PhD Thesis Proposal Defense: Common Questions and Feedback

PhD thesis proposal defense questions and feedback

This past two weeks I attended a number of proposal defense of PhD students at my University. In this post, I discuss the general format of a proposal defense as well as discuss the most common questions asked and feedback given to the students by the external examiners.

Structure of a PhD proposal defense

A proposal defense has: the student defending his proposal, two external examiners, the student’s supervisors, the audience, and the chair of the defense. The defense is structured as follows:

  • The chair opens the session by welcoming and acknowledging the student, his supervisors and the external examiners.
  • The chair also outlines how the defense will be undertaken including any rules that should be adhered to.
  • The chair then welcomes the PhD student to introduce himself and make a presentation (usually 15 minutes).
  • After the presentation by the student, the chair opens the floor to the external examiners to give their comments, ask questions and give feedback to the student on how to improve the proposal.
  • The student is then required to respond to the questions asked and comments given.
  • The chair then makes his remarks.
  • Afterwards, the PhD student, his supervisors and the audience are requested to leave the room to allow the chair and the examiners to make their determination. The student and his supervisors are then called back in and the determination is spelt out to them.

Outcomes of a PhD proposal defense

There are about 4 possible outcomes after the student presents and defends his proposal:

  • The proposal passes with minor or no corrections.
  • The proposal passes with major corrections.
  • The student retakes the proposal by re-writing it (may include change of topic) and defending it again.
  • The proposal is rejected.

Rarely will a student be asked to re-take or will a proposal be rejected especially if it has been adequately supervised. This is because before the proposal is submitted for oral defense, it must be reviewed and signed by the supervisors.

Common questions and feedback for chapter 1 of the proposal

Below is a list of the common questions and feedback for chapter 1:

  • What is your working definition of [concepts]?
  • Which sector do you want to focus on?
  • From a [country/region] perspective, please explain what is the problem?
  • How do you intend to solve the problem you have identified?
  • What will your proposed solution comprise of?
  • Who are the recipients of your proposed solution?
  • What is the primary outcome of the research?
  • Your objectives use [concept] while your problem statement talks of [a different concept]. What’s the difference between the two [concepts]?
  • In the research objectives, there is an interchange and insertion of different words. Be careful about the concepts you use. There needs to be consistency in the concepts used throughout the proposal.
  • What is the knowledge gap? That is, what is known and what is unknown that your study will attempt to address?
  • How do you relate [different variables included in the topic]? Is one a precedent of the other?
  • Are you investigating or examining? The topic says investigating while the objectives talk of examining.
  • The presentation does not discuss [sector of focus], the opportunities that exist, and the challenges it faces. This would give the student a good basis for undertaking the research.
  • There is no continuity in the objectives.
  • There is no discussion of the study’s contribution to knowledge and practice, which is very important for PhD-level study.
  • The background has many concepts that throw off readers on what the focus of the study is.
  • The problem statement is not focused.
  • What is the placement of the study regionally?
  • The objectives are too long and broad; they should be specific.
  • What is the underlying hypothesis of your study?
  • One of the research questions is biased. The researcher should take a neutral stand.

Common questions and feedback for chapter 2 of the proposal

Below is a list of the common questions and feedback for chapter 2:

  • Which theories have inspired your work and who are the proponents of those theories?
  • For each theory discussed in your proposal, briefly state what it says and how it informs your study.
  • How are the theories related to your study?
  • Why did you select those theories and not [other theories]?
  • There are no empirical studies reviewed in your proposal.
  • Your work must converge with other peoples’ work to be able to show the gap that your study is trying to fill.
  • How did the choice of theories help you come up with your study’s concepts and variables?
  • How will you measure the variables [in the topic]?
  • You have just touched the surface of the empirical review, which should be a substantial section of your literature review.
  • It is not clear what the research gap is from the literature review.
  • After the empirical review, that’s when you now discuss the conceptual framework.
  • The conceptual framework should clearly show the dependent and independent variables and their relationships.

Common questions and feedback for chapter 3 of the proposal

Below is a list of the common questions and feedback for chapter 3:

  • Kindly explain what your research philosophy is.
  • What will your [quantitative] model comprise of?
  • How are you going to verify and validate your [quantitative] model?
  • Why is the sampling formula appropriate to your sector and study? Justify the sampling formula used in the proposal.
  • Justify the choice of the sampling technique [e.g. purposive sampling].
  • Justify your choice of data collection and data analysis methods.
  • Are you going to use an inductive approach or a deductive approach to your study?
  • There needs to be consistency between your objectives and research philosophy.
  • If you have a number of population categories, you need to clearly articulate the sampling techniques for each category.
  • The data analysis methods should be clearly articulated.
  • The ethical considerations of your study should be adequately discussed.
  • The data collection instruments should be part of the proposal defense.
  • Your choice of research design and methods should be justified.
  • What is your unit of analysis?
  • Who are your study’s population?
  • Will you have different questionnaires for different respondents?
  • The data collection tools should have adequate background information questions to enable comparisons across different socio-economic and demographic groups.
  • Why are you lagging a variable? Justify the need to lag the variable.
  • Justify the choice of the model [e.g. Structural Equation Model].
  • Which specific multivariate analysis will you use?
  • Which tests are you going to conduct for the model and why? [e.g. normality, multicollinearity tests etc]
  • The variables of your study should be defined.

General feedback

In addition to the chapter-specific questions and feedback given, the students also received feedback on:

  • The formatting of their proposals, including the font styles and size allowed, the numbering of the documents,
  • The inclusion of front pages such as cover page, declaration, abstract, table of contents,
  • The inclusion of back pages such as reference list and appendices which should include letter of introduction, consent letter for study respondents, data collection instruments, and work plan (Gantt chart) for the study.
  • The style of referencing recommended by the School e.g. APA, which should be consistent throughout the proposal. The proposal defense should also include some of the citations so as to give it an authoritative feel.

Final thoughts

From my observations during the four proposal defenses I attended, a proposal defense is an opportunity for the PhD student to defend his work and to convince the interviewing panel that the student knows what he is doing and what is required of him moving forward. Most of the panellists will do their best to make the student feel comfortable rather than intimidate him so PhD students should not panic when preparing to defend their proposals.

Of importance is adequate preparation before the defense and making sure that the proposal and presentation follow the guidelines provided by the School. Lastly, PhD students should keep in mind that the aim of the proposal defense is to help improve upon the student’s proposal and ensure that the research will meet the scientific rigour and standards of a PhD-level work.

How To Write Chapter 1 Of A PhD Thesis Proposal (A Practical Guide)

How To Write Chapter 2 Of A PhD Thesis Proposal (A Beginner’s Guide)

How To Write Chapter 3 Of A PhD Thesis Proposal (A Detailed Guide)

How To Format A PhD Thesis In Microsoft Word (An Illustrative Guide)

Comprehensive Guidelines for Writing a PhD Thesis Proposal (+ free checklist for PhD Students)

Grace Njeri-Otieno

Grace Njeri-Otieno is a Kenyan, a wife, a mom, and currently a PhD student, among many other balls she juggles. She holds a Bachelors' and Masters' degrees in Economics and has more than 7 years' experience with an INGO. She was inspired to start this site so as to share the lessons learned throughout her PhD journey with other PhD students. Her vision for this site is "to become a go-to resource center for PhD students in all their spheres of learning."

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