Alumni Chronicle: Master thesis defense experience

Gordon Musiige  Hedda graduate

Gordon Musiige
Hedda graduate

In second of the posts writing about their master thesis defense experiences, Gordon Musiige writes about his experience with defending his thesis at the University of Oslo. 

I am taking this opportunity to share with you my thesis defense experience, which is still vivid in my mind and I hope that prospective candidates will pick a few lessons from it.

On December 15th 2014, I defended my masters thesis. The defense was hold with a panel that composed of two examiners and my supervisor. My supervisor would have nothing to say all through the defence save for introducing the other examiners and reading out to me the rules and regulations of the defence process. After which, I and the other examiners would begin tussling it out until the very end. However, before I describe the actual defence process, I would like to state that before one thinks of the actual thesis defense, it is vital to put in mind that your level of preparation will contribute highly to your overall delivery and confidence at that defense table.

As a higher education master student, I was not required to prepare any form of power-point presentation apart from availing myself to the panelists on time and well-prepared to answer their questions. At this point, you need to ask yourself the following questions: What do I then prepare for? How much is expected of me in the defense? What is my role in the thesis defense process?

First and foremost, endeavour to read and reread your thesis and least twice, paying close attention to all the content in your thesis, bearing in mind that the examiners have closely read your thesis. Having all your thesis content on your fingertips exudes your authenticity as an author; you do not want to be caught off-guard in a position where you can not answer obvious questions about your own work especially to do with: why you selected certain methods or references. Despite the fact that the overall writing process can be a daunting and exhausting, one should reserve some energy and time for this last fight. If you while rereading your thesis you happen to find some concept that you think you can not explain comprehensively, it is worthwhile to consult your supervisor for guidance weeks before the defense.

I have to admit that although I had done a little background search on who my examiners were, I hadn’t the slightest idea about these individuals would carry themselves in this academically serious environment. Although outwardly I was smartly (formal) dressed and calm, on the inside I felt a bit nervous and sad since I had discovered some errors in my thesis while rereading for the defense. Inside the room, my examiners greeted me with a smile and politely showed me to my seat: after which, they asked if I need to a cup of coffee or water, of which I chose the latter.

After my supervisor’s preamble, the defense kicked off with me being asked why I had chosen to write about that specific topic of my thesis. Other key questions that were asked pointed towards: why had I chosen the references that I used and not included others, explaining the meaning of the models that I had used in my analytical framework and how relevant they would be to my study. In short, you  have to be in position to be able to account for all the steps of the thesis.

This is where your critical thinking and analytical skills come in handy. It is useful to use presentation skills like audibility, confidence, turn-taking, careful listening, and asking an examiner to repeat the question if you feel that you have not understood it is called for.

Some other questions that might arise may not be directly related to the content of the thesis, but rather the relevance of your study to your country’s higher education policy or your recommendations on key challenges pointed out in your thesis. Another important question that was asked was: what would you do differently if given the opportunity to rewrite you thesis.

Whichever questions you might be asked, endeavour to be realistic and modest towards the examiners. You don’t want to come off as an overly presumptuous candidate. All forms of criticism from the examiners about the thesis should be taken in a positive light, this is still a learning process!

Overall I would like to describe my defense process as having been a unique learning experience, which gave me a glimpse into the intellectual rigour that lies in the academia. My examiners were both strict and supportive. Even with a few challenging questions that were thrown in, I managed to explain in the simplest language possible without confusing the examiners.

Finally, If you asked me if I would change anything about my presentation if given another opportunity, I would say no. I did a thorough preparation and I am pleased that my examiners were satisfied with my presentation.