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You speak and present your thesis without a slide presentation, probably with a pen to explain something on the board. This question came to mind when I was wondering "why do we need a slide presentation?" and "have all thesis defenses in the world been done using a slide presentation?" and "will you be penalized if you defend your thesis without a slide presentation?".

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  • 51
    Clearly your field isn't pure mathematics. Apr 29 at 13:47
  • 5
    Where are you? As well as which field? In the UK, in physical sciences, a presentation isn't the norm, for example
    – Chris H
    Apr 30 at 7:46
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please see this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – cag51
    May 1 at 20:56
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    If the answer were: "In 2016, a congress with representatives from all universities and colleges in the world reached a consensus that is unprecedented in the history of science. Liberal arts, natural sciences, applied sciences, law and medical schools agreed that in order to guarantee a globally comparable quality of postgraduate qualification, all PHDs and doctor titles had to be defended using Microsoft PowerPoint in a version not smaller than 15.0, from 01/01/2017 0:00 UTC on." Would you believe that? If not, the answer must logically be "no", and I must ask back: Why are you asking? May 1 at 22:33
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Of course, slide presentations are a very recent development. Even the humble overhead projector didn't exist when I defended. We wrote with chalk on a slate like material.

Yes, you can do a presentation without slides. In some ways you can make a better presentation unless you are very skilled with slide creation. Most slide presentations are incredibly boring. They have been described, somewhat accurately, as the private notes that a speaker would normally keep to themself rather than making them visible. I know a couple of people who can do a good job, but it is, in my view a poor technology in general.

However, the expectations of your audience should be taken into account. If they expect slides, then you should probably do it that way. If you distribute the slides, printed perhaps, before the presentation then the audience has a place to take "notes in context". So, the "penalized" question is an entirely local one. Make sure you understand the local expectations. And, don't be boring.


At one university where I studied, the chalk boards were actually slate and there was a chalk tray at the bottom. The classrooms were very seldom cleaned and after several weeks a small cone of chalk dust would be growing on the floor just below the end of the tray.

Since the boards were seldom washed, just dry wiped, it sometimes occurred that the writing on the board would start to slide down the board on the "lubrication" of the still remaining dust from earlier uses. It would get distorted as it slid, of course.

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    I wish I could upvote that +100: "Most slide presentations are incredibly boring. They have been described, somewhat accurately, as the private notes that a speaker would normally keep to themself rather than making them visible." One of the best talks I saw was one where the speaker spoke for two hours and ten minutes. The first slide with a diagram appeared 45 minutes into the talk. Another one developed a mathematical field on the board, like a puzzle, filling in the gaps, and the talk ended with filling a hole left in one location on the board, by a new theorem that the speaker discovered. Apr 29 at 15:00
  • 50
    Disagree that slide presentations are a "poor technology". People just don't know how to make good slides. Slides need to give small bits of information or show graphics/figures. If you spend 3 minutes on a slide, you should be able to read the contents of the slide in 30 seconds or less. I see too many people put long proofs on slides - if people want the full proof, they'll read your paper. And putting your "entire notes" on the slide is another big no no. These are basic presentation tips that many folks have never bothered to learn.
    – Taw
    Apr 29 at 20:23
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – cag51
    May 1 at 20:58
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It depends on the field. If you have a lot of data to show, will be hard without slides. The question could also be asked for lectures.

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In the UK it is very rare to have slides in what we call a Viva, which serves the same purpose as a defense. In general, a viva last 2-3 hours, and for the first 10 minutes, the candidate will describe their "thesis" - i.e. what it is they are claiming we know now, that we didn't know before they started. The rest of the 2 hours 50 minutes is the examiners (panel members) challenging them, and asking questions about their work.

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I have seen people doing the work on the chalk board or in some countries they sit down together and go over the pages of your draft. Then again, in a formal setting where you have to present your work with a time constraint you might not be able to cover everything you did without slides.

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My PhD advisor demands a presentation without slides even though we are in a field that works with a lot of images, for example from electron microscopy. We only have a blackboard/whiteboard. There was only one exception where an industry partner wanted a powerpoint presentation. This was continued even during the pandemic, so that we have to draw on a tablet or something similar instead of showing prepared slides. My advisor's reason for doing so is that without images, the defendant has to focus more on the ideas and abstract concepts of his work instead of showing one sample after the other.

So I agree with the other answers, that this is very much a cultural thing, and not even necessarily determined be the field. Speak to your advisor.

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A little bit of a different perspective here - public speaking in general vs. a thesis presentation. But I believe the same things that work in one type of speech work in another. Obviously the expectations of your particular field, your university/department and your advisor are most critical. But assuming that you are either expected or encouraged to have a slide presentation, here are a few things that I have learned from Toastmasters over the past few years. If you have not tried Toastmasters, I highly recommend it. Nearly all clubs are virtual (Zoom, etc.) right now and most encourage guests.

  • Keep the number of slides to a minimum. I'd suggest no more than one per minute, and that is for a short (5 - 15 minute) speech. For a longer speech, such as a thesis, you might have a handful going over key points and then spend most of the time explaining your thesis with perhaps a slide every 5 - 10 minutes.
  • Keep the slides simple. 1 - 3 images and/or 5 - 10 lines of text. Sometimes even just 1 picture and 1 line of text is enough. This helps accentuate key points and also keep people from spending their time trying to read everything when they should be listening to you speak.
  • Do NOT hand out the slides (paper or email) in advance, unless you are required to do so. Hand them out (or email them or send a link to download them) at the end of the presentation. Otherwise, 1/2 the people will be distracted by the slides in their hands (reviewing old slides or jumping ahead to the next one) instead of listening to you speak.
  • Pick a simple theme and stick to it. Colored border, simple graphic background, etc. Otherwise the background and other irrelevant stuff (unless your thesis is about graphic design) gets in the way of listening to you speak.
  • Practice, practice, practice! It is too easy (been there, done that) to use the slides as a crutch. Don't let that happen, especially on something as important as your thesis. In fact, practice it at least a few times without the slides. That will (a) help make sure you really know the speech well and (b) take care of the unlikely, but possible, situation of technical failure with the presentation (e.g., projector dies just as you get started).
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    I generally agree with everything here except "Do NOT hand out the slides". The printed (PRINTED) slides can be helpful as a place for notes. If the other advice is followed it shouldn't be a problem. And Toastmasters is also a good way for extremely introverted people to become more comfortable in public settings. The same for people on the autism spectrum.
    – Buffy
    Apr 30 at 19:22
  • Uh, 5-10 minutes per slides... Here they urge students to manage to stay within 30 minutes. So much in this topic depends on local specifics. The UK viva mentioned elsewhere are even more different. FWIW I do not recall ever seeing someone handing out slides.
    – Vladimir F
    May 1 at 7:59
  • A lot depends on local specifics and a lot depends on the subject matter. As far as handing out slides, that is quite common in some places. May 2 at 1:19
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I have been the independent chair of a successful PhD thesis defence (within the past few years) where the only visual aids were a couple of pieces of paper. However, that's just one, compared to a lot that did use slides.

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Yes, it is certainly possible. One of the good things about starting a viva with a brief talk is not to transfer useful information (we have already read the thesis very carefully) but to give the candidate a chance to get "warmed up" and deal with any nerves they may have. So I would be happy with whatever form of presentation suited the candidate, it is largely for their benefit. It is perfectly reasonable to have some nerves* and few people are ready to answer difficult questions right from the start. For similar reasons, I often make sure that early in the viva I have prepared a question that has an easy but non-trivial answer.

I also advise my students to pre-prepare some slides containing any diagrams etc. that they think they may need during the viva even if they are not intending to use them in the initial presentation.

* just occasionally** there has been a candidate for which I wasn't completely nerveless myself ;o)

** they usually end up being the best vivas ;o)

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