#23 So you are going to defend your thesis

Thinking of defending your thesis? While it is still fresh on my mind, I would like to share some tips from my own dissertation experience this year. Note that this is not a replacement for the guideline stipulated in KI website. I am just re-organising their guideline in a flow that makes sense for me, plus a few practical and personal tips.

First checklist – before public defence application
  • Do you have all pre-requisites? Check the courses you have taken and required number of publications (the rule may change from time to time, so be sure to know the latest rule. If in doubt, check with the Dissertation Committee or your department study director).
  • Have you discussed it with your supervisors? Besides the date, you also need to discuss the list of potential opponent, examination board, and chairman — they have to be enquired for availability. Check that all these persons have no conflict of interest in their roles.
  • How far along are you on your kappa? Given the experiments, manuscript writing, and other commitments, can you make the deadline?
  • Lesser importance and urgency but still need to be done:
    • book a defence venue
    • contact printing shop
    • design a thesis cover (optional, you can leave the cover blank)
    • plan defence party (do you want to plan it yourself, or ask friends/family to organise it for you? For me, it was the latter — fewer things to worry about.)

All yes? Go on.

Second checklist – public defence application
  • First, make sure you read and re-read every single page linked in the KI Interweb concerning the whole dissertation process. When in doubt, ask the Dissertation Committee: disputation@ki.se.
  • Draw a timeline plan from start to finish (about 12 weeks, see below). If you can afford to, squeeze in extra weeks for contingency. Check the meeting schedule of the Dissertation Committee and aim to submit your application on the submission deadline of one meeting. Again, allow for contingency: what if you can’t make the deadline — make sure you still have time even if you are going for the next deadline. Note that there is no meeting in summer, so consider that in your planning.
Timeline (adapted from this document)

Weeks before | To do
 12          | Submit public defence application
 10          | Dissertation committee's meeting
 09          | Preliminary review of Examination Board
 05          | Thesis printing
 03          | Nailing
 00          | Defence
  • Work on the public defence application.
    • Block time for this, don’t do experiments or other things.
    • Check again for conflict of interest. In my case, I missed one co-publication, and have to resubmit the application. Do thorough check!
    • Remember you need to get a number of signatures, so make sure the signers are all available.
  • After submitting, you may take a breather. But after that, keep working in your manuscripts (still amendable before going to Examination Board). Focus less your kappa at this time, but the kappa writing should be well underway at this point.
Third checklist – after public defence application
  • After green light from Dissertation Committee, you should be ready with your manuscripts to be sent out to the Examination Board. Don’t listen to your perfectionist self: stop at some “good enough” stage. Get the okay from your supervisors as well, because you cannot amend the manuscripts after this.
  • While the manuscripts are being reviewed, focus on your kappa. At this point you should have contacted the printing shop and know exactly the deadline of sending your thesis to them. Make sure you finish writing well before the deadline so that your supervisors have time to review it.
  • Printing. You can take a breather, because you cannot change your thesis now — unless of course you have more experiments, publication-related woes, and whatnot. The printing shop will print a test copy (provtryck) for you to check. In my case, all pictures and layouts turn out fine, but some colour pages are not in colour, so do check. You can always find more typos, so keep a lookout for these. Technically you are just supposed to spot printing errors at this stage, but of course if you spot glaring mistakes (of your own making), communicate with the printing shop.
  • Distribution. Don’t forget to send the panel your thesis copies, then your supervisors, collaborators, and department. After that, give to family, friends, your dog, unassuming strangers, etc. Also include the invitation to your dissertation party (you have planned it, right?).
  • Nailing. There is a deadline of 3 weeks before the defence, so make sure the printing schedule allows. A good timing for delivery of the printed copies is one week before nailing, because you still have to hunt for signature to endorse nailing (“må spikas”) by a designated faculty (they may be surprisingly hard to reach — contact them well in advance; sometimes phone calls are better than emails).
  • Now work on your slides if you haven’t already. There is time to make the slides, rehearse, and revise.
    • Aim for a 20-minute presentation.
    • Do not cram all your results, but only highlight important findings. You have plenty of time to elaborate in the Q&A.
    • Consider also that the opponent will present before you — they might have already have basic concepts, techniques, and some of your findings in their slides, so allow some flexibility in your own presentation.
Fourth checklist – public defence
  • Study. Obvious, right?
  • Dress up. There is such a thing called enclothed cognition, where wearing certain clothing has been shown to affect not only others, but oneself. I know in Sweden defendants tend to be casually dressed. You are a scientist, why not follow what the literature has shown to be an advantage?
  • The defence can go on for some time. Bring a sandwich for yourself. You may want to order refreshments, at least for the panel, if not for everyone including the audience.
  • Contingency, contingency. Back up your slides, bring extra laptop, clone yourself, etc.
  • Dissertation party
    • Check with the person(s) you have delegated this task to. Or you can start panicking now.
    • Gifts for your supervisors. Choose something inexpensive but meaningful and personal. Expensive gifts are not appropriate as you are professional colleagues. However, supervisor–PhD student relationship is special and you want to end it on good note. Don’t give them clichéd world’s best supervisor mug/T-shirt. I gave my supervisors freshly roasted and ground coffee beans  from my region, for example.

I find it formidable to start writing kappa, how do I do it?
Start small. Download the template and put down your name and title. You can stop there for today! If you can still go on, write the Acknowledgement section and think of how far you have come and all the people you’ve met along the way.
I personally found it useful to plan and discuss the outline with my supervisors — the discussion itself sparks some inspirations and motivations to flesh it out.

Is there a guideline for writing kappa?
Fortunately or unfortunately, there is some freedom in the writing of kappa, in the sense that they do not dictate that you have to include these certain sections, or this section must come after that section; but here and here are the (very) general guideline.
I would suggest looking at other KI theses in your field and modify from there.
I also suggest that you include Popular Science Summary (sammanfattning) section (why?).

How many copies should I print?
For me, a non-Swede with no family here, around 60 copies is a good number.

Can I change the order of paper/manuscripts in the thesis after Dissertation Committee has approved the application?
Yes. It is best if you don’t, of course, for consistency, but changing the order does not require approval of Dissertation Committee. Note that most other changes would require their approval (see here).

All the best — lycka till!

Image credit: xkcd

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