I was watching a math PhD thesis defense on YouTube and it seems that after about an hour of the talk, a committee member tells the audience to leave except for the graduate committee and the PhD candidate.

What typically happens next? Is there a separate defense session with the graduate committee?

For reference: United States

  • 6
    Surely there are better things to watch on YouTube...
    – Kimball
    Sep 25, 2018 at 23:49
  • 2
    Voting to close, as this is entirely dependent on the individual institution's policies. Ask your advisor -- it's literally their job to give you this kind of advice. Sep 26, 2018 at 10:46
  • 3
    @Kimball And surely there are much, much worse. Sep 26, 2018 at 14:53

5 Answers 5


That varies from place to place, even in the US. Your advisor will give you the best advice. But yes, a private session with your committee is pretty common. They want to assure themselves that you are "seasoned" and have both the required depth and breadth to be awarded the degree.

Again, your advisor will tell you what to expect, but it is possible to get questions that are unrelated to your thesis, or even to your specific subfield. In mathematics, members of a committee often have different specialties and may want to know what you can say about their own field as they may have only a sketchy knowledge of yours and of your thesis.

Don't, in general, expect it to be just a presentation. The public part needs to be a bit less technical in tone, since many of those present are looking for an overview. That isn't enough, of course. You need to say what you did and the key ideas that got you there.

  • This. The only thing I want to add is that rules can be arbitrarily crazy. During my defence, everyone was allowed to attend the first half (20 minutes presentation + 20 minutes questions), but the only ones allowed to ask questions were the members of the committee, professors from the same department and deans from the other departments.
    – Sabine
    Sep 26, 2018 at 12:15
  • @Sabine, Some departments require outside-of-field committee members such as a sociologist on a mathematics committee. Such people have been known (at least in the mythology) to have caused a candidate to fail.
    – Buffy
    Sep 26, 2018 at 12:23
  • what I said - rules can be arbitrarily crazy :) (guess I'm lucky I got my PhD from a university with only engineers on an engineering committee)
    – Sabine
    Sep 26, 2018 at 12:42

Each experience is different. In my experience, the entire defense was public. The committee asked questions throughout the presentation, then more at the end if they had any others. There was also a fair bit of discussion and asking my thoughts on potential research directions. After this, they offered anyone in the audience the opportunity to ask questions. After everyone was satisfied, then they asked people to step out (including me) to briefly step out. When they opened the doors they announced results.

Each committee chair may do this differently but my experience was as follows:

  1. Ask everyone (including candidate) not on committee to step out briefly. Doors close.
  2. Candidate and audience brought back in.
  3. Defense presentation (questions during).
  4. Questions after by committee.
  5. Questions from audience (if time permits).
  6. Everyone not on committee (including candidate) step out. Doors close.
  7. Doors open. Result announced.
  • 2
    Bizarre. Why didn't the committee just not let people into the room until they'd done whatever they did between steps 1 and 2? Sep 26, 2018 at 10:48
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    @DavidRicherby, usually the candidate has arrived early to setup and make sure tech works. Friends, other students, etc often arrive before the committee. Tenured faculty don't exactly have a reputation for being ultra-punctual at my institution. I jest, but I think its just because people are already in the room. Sep 26, 2018 at 13:34

I will answer in the context of my PhD defense and the defenses of my students, who are in various versions of public health.

There is a separate session with the graduate committee. This can last a long time, or it can be fairly brief, and in my experience, there's not a strong correlation with length of time and success.

In that session, somewhat harder questions, ambiguous questions, etc. can be asked. What would you do in X circumstance. Push the conclusions of your study a little farther. On occasion, and I dislike it when this happens, there's objections from one or more faculty members about core issues in the thesis. It's far less structured than a presentation, and is, while not hostile, definitely critical. I got asked several questions with the intent to stump me, including one that was intended as a lesson for the future.

  • What lesson did you learn for the future? Sep 26, 2018 at 12:25
  • @JosephDoggie If you casually assert something, expect someone to ask a question about it.
    – Fomite
    Sep 26, 2018 at 21:28
  • Oh ok, it took me a while to unwind who 'you' was ... LOL Sep 27, 2018 at 12:08

In the U.S. (1993), the committee meets in private, to 'vote'. I passed. At my University, one wasn't allowed a second-chance, which sounds like a difficult rule, but it was intended to protect students from 'you must do this to pass, that, and the other thing'. By the time you go to the defense, your thesis should have been read by your advisor and one or two more members of the committee.


This sounds very much like the practice in my country of Austria. The defense is public, i.e. colleagues and friends of the defendant can watch. After the defense, the committee will ask everyone, including the defendant to leave, during this time, the committee will work out the grade. After they reached a conclusion, they ask to defendant in, again, to tell him/her the grade of the defense.

Since, the debate of the members of the committee regarding the grade is a private affair, all people have to leave the room.

  • 1
    The question is about the US. Procedures vary dramatically from country to country and, if we have answers about every different country, the actual answers will be impossible to find. Sep 26, 2018 at 10:50