Final Thesis and Dissertation Defense Guidelines

The thesis work of students in the Nelson Institute is probably the most varied of any of the academic units at UW-Madison. Each student’s journey through the program is unique, and this includes the final thesis defense. But despite this variation, there are certain elements that we believe should be present in any thesis defense. We list them here as guidelines, not as hard and fast rules.

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General Guidelines

  1. The thesis defense has a formal purpose and is necessarily a formal proceeding. It is the final step in which the faculty affirms, or not, that the candidate has met the standard of the Nelson Institute and the university. If affirmed, the candidate is credentialed to present themselves as prepared to take on advanced work in their field. For the PhD, it is a certification that the candidate has a proven ability, as a scholar and a researcher, to make original contributions to their field.
  2. The defense should be focused on the thesis.
  3. The central element of a defense is that the candidate appears before his/her/their committee to summarize the main findings/outcome/importance of their work, and to answer questions about it – to defend it.
  4. Because the focus is on the thesis, it follows that the committee must receive the thesis (or other product to be defended) for review well before (typically two weeks before) the defense.
  5. The Nelson Institute strongly recommends that there be a public presentation as a part of the defense. Typically, this will proceed the “official” elements of the defense. Given that the Nelson Institute stresses interdisciplinarity, it is particularly important that students demonstrate their ability to present the results of their work in a way that will be meaningful to a general audience.
  6. A variety of outcomes of the formal proceedings are possible. A few of the most common:
    • A unanimous pass, with at most minimal changes required in the thesis before the degree is granted.
    • A unanimous pass, but with the stipulation that there be substantive changes to the thesis. Commonly, but only by concurrence of all involved, all members of the committee except the advisor will sign the warrant, and the committee will charge the advisor with ensuring that the required changes have been made.
    • A qualified pass or “no decision,” in which the committee judges that the thesis has problems or deficiencies that will require significant rewriting and perhaps reanalysis of data. In this circumstance some or all of the committee members may wish to read the revised thesis before signing the warrant for a pass. They may also require another presentation to the committee.
    • “Not passed.” This may be a final decision with no encouragement to try again, or it may allow another defense after the student has addressed the perceived deficiencies.
  7. Graduate School rules do not require that decisions of the committee to pass or fail a student be unanimous – one dissenting vote is allowed at the PhD level.
  8. A typical defense will consist of these parts:
    • An introduction by the thesis advisor
    • A presentation by the student (much preferably to a public audience)
    • Allowance for people at the public presentation to ask questions
    • The public audience is then excused and the defense proceeds with only the student and their committee present
    • Each member of the committee asks the candidate questions focused on the thesis with the objective of allowing the candidate to demonstrate their mastery of the subject of the thesis and their grasp of the intellectual context of their work
    • The student is excused and the committee has a confidential discussion to arrive at a pass or no-pass decision, to decide on what revisions, if any, will be required, and in general to decide what further stipulations will be made before the final approval will be given
    • At the conclusion of the discussion the student is invited to return and the outcome of the deliberations summarized
    • At that point, the conversation typically moves on to related matters such as the future plans of the candidate, and the appropriate journals in which the dissertation materials could be published
    • And, if it is a pass, the defense ends with the committee congratulating the candidate
  9. The degree to which a final defense is a celebratory event or a tension-filled trial depends on how well the student and their advisor have managed the student’s involvement with their committee leading up to the defense. It is important for the student to keep all members of the committee fully apprised of their progress, and to work through any potential areas of disagreement or misunderstanding well before the thesis is completed.
  10. The Nelson Institute is open to innovation, and the guidelines above may be adapted to suit particular circumstances provided that rigor and fairness are maintained.