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I am presenting my PhD thesis in front of my committee next week and I feel that I have just not done enough. My work is simple and I also feel that I have poor theoretical foundations and am going to be an embarrassment when quizzed by my committee.

I am not feeling confident about presenting my research and I am finding it extremely difficult pushing away negative thoughts like (I feel I have not done enough or I am not theoretically strong enough for doing my PhD on my research field).

I am revising theoretical stuff (related to my thesis work) that I studied in my first year of PhD, but I am not able to push out the feeling of guilt and the impending doom.

Any advice on how to tackle this?

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    If you have friends who completed their defense, talk to them! It is very likely they had the same feelings and passed the defense. – user115896 Nov 17 at 10:18
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    "80% of success is just showing up." – littleO Nov 17 at 10:39
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    And is your advisor someone who you could speak to freely without fear about this thing? – user115896 Nov 17 at 11:29
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    The 'feeling of impending doom' you are describing is perfectly normal for any kind of important test situation i found myself in ;) – Jonas Schwarz Nov 17 at 13:03
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    What does your advisor think about this? If they are letting you present in front of the committee, that most likely means that they are confident you know enough to pass. – usernumber Nov 18 at 9:43

11 Answers 11

82

Take a deep breath. You will be OK. You're suffering from impostor syndrome.

PhD defenses are traditional formalities. Your advisor wouldn't let you schedule yours if they didn't think you ready.

The examiners are more likely to want to know what you did than theory from your first year you have forgotten.

When you pass your defense come back here and tell us about it.

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    While I generally agree with this, the third paragraph may be true or not. There are places where the defense is actually an important and thorough examination. But if that is the case, the OP should know that already. – Buffy Nov 17 at 15:33
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    Not everyone suffers from impostor syndrome. It's not paranoia if they're actually out to get you. It may also be the case that OP is genuinely underperforming and that they are rightly concerned that they are actually unprepared. We don't have the information to make that determination. – J... Nov 18 at 15:18
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    Well, your first three sentences sound like a firm diagnosis. It's a supposition, at best. – J... Nov 18 at 15:33
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    @J... at least with the way it works in the systems I'm familiar with, their supervisor clearing them to defend their thesis is fairly strong evidence that they should be capable of doing so – llama Nov 18 at 17:29
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Here's the thing: People's dissertation work is usually not an earth-shattering achievement.

I feel that I have just not done enough.

I feel my Ph.D. was sorta-kinda enough; and a "strict version of me" might not have accepted it.

(in hindsight I developed a better opinion of it. I now feel it was solid enough work.)

My work is simple and I also feel that I have poor theoretical foundations

Well, your work may be simple (or it may not), but most research findings are simple once you have all the context in mind. The point is that you discovered or invented something new that wasn't known / didn't exist before. You have done that; and that's basically why you deserve your Ph.D.

As for the lack of theoretical foundations - ugh, tell me about it! Even at my peak I felt like an empty-headed fool compared to the "sages" of my field. Again, it's possible that you're under-estimating yourself, but it's also possible that you're setting unreasonable expectations: Most Ph.D.s in your field know less than you do about what you've been studying.

and am going to be an embarrassment when quizzed by my committee.

From best to worst:

  1. You'll probably know enough about what they ask you to say something non-embarrassing.
  2. "Esteemed opponent, that is an interesting idea. I have not considered that avenue during my doctoral work, and would need some time to consider it. It may well lead to further results beyond my own work."
  3. "Esteemed opponent, I am not versed in [insert complicated subject here]. It is possible this field may have bearing on my findings."

Now, is no. 3 embarrassing? Well, it might be. But it's also the truth. Don't try to run from it in your head. You know what you know, you've done what you've done, you are who you are. That's not shameful.

I am not feeling confident about presenting my research

You should present what you did. Don't try to glorify it, nor to downplay it. What the question/goal/challenge was, how you approached it, how/why it worked, what the results were, what the consequences/corollaries/implications are. You can be "confident" about that - since these are just facts.

I am not theoretically strong enough for doing my PhD on my research field

You are strong enough in the sense that you've already done your Ph.D. work. You're not auditioning for the title of all-knowledgeable theorist.

I am not able to push out the feeling of guilt and the impending doom. Any advice on how to tackle this?

As for the guilt - don't try to make it disappear. Just try to separate the presentation from the guilt. You present the stuff that you're not guilty about.

As for the sense of doom - I tried to make the non-doom'ishness more palpable for you; I hope this works.

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    To further reduce the feeling of doom, let me point out that, even though this event is called a "defense" everywhere (as far as I know), the examiners are called "opponents" only in some places --- not, for example, in the U.S. – Andreas Blass Nov 18 at 0:56
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    "Most Ph.D.s in your field know less than you do about what you've been studying." This is basically the definition of a Ph.D. In the course of doing the research, the candidate is becoming the world's foremost authority on that particular topic. – John R. Strohm Nov 18 at 22:08
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Let me emphasize the "trust your supervisor" advice that others have already given you. I don't know the official procedures in your department, but I imagine they're somewhat similar to those in my department. Before one of my Ph.D. students can schedule a thesis defense, I have to provide two official documents. One is a description (usually about two pages long) of the work in the thesis, ending with my recommendation to my department that the thesis be accepted. The other is not for the department but for the graduate school; it doesn't require as much information about the thesis, just some general comments on its quality, but it must also include my statement that the thesis is acceptable (perhaps with minor revisions). Furthermore, a second faculty member must provide an independent evaluation for the department, and all members of the committee must provide the second form for the graduate school.

So, by the time of the defense, I've already officially stated (twice) that this thesis is worthy of a Ph.D. I wouldn't do that if I wasn't confident that the student can pass the defense. If anything went wrong at the defense, I'd be at least as embarrassed as the student.

  • It is possible to submit a PhD without the approval of the supervisor at some universities. Of course, to do so implies a massive falling-out with the supervisor. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 19 at 13:31
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I like the given answers but I'm surprised there isn't more practical advice in them. If you want "things to do", here you go:

As someone who recently defended (successfully) and felt similarly before the defense, I think you are not only suffering from impostor syndrome, but a separate feeling that probably has/deserves its own name.

As the creator and person most familiar with your own work, you are more aware of its faults than anyone else in the world.

There is a lot of good advice here about trusting the process and your advisor's opinion about your work, but I'll offer some other practical tips for dealing with your anxieties that only you can understand, because only you are fully familiar with your own work.

  1. Preparation helps quell anxiety: Practice your talk, with your advisor if possible. Try to come up with the questions that you would be most afraid to answer. Then come up with some imperfect answers to said questions. At this stage, remember that it's expected to have limitations in your current work. Nobody can expect you to have done everything, so making simplifying assumptions, leaving things for future work, etc are almost always acceptable answers. This is what people mean by "trusting the process." They mean that if these sort of terrifying questions actually uncovered fundamental flaws in your work, then your advisor should have found them much earlier. I would argue that it is most important simply to show that you have put some thought into these "scary" questions.
  2. Don't sell yourself short: Even if you don't know exactly how to do something. Be clear up front about the limitations of your work, but don't frame those limitations in terms of your own personal abilities. If you are asked a question you can't answer totally, get as far as you can. Say "while we have strong intuition (for x,y,z reasons) that there exists theory to back up our empirical results, we leave that derivation to future work. We might derive it by trying Q, R, and S on problem formulation T". Don't say "I don't know how to derive this so I didn't, and I have no ideas for how I might do it".
  3. Fake it 'til you make it: My advisor gave me some really nice advice before my defense: part of the committee's goal, whether they mean to or not, is to determine whether or not you seem like you should be given the same Ph.D. title that they have. You are being inducted into a community. So act like a humble but full-blown researcher. When they ask a question, they often don't have a correct answer in mind: they're probably legitimately trying to gain an insight from another expert (you) who has done work related to theirs. When someone makes a suggestion/critique that you haven't thought of, take a moment and weigh its merits. If you have doubts, explain why. Ask them to clarify. If you think it makes sense, don't be hard on yourself and say "I should have thought of that", say "Oooh interesting, we tried the approach we did for X,Y reasons, but we should follow up on that in future work. Maybe your approach lets you do BLANK". If you can, draw on previous experiences of attending technical talks given by strong researchers for this. If you can't remember any interchanges, youtube has plenty of examples.
  4. Invest in good pizza: No, I'm not being facetious. At the end of the day, these are humans judging you, not machines (as of November 2019). Human judges are invariably subject to all sorts of confounding variables when making judgements. For example, studies have shown correlations between judge leniency in criminal trials and the time of the day: you're more likely to go to jail when a judge is hungry (i.e before lunchtime). If you are able, supply your audience with good food at the beginning of your talk. If that doesn't work, at least you'll have good food to eat after a bad experience! At the very least ensure that your committee has access to pens, paper, water, and the comfiest chairs in the room. I was asked zero hard questions at my defense, even though I could think of quite a few, which I partly attribute to the local pizza place.

Hope that helps, best of luck!

  • #3 is so important, and it's perfectly legitimate for "X,Y reasons" to include things like "that's all we had time and money for". – Geoffrey Brent Nov 20 at 1:06
  • Mostly good advice. I don't think buying pizza for the committee is a good idea. I wouldn't quite call it bribery, but it is a little tacky. – Ethan Bolker Nov 20 at 18:04
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To complement what @Ethan wrote, trust the process.

No (good) supervisor will let you do irrelevant work and defend insufficient results. If you have good supervision, trust your supervisor. By the point of defending you should have at least a few peer-reviewed papers and conference presentations under your belt. Use that to convince yourself that your results are relevant.

You can always do more, however that is not the point of Ph.D. The point is to learn and demonstrate knowledge of how to do research.

Even if your results are insufficient and you are facing the committee as a means of evaluating your work. The committee will point out specific deficiencies in your work. Their feedback is for both you and your supervisor to consider and adjust the course.

Do not assign your self worth to the thesis work. There is more in life than just that!

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My supervisor mentioned 3 key points that were checking in the viva.

  1. Interesting work

  2. The work is correct

  3. You did the work

You have done the work. Understand your own work first, not stuff related to your thesis. Trust your supervisor on the first two.

I have never seen anyone not nervous before a viva. My other half commented that I still had some shakes when we went for lunch an hour after my own (and that was a good result).

And then the final thought is that in most countries it is very hard to shift grade very far in a viva. It is on the thesis which has already gone. Finally issues happen and mistakes happen in a thesis. Minor corrections are generally to be expected and major ones happen. If either result comes in it is still fine. Take the notes on board and fix the issues pointed out, no different to a paper review (albeit normally a bit more work).

You should feel proud getting this far. I know plenty who didn't.

  • Grades? In the UK, a PhD is a simple "pass/fail" (well, actually the viva result can be "rejected", "passed with minor corrections", and "passed" - and most are the middle). There is no concept of a "good grade" – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 19 at 13:53
  • Yeah I meant pass without corrections/ pass with minor corrections / major corrections (essentially a large scale rewrite and resubmission, generally taking months to do) and rejected as the 4 "grades". Most are minor corrections alright. They are not quite traditional grades but I tended to consider them as such. – Christy Nov 19 at 14:15
  • Ah right! (I'd forgotten "major corrections"). – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 19 at 14:20
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The fact that you have submitted your thesis is in itself an achievement, with sufficient responsibility shared by your Guide too. You may have already worked out and specified some propositions in your submission. You need to list them during the ViVa and explain them, to provide more clarity during your presentation. Always try to present objectives clearly and refer to them sequentially, while highlighting the conclusions of the study. Also, mention some of the obvious limitations and explain (if possible) as to why they happened and how the next study on your topic can get over them. Finally, this is only a defence of what you have done. So, believe in it and go forth and defend. All the best!

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You feel ashamed by your work ? Please don't ! A lot has been said by other contributors, but I would go further, make one more step.

You probably think about all what you have NOT done during your PhD and it's normal, you can not explore all the possibilities. for the quiz with the jury members, feel open. It's not a lawsuit, it's a discussion between people who are relevant, passionate and know a lot about your PhD issue. It's a great (and maybe the only one) opportunity to have the most relevant advice and ideas on your work.

As far as I'm concerned, I really enjoy the quiz part, even if I were petrified at the very beginning of my presentation. I understand that jury's members are not there to judge you, but to put the introspection to a next step. I realize I miss some opportunities during these years of tough work, but more essentially, I understand that I need to share more my work and discuss with people more often, even if everything is going well. It should have opened more doors and now, I'm aware of that.

Your presentation is just one step in your life and you are prepared for that. It's like a wedding ceremony, lot of pressure but it will past too quickly :) You know a lot about your topic, just relax, be open to conflicting views, stay in a productive state of mind and you will enjoy it.

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There is so much fake research going on under the guise of PhD. It has become just like any other Masters defence. No one cares much about the results, no one is gonna check/review them. You are gonna do just fine my friend..... just go in there with a wide smile, and say everything you have done very confidently. You are gonna do amazing :-).

Also, you have worked really hard for 2/3 years now and your examiners will take that into consideration. Also consider the fact the you are gonna be part of the top 1 percent in the world. Its a really huuuuge achievement. So just go in there, and kill it with whatever you got.

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Been through that for my PhD and did very well, your anxiety is normal. Prepare a very good and detailed defense presentation: I suggest you organise it as follows: (list from my PhD supervisor Veronica Orvalho)

  1. Problem statement, very short and clear
  2. teaser video of what you have done that supports the problem statement you previously defined
  3. Explain the problem
  4. Explain the objectives of the thesis
  5. overview of the solution
  6. Explain core of the thesis
  7. Results
  8. Contributions (include papers, patents if you got any, awards...)
  9. The future after your thesis, how your work can impact other areas of research or open new areas of research. Best wishes!
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I did a PhD defense as well, in 1984. Hard core physical science. Getting this far, it's highly doubtful you could fail at this point, and hopefully your committee knows that. More importantly, just be confident, mainly because you probably know more than anyone else on earth about your thesis content and subject. Good luck, it will go fine.

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