Full Chapter List - So You Want To Be A Physicist... Series
Part I: Early Physics Education in High schools
Part II: Surviving the First Year of College
Part III: Mathematical Preparations
Part IV: The Life of a Physics Major
Part V: Applying for Graduate School
Part VI: What to Expect from Graduate School Before You Get There
Part VII: The US Graduate School System
Part VIII: Alternative Careers for a Physics Grad
Part VIIIa: Entering Physics Graduate School From Another Major
Part IX: First years of Graduate School from Being a TA to the Graduate Exams
Part X: Choosing a Research area and an advisor
Part XI: Initiating Research Work
Part XII: Research work and The Lab Book
Part XIII: Publishing in a Physics Journal
Part XIV: Oral Presentations
Part XIII: Publishing in a Physics Journal (Addendum)
Part XIV: Oral Presentations – Addendum
Part XV – Writing Your Doctoral Thesis/Desertation
Part XVI – Your Thesis Defense
Part XVII – Getting a Job!
Part XVIII – Postdoctoral Position
Part XIX – Your Curriculum Vitae
At this point, you have completed writing your thesis, your adviser has approved of it, and you have distributed it to all the members in your thesis committee. It is now time for you to do your thesis defense. Officially, this is the final obstacle standing in your way between you and your Ph.D degree. Needless to say adequate preparations are necessary.
What exactly is a thesis defense? This is where you demonstrate your mastery of the subject matter that you have been researching during your years as a Ph.D candidate. To put it bluntly, since you are producing an original, new work to be added to the body of knowledge of physics, you have to prove that (i) you understand the physics inside out and (ii) you are the world expert on this particular area. In fact, in certain parts of your thesis, even your adviser may not know as much, or as in detail, as you. This is where you have to establish yourself as someone who knows a lot on this particular topic. You must know every single thing that you wrote in your thesis, and maybe even some beyond that, especially if you make specific reference to other theories or experiments. Your thesis committee will try to judge if you are an expert in such a field.
The most important person that should prepare you for your defense (other than yourself) is your adviser. Your adviser would have guided you in the beginning into a research subject that would satisfy the graduate school/departmental requirement that your work is new, original, and something significant that contributes to the body of knowledge. Publishing in respected peer-reviewed journals would be a major indication that your work is accepted as being new and significant. So in preparation for your defense, he/she should try to impress upon you on making sure that you mention somewhere during your thesis defense that such-and-such work that you did was published in so-and-so journal. More importantly, though, is that your adviser might know certain “quirkyness” of certain members of your committee that might help you to prepare for. If a particular professor always likes to ask about “historical significance” of certain things, or maybe he/she likes to always try to include his/her own research area, then these are the things you should prepare for. It is ALWAYS a good strategy that if you happen to have used or cited the work of one or more of the committee members, then you should make sure you mention this clearly. You’d be surprised how well those kinds of acknowledgments can go down. This should be a common practice throughout your career. In any case, in preparing for your defense, talk to your adviser and ask him/her for his opinion. It may be that your adviser would like you to do a trial run at doing your defense. JUMP at such an opportunity. Such practice is always a good idea. Do this in front of your adviser and other graduate students (who should already be keen on seeing what it should look like since they have to go through the same thing soon enough). Such practice should allow for last-minute kinks to be worked out and to prevent major disasters.
How long your defense should take place depends very much on your adviser and the procedure enacted at your school. Most schools leave it entirely to your adviser. In turn, most advisers would prefer a defense that is between an hour to two hours. However, I have seen a defense that took place over a span of 2 days! It wasn’t pretty. So in your practice, make sure you pay attention to how long you are presenting your defense. You do not want your audience, or worse yet, your committee members, to fall asleep.
Most thesis defense are usually announced to the public via the usual seminar/colloquium announcement made by your department. So everyone is usually welcome to attend your defense. Typically, the first part of your defense is similar to you giving a seminar. At the end of your presentation, everyone in attendance is invited to ask questions. The committee members usually would not ask anything during this time, but they will pay attention to how you respond to the questions being asked. So do not trivialize a question, even though it came from one of your buddies in attendance. After this question and answer session, the rest of the audience will be asked to leave, and the closed session will be just between you and the committee members. This is where usually the difficult questions will come up. They will disect your presentation and the content of your written thesis. Pay careful attention to what they ask, answer as thoroughly as you can, and acknowledge any comment or suggestion that they give. Sometime, a question can really come out from left field that you simply did not expect, and you find yourself stumbling along. More often than not, if you have a good adviser, he/she might offer a reply to try to guide you into a right path. So pay attention and try to see if you can get any hints there. Just keep in mind that just because you are unable to answer something which might not be central to your work, this does not mean that they will fail you. So whatever you do, do not panic.
After the committee is done with this session, you will be asked to leave and they will deliberate your fate. My anecdotal account of my defense goes like this: they decided to stay in their deliberation for about 10 minutes longer JUST to make me squirm and sweat. At this stage, there’s nothing else you can do. Just exhale, relax, and try not to stress out. Unless something really disasterous happened during your defense, you can almost be assured that you have accomplished your goal. After the committee’s deliberation, your adviser will officially informed you if you have passed through your defense. He/she will also inform you of any changes that are necessary to your thesis based on suggestions from the committee members. These are the changes that you need to make before getting the final approval from all of them for you to submit to the thesis examiner/graduate school.
Other than that, it is time to rejoice. You have done a significant accomplishment that was not easy, and took years of hard work and sacrifice. In the eyes of many, you are now a Physicist!
However, is that all there is? You can go out now and work as a Physicist? If only life is that simple and straightforward. In the next chapter, we will go back in time to approximately one year from your joyous occasion at completing your studies. Your journey on becoming a physicist isn’t done yet just because they are handing you your Ph.D degree.