As anyone who’s in grad school has learned, the first part of a dissertation defense is open to the public; the part in which the committee questions the candidate is private. I always found this frustrating because, if I didn’t know what was coming, how could I prepare for it?
The closer I got to my defense, the more worried I got. I had an officemate who was in with his committee for close to two and a half hours (after the public part!). Granted, this is a bit extreme, but how did I know that I wouldn’t end up in that situation? (Dr. Green was particularly hard on me when I took my oral exams–he questioned me for over an hour and would have kept on going if the other committee members hadn’t demanded some time for questions, too.)
Needless to say, I was surprised when my committee wrapped up the questioning in a bit under an hour. My thought as they ushered me out for deliberations was, Is that all? Not only was the questioning short, it was relatively easy. The questions were thought-provoking but I was able to answer them without too much effort. I even cracked a few (topic-appropriate) jokes.
That evening, at a party Dr. Hand-Waver gave in my honor, I was talking with Dr. Sharp (not on my committee) and mentioned that I found the defense amazingly easy.
“In what way?” she asked.
“Well,” I replied, “It didn’t feel like an interrogation to me, the way that my other committee meetings did. It felt more like sitting down and having a conversation with friends.”
She smiled at me. “Well, that’s what we look for, isn’t it? Once you pass, you become a colleague. We want to see that you can talk to us as a colleague. It’s amazing how few students get that.”
So there you go. That’s what you’re shooting for as a grad student.