enjoyed an hour or two of engaged conversation.

The Thesis Defense

Erin Eliason, MA

Reading about shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, I was reminded of the end of my graduate studies program. In the hours, and sometimes days, before a shipwreck the oceans are so rough that the ship's cook couldn't feed the men. Men stayed on duty around the clock, losing sleep and any semblance of peace of mind. They labored heavily, mentally and physically, to keep their ship afloat in the storm. And again, after hours or sometimes even days, when the hull of their ship cracked and they were expected to abandon it and make their way to shore with little strength and already exhausted hearts. That's exactly how I felt about my graduate exams and thesis defense after weeks of exhausting work. Except I was on land, and even if I failed I wouldn't drown and die.

I chose my thesis advisors based on their experience in relation to my thesis. This, I believe, made the difference between a possibly painful, floundering experience, and one that was a joy.

I stood inside the room designated for my thesis defense, legs and arms shaking, holding onto a platter of deviled eggs, roll-ups and fresh grapes. Five copies of my thesis were on the table. My friend, the one who helped me make the roll-ups, the one who drove me to my defense, had just left. I sat alone for a few minutes, still shaking, before one of my professors came in. Since I had already had nearly a dozen classes with him before this, I felt relieved seeing a friendly face. Then my thesis advisor came in, and I felt even more relieved. These two were "on my side." Then, in marched another of my committee members. Same thing. Even when the one committee member that I had not chosen walked in the door, It felt alright. She was friendly and smiled, offering me compliments on my thesis. I was in a familiar room with familiar faces. We chatted together, just like any other time before class. It didn't feel like a storm at all.

But soon my thesis advisor spoke up and asked me a formal question about my thesis. "Why did you choose this particular format, vignettes, instead of say, chapters like a novel, poetry or anything else?" The other members nodded and picked at the try of snacks. And I realized that every writing class, every literature class, every advisor meeting, every writing project I had ever done was there for me to rely on. After all those hours, days, weeks and years, there was nobody that could answer these questions better than I could. It was my project, and I had the answers. There was no trick. I wasn't being interrogated. I wasn't expected to know everything. They wanted to know about my project, and the questions were ones I had naturally known the answers to. The answers were already embedded in my work. Why did I choose this tone? Length? Format? Audience? Why convey those moments, and not others? Was my project universal, or intended for a specific time, place and audience? In the end, were these the best decisions for my project?

After a volley of questions and answers that felt like any other writing workshop I'd taken at BSU, they asked me to leave the room and fill out a few forms and a review of the process. After fifteen minutes, they opened the door, greeted me with hugs and said, "Congratulations. You did it!" No storm. No sinking ship.