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I think one of your comments is especially apt. The dissertation is the beginning. You have proved your self capable of scholarship, and you have mastered a body of literature such that you can now roll up your sleeves and do some more serious research. I liked my dissertation, but I think the things that followed were far deeper. And they were probably also a lot more creative. But I had a great sense of accomplishment after my dissertation.


In my experience the defense itself is a formality. A committee should have already judged the quality of your work beforehand, and they would not schedule the defense if you were not ready. I think this is true like 95% of the time. Defending the dissertation itself is such a small thing compared to the actual work which I hope the committee members have read before hand. I am curious how many people know someone who has actually failed a defense? I have known people who never had a defense scheduled because their committee didn't think it was ready, but I have never heard of someone having it scheduled and failing. I think this is how it should be. There is no need for public embarrassment when all of this could be done behind closed doors before any formal ceremony like a defense takes place. I guess an exception might be if a student was insistent upon scheduling it even when the committee doubted the student was ready.



I know someone who did exactly what you mention - insisted on a defense even though the supervisor did not support them. No kidding!
I was in a programme where the external examiner had a veto power. If they voted against you it was over.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Amanda: I have no idea how common it is for people to fail dissertation defenses. However, I do know at least one person who did (though it was a number of years ago now). In any case, I'm with you on the issue of public embarrassment. I don't see why a committee should even schedule a defense unless the work is good enough to pass. Grad school is difficult enough already.

Stacey Goguen

Apologies for the length. I have opinions about this, clearly.

I don't understand how it should be possible to "perform poorly" at one's dissertation defense. I mean that to say--I am baffled by how dissertation committees can allow someone to think they have performed, or could perform, poorly.

You passed your defense. You jumped through the hoop. You wrote "the worst book you will ever write" (as someone described how I should view the dissertation.) You completed a project that a committee of philosophers signed off on as being worthwhile and valuable. So what could it mean to perform "poorly" at the defense? I don't mean this to say that the OP is confused. I mean this to say our cultural norms about the defense being something one needs to "pass" is stupid and/or confused.

Maybe performing poorly means you didn't have good responses to their questions or objections. If they didn't tell you what their comments were going to be ahead of time, then it means, you didn't have good responses on the spot. But that's an overrated skill in philosophy. Who cares if you couldn't come up with a snappy response in 10 seconds if you have a worthwhile project--a project that everyone in that room vetted. When journal referees send you back their criticisms and comments, you aren't given 30 seconds to respond. You get at minimum 4-8 weeks.

Or, maybe it means mean that you did get their comments ahead of time, but they didn't find your responses to be convincing or thoughtful or something. Two responses to that: (1) it's okay if you don't convince everyone, and (2) even if you don't think your answers were very insightful or interesting or logically rigorous or whatever other metric, that's okay! You are a newly minted Ph.D. You aren't going to be perfect, and it's fine to still have some "needs improvement" skills. You will get better with time. A lackluster defense says nothing about your ability to contribute to the field (or teach--you know, the thing that you might actually spend more time doing and make more of an impact on other people's lives.)

This is all to say, it's fine if you didn't have jaw-droppingly awesome responses to your committee's questions and objections. If their objections/questions were good ones, they should be helping your project anyway, not undermining it. If they presented objections that undermine your project--why the heck did they sign off on it in the first place, or not raise those issues earlier?

If your committee thinks that you "performed poorly" at your dissertation defense, that really means that your committee full of "excellent" PGR-ranked philosophers has performed poorly. That's to say, people who are excellent at some things can suck at other things, like mentoring. It's your committee's job to train you, to mentor you, and to guide you through this project. If you come away from the defense feeling like you did a bad job, that is a mark against your committee, not against you. The work you did was not in that 1-2 hour defense. It was in the 1-2 years (or more!) that you developed and wrote the dissertation. It was in the 5-10 years of your life you devoted towards academic philosophy.The defense does not represent that work, or your potential or skill as a scholar.

The dissertation defense is not (or at least, should not be) a sink-or-swim test. It's a conversation about a book-length project that a group of philosophers helped you develop. Even if people want to raise concerns about that project, or question where you want to take it, there's shouldn't be any substantial way to 'fail' or 'perform poorly' in that conversation--because again, they should have already vetted this project. And whatever they think they're 'testing' in the defense, it isn't anything substantial about your scholarly merits or potential.

In the year 2017, anyone who views the dissertation defense as a literal "defense" that a candidate could conceivable fail has, I claim, a really outdated and crappy view of what the dissertation is, what the Ph.D. is, and how best to train people to do philosophy. Dissertations *should* be vetted. They (and you) should not be vetted at the defense. That is a f***ing cruel and useless way to assess a decade-long intellectual endeavor.


Wow Perspective that's interesting. Sometimes the sort of people who get PhD's have an unbelievable ability to behave foolishly.

Ugh Marcus I actually think I might know the defense you are talking about, since I have some friends from Arizona who have talked about a legend story of that nature. I can't imagine how uncomfortable that must have been for everyone involved.

Sam Duncan

So I'll add my two cents here.... I think that a lot of the responsibility for how the dissertation defense goes rests on one's adviser. I'd liken an adviser to a coach if he gives you good guidance and you ignore him that's your fault and if you can't just can't manage to pull off what he says to do that's also on you. But if he doesn't give you guidance or he gives you bad advice and you crash and burn then that failure is a good bit his fault. The adviser also ought to play a big role, arguably the main role, in putting together one's committee. Advisers know their colleagues better than you do and have a lot more experience with defenses in general.
Now I say this not out of any bitterness, but actually out of appreciation. My adviser, Jorge Secada, did an excellent job on this front. He helped me put together a good committee and he gave me some great advice about the kinds of questions I should expect from them. Because of that my defense went really well. In fact, I had only one rough moment at all, and that was because I hadn't adequately prepared for a type of question that he'd warned me one of my committee members was likely to ask. (It was a damned good question too, and not some kind of attempt to play gotcha so that was all on me).


There is such a range of quality of advisers. Grad school experience can be night and day depending on this, and it really is unfortunate that some grads get left behind because advisers do not do their job. I think good advising is often seen as supererogatory favor rather than a mandatory part of one's contract which it actually happens to be. Like Sam, I was pretty lucky, but I know others who were not.

Sam Duncan

It wasn't entirely luck. When I was picking an adviser I tried to get someone I thought would support me. I feel like people often do a terrible job picking advisers because they look for the wrong thing. They want someone whose own research perfectly matches their interests and is a big name in the field and they don't bother to ask whether this person is good at providing guidance or will fight for them if they need it (say they need an extra year of funding or want to apply for some competitive fellowship the department or university offers). All these factors are important but I'd argue that ones students tend to ignore are the most important. Sure the big name factor and perfect fit of what they're known for and what you specialize in are important once you get the PhD and hit the market, but the thing is you have to get the PhD first. If your adviser isn't good at helping you navigate the challenges you face in writing and defending your dissertation or isn't willing to provide political support within the department if you need it, then there's a good chance you won't even finish your PhD. This is also important to keep in mind when choosing where to go to school. I'd say that prospective students should never go anywhere where there aren't multiple people they're willing to work with since all too often in the course of graduate studies you figure out that someone who looks great on paper would actually make a terrible adviser.


Hi Sam,

I actually agree completely. I sat down with someone who I wanted to be my adviser and knew within 10 minutes it wouldn't work. I picked a committee based on who I know I could work with and trust. Too many grads are either naive, engage in wishful thinking, or are a terrible judge of character. At the same time, it is a shame grads have to be so damn picky because so damn many advisers do not do their job. It shouldn't be like that.


I agree 100% with this article. Dissertation-defense blues are real. I passed but think it must have been one of the worst defenses in history. Despite passing, I felt depressed for the rest of the day and didn't believe it until I wrote asking for confirmation once again that I did pass. Only then did I believe it.

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