I am appearing my Ph.D defence in a few weeks. I am in need of some starting phrases or words which I can use while responding to the questions from the examiners. There could be difficult questions which are beyond the objective of my thesis, the examiner could point out a better methodology or I might have missed some of the most important papers in the field and so on.

I need a list of some starting phrases for responding the examiner's question.

I am clear about my objectives and the contents of my thesis. Just need some speaking tips.

  • 6
    I'd say the truth :) Be honest, be polite, be direct.... Jan 25 '16 at 1:04
  • 47
    There are times for witty phrases that you spent the last two weeks memorizing; your dissertation defense is not one of them.
    – Mad Jack
    Jan 25 '16 at 1:04
  • 14
    I went to a defence where every answer started with "that is a very good question". Towards the end, it got quite funny; and when we told him later, he said he hadn't realised.
    – Davidmh
    Jan 25 '16 at 8:44
  • 7
    Well, you could always say AAAAAAAAAAAAA! - the best defense being a good offense, after all.
    – BrianH
    Jan 25 '16 at 17:01
  • 4
    PhD defences are not about canned beginnings to sentences. You're being examined on your ability to answer questions, not to say some magic phrase before answering questions. Just answer the questions. Jan 26 '16 at 0:44

In addition to Pete Clark's excellent answer, I would like to offer a second piece of advice. When you are feeling nervous or "put on the spot" by questions, an excellent first step is to begin by ensuring that you have understood the question. You can say something like:

"If I understand correctly, you are asking [paraphrased question]

and then go on with your response. This both makes sure you are clear about your communication as well as giving you a moment to steady your nerves and to think about your response.

  • 11
    +1 for a great tip that applies much more generally whenever you are communicating with people about research. Too many people have a tendency to answer a completely different question than the one they were asked, without even bothering to check whether their (flawed) understanding of the question is correct.
    – Dan Romik
    Jan 25 '16 at 5:31
  • 3
    Of course, over (or mis) using this makes you sound like an idiot.
    – Kimball
    Jan 25 '16 at 5:44
  • 5
    @Kimball I'd interpret an overusing of this as a sign of nervousness more than anything else.
    – Davidmh
    Jan 25 '16 at 8:50
  • 1
    Also "that's a very interesting question... I don't have an answer for that right now."
    – Pål GD
    Jan 25 '16 at 9:03
  • 9
    This is especially important if you are not sure if the whole audience was able to hear the question. Sometimes people from front rows ask in a rather quiet voice and if there is no microphone, it is generally good to repeat or paraphrase it for everyone present.
    – dtldarek
    Jan 25 '16 at 10:09

Trying to prepare for any academic examination via stock phrases which are not related to the content of the subject is a very poor idea. You are never expected to know everything about your subject or be able to answer every question related to your work. When you do not know something, an ideal answer is "I don't know, but..." What follows should show that you know something related to the question and/or have some ideas about what you would do in order to learn the answer that you do not now possess.

I don't mean to be harsh, but in my opinion "while preparing for your PhD defense" is a bit late to be learning the above lesson and in particular that "polite and impressive phrases" will please no one. If I were on an exam committee and saw someone answering in this way, it would make a much more negative impression on me than a crisp, honest "I have no idea" (with no "but..."). If someone said that, then 90% of the time I would drop the line of inquiry and move on to something that they do know. If someone tried to blow smoke in my face, I might well try to wring an honest admission of lack of knowledge out of them. Please consider yourself warned.

Added: The clarified version of the question changes things a bit. I would still advise against memorizing specific phrases, as I think that could come off as trying to obfuscate (which, as above, would be very bad). It sounds like the OP may just be a bit nervous about an important presentation given in a non-native language. I certainly hope it is the case that the OP has given academic presentations before and has answered questions from faculty before. I would recommend that the OP talk to his advisor, to get some feedback about the format of the defense and to get some practice answering questions. In my opinion the precise words used to frame an answer to a question are not very important, and the less framing material and the more direct the answer, the better. But the OP can try out answering questions with his advisor, and if there is really some formal deficiency, his advisor can help him remedy it. This is part of the advisor's job. Getting stock phrases from the internet from those who don't know the OP or the subject of his thesis seems quite likely to backfire.

  • 1
    @ Pete L. Clark Makes perfect sense to me. What I meant by polite and impressive phrases is to respond in a confident way by using appropriate words to justify my research in the context of the question asked. For instance, just saying "I have no idea" might not suffice but expanding the answer to "I hadn't thought that way, but it looks like it is worth considering in future research" could be better. I am in need of such phrases just to expand my eloquent speaking. It by no means was to memorize the stock phrases and keep on responding with the phrases which are irrelevant to the question. Jan 25 '16 at 1:33
  • 6
    @visresearch: Once again, I would prefer "I have no idea" to "I hadn't thought that way, but it looks like it is worth considering in future research" once it became clear that by the latter you meant the former. You do not need to speak "eloquently"; you just need to speak clearly and with sufficient (not perfect) mastery of the subject matter. Why are you seeking to put on airs? Jan 25 '16 at 1:48
  • 4
    @PeteL.Clark - I think you might be being unsympathetic here. My guess is that the OP has a very poor command of spoken English and has trouble coming up with sentences on the fly. I imagine that if I had to defend my thesis in French, I'd want to be prepared with some stock phrases (even though I basically have no trouble reading papers in French or, for that matter, basic survival in a French-speaking country). Jan 25 '16 at 2:02
  • @Alexander: If that were the situation, I would be more sympathetic, yes. The OP hasn't said anything like that though. Perhaps this difficulty communicating is symptomatic of his problem? Anyway, someone with a shaky command of English is especially advised to speak simply and clearly, rather than trying to memorize "eloquent" or "impressive" phrases. So I think the content of my answer still applies. (Also, the English of the question and the comments looks flawless to me.) Jan 25 '16 at 2:09
  • @AlexanderWoo My question is in line with your comments.However, I wouldn't say that I have a very poor command of speaking English. There are times when I feel a bit shaky especially while choosing the right words otherwise I am confident. Maybe the title of this post was misunderstood or I was not explicit enough in my queries. Anyway, it is good to get inputs. Jan 25 '16 at 2:35

I need a list of some starting phrases for responding the examiner's question.

No you don't, what you need is good arguments to back your research claims - their validity, their novelty, their applicability/importance and so on.

Having said that, some universities have certain rules of protocol, e.g. examiners begin their questioning by reciting "By the permission of the esteemed [position-holder-here] and by my right, I will address several questions to the candidate" or something along these lines. It might be the case that there's some ceremonial opening for your reply. That kind of ceremony - like the robes, and hats, and the "procession" etc. are of symbolic but not material importance. Find some official involved with organizing the examination and have them tell you about the ceremonial procedure.

But again - it's the substance, not the form, which matters.

  • 2
    You're in the Netherlands, aren't you? I was on a Ph.D. examination committee in Delft a few years back, and enjoyed the ceremony greatly, particularly being called "Herr Opponenten"
    – jakebeal
    Jan 25 '16 at 15:54
  • @jakebeal: Yes I am. I wish people would take their defense more seriously... if only opponents would actually ask hard (but failr) questions rather than just assuming the guy/girl needs to get his degree.
    – einpoklum
    Jan 25 '16 at 16:42
  • 2
    In my case, nobody thought to tell me to take it easy, and as the person from farthest away I was the first opponent, so I gave a fairly hard US-defense-style interrogation. :-)
    – jakebeal
    Jan 25 '16 at 17:03

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