Notes on a Thesis Defense

Tuesday was a very special day for my friend Karim. He defended his thesis. After nearly five years of work, during which much teases and jokes were made about his thesis pace (three years is the norm here), he finally finished his dissertation and defended successfully.

It was also a very interesting afternoon for me, as I got to watch and learn. Especially, I focused on the jury’s reactions during both his talk and the following Q&A, as I was seated just behind the six of them. I also took note of specific points I think he got right during his defense, and some others I would have done differently.

Focus on content, not on style

Nearly everyone uses Beamer at my University. It’s not particularly a joy to work with, but it produces clean slides. The downside is, your slides tend to look the same as those of other Beamer users. It’s particularly true when one doesn’t take the time to question the default Warsaw theme. The blue and black color scheme has become as tiring as Times New Roman for me, and I cringe every time I see it. And I cringed when Karim launched his talk.

However, Karim quickly made me forget the atrocious theme after two minutes or so, because the content was interesting. The theme may be ugly, but at least it’s not distracting.

Only show what’s relevant

At one point, Karim showed us one of his algorithms on one slide. An entire, forty-something lines algorithm on just one slide. In a talk, a slide stays between one and two minutes on screen. I can’t grok a forty lines algorithm in two minutes. Nevertheless, I am able to get the gist of it if you highlight the relevant parts, as Karim did.

Still, I would have preferred a high-level description of the algorithm rather than the whole thing. I can always check his dissertation for the details.

State your point clearly, and hammer it

When you have the luxury of a one-hour talk, everyone should get your main point, even your family at the end of the room who came to cheer on you. This is especially true of a thesis defense. Everyone should know your thesis, and how you tackled it. Make one slide with only your thesis on it, and show it a least three times during your talk. Start with it, show it when you switch sections, and begin your conclusion with it. You don’t want the jury to ask you to state the aim of your thesis during Q&A, so print it on a t-shirt just to be safe.

Don’t worry

Karim worked nearly five years on his thesis. Of the two algorithms he offered, one was developed in the last year, and the other he developed over the last six months. He spent the best part of four years trying to come up with the perfect model, and the best suited algorithm. When he ran overtime, he settled on those two algorithms and completed his thesis. While not perfect, the end result is still very interesting, and was enough to satisfy the jury who awarded him his doctorate with the highest honors.

A thesis is just the beginning of an academic career, not its zenith. Try your best, but stay away from the best if you want to finish someday. You can always continue working on the subject after your defense.

If you want to read more on the subject, Olin Shivers has some good thesis advice, and Gian-Carlo Rota’s Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught is a good read on teaching and giving presentations.