Tips for answering questions during promotion

Gepubliceerd op 26 april 2024 om 12:00

On the day of your promotion, each opponent will ask two or three questions. There will be questions that you will be comfortable with, but certainly difficult questions too. Answering questions is an art in itself. We give you five tips, which you can also use during your mock defense of course.

Tip 1: Write down questions using keywords

Always bring a notepad and pen to your defense, so you can write down the question in keywords. If the opponent mentions a page number or table, write it down immediately, so you can quickly find it once you have heard the full question.

Tip 2: Make sure you are clear about the question

Do not start answering until you are clear about the question. You can do this by repeating the question briefly and checking whether you have understood it correctly before you start answering. Especially during the first question, even if you do understand it, this can give you some extra time to think about the answer. Once you get going it is not necessary to repeat every question, because then it can become distracting. However, it is no problem to take a moment to ponder the question each time.

Credits photo: Albert Hidding

Tip 3: What if you really do not know the answer?

It is possible that you receive a question that you really do not know the answer to. You should take a moment to realise why you don't have an answer. Has this never been researched before? Or is it still being researched and are the results not yet known? Or have you not done a certain analysis that would have been useful? Just answering honestly is the most powerful thing you can do. If you know about ongoing studies on this topic, mention them. If an analysis is suggested that you didn’t do, you can honestly admit this might have been a good idea, but also explain your reasoning to performing your analyses the way you did. 'In science, nothing is known about this yet. What is true is that a study is now under way into ... which may provide the answer.' So by all means tell what you do know even if it is that nothing is known about it! What you should definitely not do is starting to talk in a vacuum and simply hoping that you will come up with something on the go.

Tip 4: What if you can not get the question out of the argument?

Opponents often make an argument to build their question nicely. Sometimes the question is immediately clear from the carefully constructed argument, but in a long and less clear argument you could lose track. In that case you could indicate that you assume that the point made is about a particular point in your thesis. Subsequently, you can share what you think is most important about that part. For example: 'If I understand correctly, you are indicating that the statistics we used may have led to outcome x in my thesis. What I can say about this is… ' Or you could simply ask for a clarification: 'Could you please repeat the exact question for me?'

Tip 5: Realise that you are there as a scientist

It can be very tempting to cite all kinds of experiences of yourself or others, or to list small practical examples in your defense. But science is all about numbers and knowledge! It is fine to include a single practical example in your answer to make it lively for the opponents and the audience, but do not emphasize on this too much. This is an academic defense, after all. So try to construct your answers well and link multiple papers together. That is how you really show that you have insight in the matter. For example: 'My studies all show that this does not work for this target group, because in study 1 we found [this] and study 3 demonstrated [that]. Furthermore, the recent meta-analysis by author X also confirms this.’ Connecting these dots is something you can already do during your preparations, so you have them ready to go during the defense. That is how you really show that you know what you are talking about!

Anecdotal evidence

Remember the weather woman who based her prediction on her own experiences. She spoke the legendary words: 'Although the satellite images show that there are a lot of clouds, I still think it will be a sunny day tomorrow.' So stay close to your results and do not try to make it prettier than it is, even if you have negative results.


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