During my doctoral studies, I attended a few PhD defences. In the period closer to my defence, I made notes of the important points/questions raised whenever I attended any defence. Some opponents concentrate on the methodological approach and the rationale for the overall study, whereas others focus on the definition of terms and the practical implications of the research or a bit of both. As our group’s research focuses on persuasive systems design and behaviour change, the opponent during one of my colleague’s defence, asked for an actual situation where an application could change behaviour. This was not about one particular system, rather a broad overview of the effectiveness of persuasive systems.

Defences also differ in their format depending on the opponent. Some are like a debate whereas others are more of a conversation. In the former, the opponent tests the pressure points of the candidate and tries to gauge their responses to tough questions. The latter is a more relaxed setting where the opponent engages in a conversation with the candidate to understand their thought process during the doctoral studies and how the thesis developed. There are also opponents who preview the questions they have and their level of difficulty.
Some questions/issues that often come up in PhD defences include:

  • Why did you engage in this area of research?
  • What did you hope to achieve from the research?
  • On what grounds did you decide on whether some works apply to your work?
  • The overall plan, whether you met initial goals, and the reasoning behind the order of articles (for article-based theses).
  • What was the toughest part of your work?
  • Comments about the inconsistent definition of terms.
  • Why the focus on a particular topic and/or context?
  • Considering whether awareness of the research methodology is part of a researcher’s obligation.
  • Highlighting the gaps in literature that the research questions address.
  • Research perspective
    When thinking about the results, does culture, for example, play a role (depending on the type of research and the target population)? Consider the context of the research and how it might apply to different ethnic backgrounds.
    Address the applicability of the research and to which audiences it applies — the key knowledge gap.
  • Summary of the Studies.
    What would have happened if the studies were in reverse order?
    What would it have done to the significance of the results and contributions of the work?
    What are the most surprising findings from the studies done on [research topic]? In relation to the published work, the overall findings and the implications?

A subjective reflection of my defence

My doctoral defence was not the greatest of presentations, but I addressed my opponent’s questions well and we had a pleasant discussion.

Considering how the morning of the defence went, it was a bit of relief to get through the presentation without major issues. I tried to rehearse, but I could barely string together two clear sentences and this was while presenting to my partner and brother-in-law! That raised the nervousness scale to a level I did not want a few hours before the major event. Luckily, I got over it quickly and I was relaxed by the time of the defence.

The beginning of the presentation was tense, but as with many of my presentations, it got better as it progressed. If only I could present as freely as I write… often when presenting I struggle to find the right word and end up repeating the same basic terms. Despite these minor issues, the presentation went well and from the audience’s point of view, there weren’t any confusing issues. At least one of my friends, who was not familiar with the topic, said they understood the presentation and they could follow the exchange with my opponent, which was a good sign.

Beyond the specifics of particular studies, my opponent also tried to gauge my understanding of the implications, of not only my research but the field of persuasive systems research. There were a few speculative questions in which I had to think of the broader implications of my research and how to adapt the research to different problem situations. This was important as my dissertation did not concentrate on a particular problem domain but focused on how to improve the design and development of persuasive systems by adapting concepts from other scientific fields (e.g., psychology and software engineering) and investigating how persuasive features are implemented in existing systems.

I did not have a proper response to some questions as expected, but this was not the primary aim. Rather, the aim was to test my understanding first, of the implications of the research for practice, and second, of the generalisability of my research’ findings. How could the practices, design principles, etc., outlined in my research apply in different problem domains? Which are the best strategies to choose in these different problem domains?

What the debate did well was to help break down persuasive systems (design) research into easily digestible steps that anyone could understand (I think). We did not use (or there was no need to) explain any ambiguous terms and what I especially liked, was that the opponent did not delve too much into the research method. We spent little time, in contrast to some defences, about the why this over that method type of questions.

Now comes the tough part of how to move beyond/extend the studies and come up with new research directions 🙂