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I am preparing for my PhD oral defense in engineering. It consists of two parts: first, a 40-minute long (public) presentation; then, Q&A with the jury.

Question: Is it advisable to give a handout with presentation slides to the jury?

In such a document, there would be 2-3 slides per page plus a large margin so that the jury could take notes, as well as the bibliography with references I cite in the slides. There are about 30 slides, which are very illustrative (i.e. without complex equations, but rather made of diagrams with little text).

The pros would be to make it easier for the jury to take notes, follow the slides (slides are projected above my head in the amphitheater) or go back if they missed a step. Moreover, most of the jury are not native speakers, and both the slides and the talk will be given in English.

The cons would be that they could be tempted to 'fast-forward' and/or get distracted instead of concentrating on my talk. (Even if I do acknowledge it's hard to be fully concentrated during 40 minutes straight.) They would also not benefit from the explanations (i.e. the step by step construction of diagrams using beamer's slides).


There are no fixed rules, neither by the University, nor by common practice in my sub-field. My supervisor has no opinion on the topic.

  • There's another theoretical con that they could apply more scrutiny to minor mistakes on the slides if they can continue looking at them after you've moved on, but I doubt that would lead to significant negative consequences in reality unless you really have a problem that needs to be addressed. – R.. Sep 20 '17 at 16:58
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My answer: do provide the handout.

There are two cases that I considered before giving the answer:

Easy case

The answer is easy if handouts are traditionally provided at PhD defenses in your department. You do not want to spoil the mood of your committee by taking away something they are used to. They will not fail you over this, but who knows how they come up with any extra work they want you to do before signing the dissertation.

This is the case in my department; traditionally, each member of the committee is given a handout with six slides per page and a pen.

Harder case

If handouts are not traditionally provided in the department, I would still opt to provide them. To me, the pros you provided outweigh the possibility that a committee member gets distracted. Every professor in your committee has sat through hundreds of academic talks; if they want to pay attention, they will be able to do so.

Final note

Make sure that the handouts look good; this may mean making a separate version of your presentation for the handouts. Specifically, make sure that any animated slides show up well in the handout. Depending on presentation software used, animated slides tend to either get compressed into one slide on the handout, or split into dozens of them—either case is usually not what you want and needs to be fixed.

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In my department, students usually give out a handout with slides to members of the committee. Many seem to find it helpful - they use it exactly as you said:

to take notes, to follow the slides (slides are projected above my head in the amphitheater) or to go back if they missed a step

They also use it in other ways - for example, if they want to ask you a question about a previous slide, they can refer to the handout to say "Can you please go back to Slide 5" instead of having you flip through the slides one at a time and saying "Stop!" when you reach the one they're looking for.

Some don't use the handout at all.

In all of the defenses I have attended, I have never seen a committee member get distracted by the handout, or read the handout instead of paying attention to the speaker.

So, based on my experience I would consider the handout to have some potential benefits, and very little or no disadvantages.

  • This doesn't take into account the psychological factor - appearing to be prepared in the first few minutes sets the tone for the entire encounter. This is true in all interpersonal interactions, but is especially important for high-profile meetings like a defense or an interview. – corsiKa Sep 20 '17 at 16:58
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Since it's a PhD oral defense, I would say no. The jury has read your entire thesis and probably took notes from the text. They don't need additional material.

Note : This answer is only applicable for system where the jury received the thesis before the defense (obviously).

  • For information: In my case, the jury indeed received the thesis in advance (~2 months). Most of the diagrams presented during the defense are to find in the manuscript. – ebosi Sep 19 '17 at 15:10
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    This also assumes that committee members will have read the thesis. In my experience, this is not a great assumption. In this guy's experience, too: thespectroscope.com/read/… – AJK Sep 20 '17 at 0:05
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    @AJK in my domain and country, I never seen a committee member not having read the thesis. I've seen more than 15 defense. But this is certainly field specific. – Emilie Sep 20 '17 at 12:06
  • I would be very (unpleasantly) surprised if the examiners had not read the thesis. I agree with Emilie's answer for the reasons stated, but I'd also like to add handouts are a sure way to distract your audience. If you really like the idea of handouts, give them out AFTER you have concluded your presentation. You get their full attention for your talk, and they get to peruse and question slides when appropriate. Best of both worlds. – Rapscallion Sep 20 '17 at 13:41
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    @SSimon as I said, this is highly field/country dependent. All my examiners had to provide a written evaluation of the thesis before the defence. The comments and questions they wrote made it clear they read the thesis. – Emilie Sep 22 '17 at 16:42
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Providing slides is probably excessive, and as you suggest, may be distracting. You've already avoided several potential issues by minimizing text and equations in your slides. That being said, if your goal is to aid your audience in following your presentation's flow, provide a single-page outline instead of all slides. (Or, even better, incorporate such an outline into the presentation and skip the printouts.)

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    In this comment I will first write an outline, then ask a question, afterwards I will tell you my opinion and then I will provide other opinions that explain this topic better than I do. So here we go. Why do people still do this? It takes away unnecessary time, it slows down the talk right at the moment where audience attention is the highest while providing no important information, it also makes everything predictable and boring. baoilleach.blogspot.co.at/2013/10/… – DSVA Sep 19 '17 at 17:17
  • An outline does not need to be a single slide. I have seen outlines incorporated quite well as headings, icons, and/or minimal animations. – Harry Sep 19 '17 at 17:23
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Print the handouts, staple them, put them somewhere visible on the table at which the opposition panel are to be seated, facing up.

If the opposition panel members want them, they'll take them. If they don't, they won't.

Problem solved without even deciding whether they should or shouldn't have them.

  • You're assuming that they are sitting at a table. If the defense happens in a conference room, this doesn't work. – user9646 Sep 22 '17 at 8:47
  • @NajibIdrissi: A conference room without a table? – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Sep 22 '17 at 8:52
  • ...yes? Have you never been to a room where the seats have a built-in tablet for writing on? (Or sometimes nothing at all?) – user9646 Sep 22 '17 at 9:02
  • @NajibIdrissi: Oh, so many mini-tables. Fine, then put a copy on each mini-table. Or on an empty seat next to them. You're kind of splitting hairs here. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Sep 22 '17 at 11:12
  • I don't think you're thinking the logistics of this through. It's not possible (or very uncomfortable) to sit on this kind of chair while the "mini-table" is open. – user9646 Sep 22 '17 at 11:17
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No one in our department ever handed out printouts. I did not hand out printouts and did not experience any issues.

To address some of your pros:

The pros would be to make it easier for the jury to take notes

-- In my experience, the jury takes notes just fine on the notepads (which I'm sure they'll have if they are interested in making notes). Additionally, making comments on particular slides is easy to facilitate by including slide numbers in the corner of the slide (I have to imagine there is an easy option in the Beamer package to do this).

follow the slides (slides are projected above my head in the amphitheater) or go back if they missed a step.

-- The will ask you to show them something again if they are curious about it

Moreover, most of the jury are not native speakers, and both the slides and the talk will be given in English.

-- But they are working in an environment where english is being spoken, right? I'm sure this is not their first defense or scientific talk, I think they will likely be ok

I think some of your cons are likely. I think they will indeed be tempted to look ahead and may miss some of what you're saying while they are flipping through it. I think for sure it will give them extra time to scrutinize your printouts, which I definitely would not want. I also think having the papers there and seeing my jury flip through/ahead while I'm speaking would have been very distracting for me as well.

Unless it has been standard practice for other defenses in your department, or you have some compelling reason to provide it, I would skip them. I will echo what someone else said. If you are going to do this, you'll need to make a special "slide printout" version of your presentation. Slides that reveal things bullet by bullet (especially if each bullet reveal is a new slide, which for beamer I imagine it is), will need to be compressed into a single slide. This will also be confusing then, because they'll say go to slide #5, but it won't actually be slide #5 for you, leading back to just not providing printouts.

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