The last phase: how to get to the defense?

By Nina Conkova

It is hard to believe. It is almost time and I am waiting in the sweat room with my paranymphs. I am finally going to defend my PhD! I am nervous… And the next thing I know is that I am done, waiting to receive my PhD diploma – the fruit of my hard work in the past few years. The hour has flown, the presentation has been delivered properly, the questions have been answered, and I am thinking that I might have even enjoyed it more than I expected. Feelings of relief, excitement, and pride are taking over. My body is full of adrenaline which will make me go through the celebrations. It is time to party and enjoy.

But the path to this moment was long. In this blog I would like to share with you my experience of going through the final stage of a PhD trajectory – preparing for the defence – and provide you with some practical information and tips. We do not often hear about what this stage includes and how to deal with practical and emotional matters until we are actually living it. Yet, having some prior knowledge can help us prepare better and deal with insecurities.

For me personally, the final stage started around the time when my contract was about to end; I had finalised my empirical chapters and was dealing with the final chapter of the thesis – an overview including the introduction and main conclusions. Having this completed and all individual chapters of the thesis approved was the first time when I personally felt relieved and happy, and told myself and everyone that I was nearly done with my PhD. “Finally! It has been a long time since I started, I went though many ups and downs, but now I can defend. I am nearly a doctor!”

However, it depends on your definition of “nearly”. At Erasmus University Rotterdam (hereafter EUR), where I defended my thesis, there is usually a period of six months between approval and defence. This is half a year! I could not wait half a year, I had already started a new job and I needed to defend. I wanted to defend. Hence, I told my promoters I wanted to defend in three months maximum. We agreed and the defence preparations began.

Nina defense
Straight after the defense; taking in all the good wishes.

As a very first thing in preparing for the defence, we – me and my promotors – agreed on the members of the reading committee. Three professors were selected: as requested by EUR one from our own department Public Administration and Sociology, one from the University of Utrecht and one from the University of Nijmegen. It is the task of the promoter to invite and communicate with them. My task at this point was to combine everything (empirical chapters, introduction, reference list, etc.) into one file. My first advice comes right here: plan sufficient time for this task. It is not cognitively demanding but it is very time consuming. Once the file was sent to the opponents, the waiting period of (approximately) six weeks began. The big question during these six weeks was: would my thesis be approved or would I need to work on it again? I frequently heard that the latter is not often the case but yet, I also knew people who were asked to work on their introduction again and again. I was therefore sincerely happy when the good news came in: my thesis was approved, I did not need to revise it ever again!

Fortunately, at EUR, you need no committee approval in order to schedule a defence date.  As soon as my thesis was approved by my supervisors, I called the Beadle telling them: “My thesis is approved by my promoters and I would like to reserve a date at the end of January 2019 for my defence”. You cannot imagine how disappointed I was when they told me I could not do that just yet. It turned out I first needed to fill in ‘form 1’. So, I went a step back and read the guidelines which they sent me some five years ago when I started my PhD. There it was clearly described: I needed to submit form 1 in order to be able to reserve a defence date. Then my promoter would need to submit forms 2 and 3. I also needed to prepare a 15 minutes presentation, write a press-release and deliver a number of documents (i.e. title page, summaries, etc.). Shortly, there were quite a number of deadlines I needed to note down in my agenda. Time was short and the to-do-list long. Here comes my second advice: talk to fellow colleagues who recently defended their theses. They will provide you with insights, tips, help you manage your deadlines, and most of all: they will support you! Knowing that you are not the only one going with impenitence through this last stage (as the Dutch say: “laatste loodjes”) was essential for me. And do not stress: writing your summary and acknowledgments will provide you with more satisfaction than you think and lead you a step closer to your doctoral degree.

I would like to end with some practical matters. First, do not underestimate the time you will need for printing and proof-reading. Some printing companies are flexible and others are not. Choose the one that fits your personal situation best. Don’t forget to organise your reception, lunch (or dinner) and a party. How those are organised differs from university to university but that you need to do it well in advance applies to all of us. Prepare the list with e-mail addresses of your guests and stay in touch with your paranymphs. They will not only help you with the invitations and other practical matters but will keep you positive and sane! Mine kept telling me that a defence is actually not so much about defending your research but a conversation in which you have the chance to exchange ideas and opinions with the opponents. And they were right!

Nina Conkova is a senior researcher at the Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing (Leiden, Netherlands) where she examines the well-being and societal perceptions of older migrants in the Netherlands.


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