What? Why? How? A list of potential PhD defense questions

In August 2020, I defended my PhD successfully. In the preceding months, I had generated a list of potential defense questions by using various different sources (websites, other defenses I watched, colleagues, and my supervisors). The list ended up helping me a lot. Today I shared this list with a colleague who is soon defending, and I thought: Why not share it publicly?

Note: The questions were compiled with a Finnish PhD defense in mind. In Finland, the defense is at the very end of the research process, and no changes to the PhD will be made after the event. The defense is also a public event.

The list was last edited: November 3rd, 2022

Title and cover

  • Why did you choose this title? Were there any other kinds of titles you were considering?
  • Why did you choose this photo/image as your thesis cover? (if there is one)

Topic and contribution to the field

  • Why did you choose this research topic?
  • Why do you think this topic is important? For whom is it important?
  • What do you think your work has added to the discipline/field/study of this topic?
  • How is your study original?
  • [Your topic] seems to be something that is usually studied discipline X. However, your thesis represents discipline Y. How did you navigate the interdisciplinarity of your work?


  • How did you decide to use this particular conceptual/theoretical framework?
  • How did your chosen framework help you to explore your research problem?
  • How would someone using another theoretical framework interpret your results?
  • What are the shortcomings of this particular theory/conceptual framework?
  • How would you describe/define/summarise … [insert a term]
  • In your work, you introduce a new concept/theory. Why did you decide to do that instead of using an existing concept/theory?
  • Could you describe your theoretical/methodological framework in a way that the audience also understands it? (for public defenses)

Literature review

  • Why did your literature review cover these areas but not others?
  • The literature review looks very tidy – doesn’t anything challenge it?
  • Why did you (not) include the work by X in your study?
  • Which scholar(s) have you been influenced by the most?

Research question(s)

  • How did you come to formulate this particular research question / these research questions?
  • How did your research questions/problem changed during the research process?
  • Were there research questions you decided to add/remove during the research process?
  • Why don’t you have a research question?


  • How did you decide to use these particular methods of data collection/analysis? Were there other options you considered?
  • Why did you choose quantitative/qualitative/mixed methods approach?
  • What informed your choice of methods?
  • What are the advantages/disadvantages of the chosen methods?
  • How did you select your participants/this particular data?
  • Describe how you generated your data.
  • Why did you analyse your data in this way? What other ways were there available? Why didn’t you choose those methods?
  • If you could still improve this measure/procedure/etc., how would you do it?
  • How would you explain the low/high response rate of your survey?
  • How did you triangulate your data?
  • If you could do your study all over again with unlimited resources, how would you do it?


  • How do you explain the discrepancy between your findings and the findings of previous studies?
  • Did you expect these kinds of results? Why (not)?
  • What is the most important result of your work?
  • Who should care about your work and the results?
  • How generalizable are your findings and why?
  • Were there any other ways to present your results?
  • Based on your findings, how would you develop [your topic]?
  • What is common or different to these substudies included in your dissertation?
  • What did [your approach] reveal that other approaches could not have reveal?
  • What did you not see because you did your work [in this way]?
  • How could [x] now be rethought in the light of COVID-19?
  • What kinds of implications do your results have for further research/practice/policy?

Research process

  • How did your own position/background/bias affect your research?
  • Describe your researcher positionality.
  • What were the biggest challenges during the research process?
  • Were there any surprises during your research, pleasant or unpleasant?
  • What was the most interesting part of your work?
  • How did you address research ethics during your research?
  • What implications do your findings have for [your topic]?
  • What do you see as the problems in your study? What limitations do these impose on what you can say? How would you address these limitations in future studies?
  • What could you not study in the end? Why?
  • What kind of a dissertation did you want to do originally? Why did your plans change?
  • If you could now redo the work, what would you differently?
  • Is there anything else that you would like to tell us about your thesis which you have not had the opportunity to tell us during the defense?

Future research

  • What do you plan to do next with your data?
  • What would be the next logical study to do as a follow-up to this one?
  • What will you study next?
  • How does gaining a doctorate advance your career plans?

Photo by Vadim Bogulov on Unsplash

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