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PhD Dissertation Defense Slides Design: Start

Purpose of the Guide

This Guide was created to help Ph.D. students in engineering fields to design dissertation defense presentations. The Guide provides 1) tips on how to effectively communicate research, and 2) full presentation examples from Ph.D. graduates. The tips on designing effective slides are not restricted to dissertation defense presentations; they can be used in designing other types of presentations such as conference talks, qualification and proposal exams, and technical seminars.

The tips and examples are used to help students to design effective presentation. The technical contents in all examples are subject to copyright, please do not replicate. 

If you need help in designing your presentation, please contact Julie Chen ( for individual consultation. 


Example Slides Repository

Useful Links

Power Point Template and other Resources

Source: CEE Department Resources

Source: CMU Marketing and Communications

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Top 7 tips for your defense presentation

1. Show why your study is important

Remember, your audience is your committee members, researchers in other fields, and even the general public. You want to convince all of them why you deserve a Ph.D. degree. You need to talk about why your study is important to the world. In the engineering field, you also need to talk about how your study is useful. Try to discuss why current practice is problematic or not good enough, what needs to be solved, and what the potential benefits will be. 
See how Dr. Posen and Dr. Malings explained the importance of their studies.

2. Emphasize YOUR contribution 

Having a Ph.D. means that you have made some novel contributions to the grand field. This is about YOU and YOUR research. You need to keep emphasizing your contributions throughout your presentation. After talking about what needs to be solved, try to focus on emphasizing the novelty of your work. What problems can be solved using your research outcomes? What breakthroughs have you made to the field? Why are your methods and outcomes outstanding? You need to incorporate answers to these questions in your presentation. 
Be clear what your contributions are in the introduction section; separate what was done by others and what was done by you. 

3. Connect your projects into a whole piece of work

You might have been doing multiple projects that are not strongly connected. To figure out how to connect them into a whole piece, use visualizations such as flow charts to convince your audience. The two slides below are two examples. In the first slide, which was presented in the introduction section, the presenter used a flow diagram to show the connection between the three projects. In the second slide, the presenter used key figures and a unique color for each project to show the connection.



4. Tell a good story 

The committee members do not necessarily have the same background knowledge as you. Plus, there could be researchers from other fields and even the general public in the room. You want to make sure all of your audience can understand as much as possible. Focus on the big picture rather than technical details; make sure you use simple language to explain your methods and results. Your committee has read your dissertation before your defense, but others have not. 
Dr. Cook and Dr. Velibeyoglu did a good job explaining their research to everyone. The introduction sessions in their presentations are well designed for this purpose. 

5. Transition, transition, transition

Use transition slides to connect projects 

It's a long presentation with different research projects. You want to use some sort of transition to remind your audience what you have been talking about and what is next. You may use a slide that is designed for this purpose throughout your presentation. 
Below are two examples. These slides were presented after the introduction section. The presenters used the same slides and highlighted the items for project one to indicate that they were moving on to the first project. Throughout the presentation, they used these slides and highlighted different sections to indicate how these projects fit into the whole dissertation. 



You can also use some other indications on your slides, but remember not to make your slides too busy.  Below are two examples. In the first example, the presenter used chapter numbers to indicate what he was talking about. In the second example, the presenter used a progress bar with keywords for each chapter as the indicator. 




Use transition sentences to connect slides 

Remember transition sentences are also important; use them to summarize what you have said and tell your audience what they will expect next. If you keep forgetting the transition sentence, write a note on your presentation. You can either write down a full sentence of what you want to say or some keywords.

6. Be brief, put details in backup slides 

You won't have time to explain all of the details. If your defense presentation is scheduled for 45 minutes, you can only spend around 10 minutes for each project - that's shorter than a normal research conference presentation! Focus on the big picture and leave details behind. You can put the details in your backup slides, so you might find them useful when your committee (and other members of the audience) ask questions regarding these details.

7. Show your presentation to your advisor and colleagues

Make sure to ask your advisor(s) for their comments. They might have a different view on what should be emphasized and what should be elaborated. 
You also want to practice at least once in front of your colleagues. They can be your lab mates, people who work in your research group, and/or your friends. They do not have to be experts in your field. Ask them to give you some feedback - their comments can be extremely helpful to improve your presentation. 


Below are some other tips and resources to design your defense presentation. 

How important is your presentation, and cookies?