5 reasons why PhD students should attend doctoral defenses

Since I started my PhD at the beginning of the year, I have attended four doctoral defenses and one so-called “mid-term seminar” – a presentation of a PhD project halfway through one’s PhD studies. Talking with others, I was surprised to hear that not all PhD students attend doctoral candidates’ defenses. In this post, I would like to name 5 reasons why I believe that attending PhD defenses is a great learning experience.

  1. Getting a feeling for “how it’s done”. Attending defenses demystifies the process: you get to see how a defense is structured, who the main actors are, what kind of topics are addressed, what the atmosphere is like etc. Taking in those different aspects will probably enable you to prepare better for you own defense, but also to feel less stressed out when your turn comes because you will not be jumping into the unknown.
  2. Learning about the state-of-the-art. If you are attending a defense that is relevant to your research area, chances are high that you will get an in-depth insight into the latest and / or most significant developments within your field. Not only does the defending PhD candidate present a piece of research that constitutes in itself a new development, but the discussion with the opponent and the evaluation panel also brings to light relevant previous findings, as well as their implications for the field.
  3. Learning about new methods, and how to apply them. Hearing about how others have gone about to answer their research questions is always inspiring, even if the topic of the presented thesis is very different from yours. In addition to getting ideas for what methods you could use in your own upcoming studies, you also get critical information about the benefits and drawbacks of the presented methods through the discussion between the candidate and the evaluation panel (methodological questions are always part of the discussion, although the extent can, of course, vary).
  4. Establishing a list of “hot questions”. Although it is impossible to predict exactly all kinds of questions you will be asked during your defense, attending multiple defenses enables you to identify recurring topics. For example, I have already mentioned methodology-related questions above; questions about your contribution to your research field and the degree to which your research fits into that particular field’s research “tradition” are, according to my experience, also very common. Knowing those “hot questions” will certainly enable you to prepare your defense better when the time has come, but also gives you a sense of what you need to learn and understand until you get there.
  5. Learning how to make great presentations. Watching good presentations is, in my experience, an easy and great way to get ideas on how you can improve on your own presentations. PhD candidates and / or opponents usually put great care into designing their respective presentation for the defense, which usually leads to those presentations being well-crafted examples of good presentations.

Do you agree with me? Can you think of any additional reasons for PhD students to attend doctoral defenses during their PhD studies?