Master’s Defense Notes

Below is a list of information + tips & tricks for defending your M.Sc project

The defense has three stages (small variations may occur depending on the external examiner)

  • Stage 1 (20 mins). You present your work without interruptions.
  • Stage 2 (30 mins). We discuss your work.
  • Stage 3 (10 mins). You leave the room, we (examiners) discuss your grade. Once we agree, you’ll be called in and you’ll receive your grade.

Below, is a bit more detail about each stage.

Stage 1

Students usually bring a presentation of some sort (Powerpoint/Keynote) as well as their own laptop. A projector or similar will be available.

Your presentation is the part of the defense that you have more or less total control over, so make sure that you’ve practiced your presentation! Lots of practice and a good presentation is a great and easy way to start the whole defense off well.

We do not allow for extra time, and we’ll be impressed if you hit the 20 minute mark exactly.

Content-wise, you can assume that we’ve already read your report carefully, so I don’t recommend going through your findings following the same structure as your thesis. That will be boring to everyone. It’s a good idea to give a quick overview of your work, showing that you

  • can place your work in the context of the topic you’re working on, and that you
  • are able to extract the essence of your work and highlight important points.

The remaining talk can then focus on things like

  • What you could have done better. And why.
  • How you would have approached the topic, if you were to start over. And why.
  • Problems you ran into along the way that taught you something important. And what they taught you.
  • What you would do next, if you were to continue working on this topic. And why.
  • Results you’ve found since finishing up writing
  • If you’ve built something and have a cool demo, show it! Videos work well too.
  • Something else entirely – maybe you have an angle that works perfectly for your project.

You should not address all of these (and some of the bullets are overlapping), but I’ve listed a few ideas to give you a sense of what has worked well in the past.

When you wrap up, be realistic in your conclusions – don’t try to oversell the results you have obtained (we will see right through this strategy). An ability to be self-critical shows understanding and intellectual maturity.

Stage 2

The most important thing to understand for stage 2 is that everyone in the room wants you to do well. That means, for example, that there are no trick questions … and that almost every question we might ask has the goal of helping you display what you know about the topic.

That being said, helping you is not the only purpose of the questions we ask. We also ask you questions that will allow us to get a feeling for how well you understand the topic of your thesis, and how well you understand the scientific methodology underlying the work you’ve done (scientific theory, error analysis, statistics, etc).

For that reason, the questions we typically ask depend on the quality of your thesis.

If your thesis is at the low end of the spectrum, we’ll start with easy questions and gradually get more complex, so we can figure out where your knowledge of the topic stops. We will give you a chance to clarify definitions that have been unclearly and erroneously written in the thesis. And we will ask you questions about the weaker/missing parts of the thesis, so you have a chance to show what you know about those areas.

In this situation it is crucial not to go into “defensive mode” when answering our questions. We are not criticizing you through our questions. Rather, we are trying to understand and access the academic work that has been carried out. A good academic discussion of the project lets us know that you are able to discuss the topic in a neutral way, that is, discuss both pros and cons.

And if you’ve written a truly superb thesis, we will ask you difficult questions to you can show that you’ve really earned the 12 you’re about to receive.

In order to get ready for all this, one recommendation is to re-read your thesis from a self-critical perspective before the defense. That way you’ll be to discuss the weaknesses identified up front – rather than try to sweep them under the rug. It’s ok to have weaknesses if you are aware of them. (And we’ll be able to see right through your attempts anyway).

Other things

The examination is public, so you can bring as many people as you want (parents, friends, etc). But if you’re bringing more than a couple of people, we like to know in advance so we can book a room of an appropriate size.

The fact that the examination is public also means that anyone may show up to see you, and we have to let them (but people are usually good about this and ask your permission first).

Thanks to Jakob Eg Larsen for contributions and helpful comments!

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