MA Paper Oral Defense

The paper defense is an opportunity for students to demonstrate their knowledge and the quality of their thinking. It can even be fun, as students get a chance to spar with experts from a variety of fields who have read their paper closely. Since the defense is meant to be an important step in students’ professional development, it is appropriate to approach it as a professional situation – i.e. in professional attire. Oral Defenses are held three times each year, in September, December, and April/May.

Defense Panel

Oral Defense Panels consist of three professors, each with expertise relevant to the paper topic. One of the professors – the chairperson of the panel – will be the student’s adviser. The other two professors will be chosen by the Director of Graduate Studies.

Oral Defenses are open to the public, so there may be other people in the room as well. Students are welcome to invite friends and family to come to their defense. Once the defense has started, however, no one may enter or leave the room until the defense is completed.

Scheduling the Defense

Defenses are held three times each year, in September, December, and April/May. Students may defend during any of these three times. Students must be registered during the term in which they defend. Students should talk with the Graduate Programs Administrator to make sure that they are appropriately registered. Please see the page on the MA Paper Process for details on deadlines that the student must observe.

Oral Defenses are scheduled by the IR Department’s Senior Administrative Assistant (617-353-9278). Defense scheduling will begin promptly on the morning after the Defense Authorization form is submitted. The IR Department will NOT schedule a defense for a student who has not submitted this form. Students are notified of their Oral Defense date via email. Students should make certain that the IR Department has a current email address for them and should check their email regularly.

Scheduling the defenses is always a difficult project. Professors tend to be very busy, particularly toward the end of the semester when two two out of three of the Oral Defense Periods fall. Due to the difficulty of finding a time when all three of the professors on the panel are available, we need students to be flexible with their schedule. We expect students to be available to defend at any time during the Oral Defense period. The IR Department will do its best to provide students with one week prior notice of their defense date, and will provide them with a minimum of three days prior notice.

Students may make scheduling requests for serious reasons. The following are examples of justified reasons for scheduling requests: religious holy days observed by the student; marriage of a family member or close friend; job interview which cannot be scheduled for another day; class meetings which fall during the defense period (in those cases in which students are still completing their coursework in the term during which they defend).

Such requests must be made in writing (email preferred) by the end of the day on which the Defense Authorization form is due. Requests made verbally or after that deadline will be disregarded. Scheduling begins the morning after the Defense Authorization form deadline, so we absolutely must know of any scheduling issues by that deadline.

Students may also make requests for media equipment, such as a projector for a PowerPoint presentation. Finally, students may request specific professors for their defense panel; however, students should keep in mind that it is the Director of Graduate Studies, not the student and not the adviser, who has final say on the composition of defense panels. All such requests must be submitted in writing (email) by 5:00 pm on the Defense Authorization form deadline. Any requests not submitted by the deadline or not submitted in writing will be disregarded.


Defenses begin with a presentation by the student. Students should talk with their adviser about their presentation! Each adviser will have his/her own ideas about how this should be done. Students should follow the advice of their adviser. In general, the presentation should run about 10-12 minutes, and should follow a few simple guidelines:

  1. Don’t read the paper! The defense committee has already read the paper; the presentation should be a summary, not a complete reiteration.
  2. Pose the problem. Lay out briefly and clearly what the problem is that the paper addresses and why it is important.
  3. Map out the dimensions of the problem. Having posed the basic problem, give relevant details or external factors.
  4. Recapitulate the solution or explanation that the paper proposes and the main points of evidence that support its conclusions.

Question And Answer Session

After the presentation, the rest of the defense will be given over to questions from the faculty and responses from the student. This phase usually comprises the majority of the defense, and typically lasts about forty-five minutes. It can take many forms, and it is difficult to generalize about it. Committee members may ask students to defend specific arguments or analyses in the paper; they may ask questions based on the presentation; and they may try to draw students out on related issues that did not appear in either the paper or the presentation. In general, the better the paper, the more smoothly the defense will go.

In answering committee members’ questions, students should be brief, direct, and to the point. Students should have the facts at their fingertips, and should be prepared to extrapolate or extend their argument. Stating that an issue is outside the scope of the current project is an acceptable answer, although students should be prepared to justify the fact that they did not include the issue in the investigation.

Some advisers invite audience members to ask questions of the presenter, so be prepared to field those questions as well.

After the Defense

Once the Question and Answer session has finished, the chairperson will ask everyone but the Defense Panel to leave the room. At this time, the adviser and the other two members of the panel will discuss whether to pass the MA Paper/Oral Defense. This decision is based on both the paper itself and the performance at the Defense. One decision is made which encompasses both components – there is no separate decision for the paper and the defense. When the panel has made their decision the student will be asked to return to the examination room and the decision will be announced. For students who took IR 799, the MA Paper will be assigned a letter grade, and that grade will serve as the primary basis for the grade in the IR 799 class.

If the student has written a quality paper, prepared well for the defense, and listened well to the advice given by the adviser, the student should pass the exam. Congratulations!

Most students pass their Oral Defense, but a small number, three to four each year, do not. Students who do not pass need to try again during the next Oral Defense period. There is no need for such students to redo their Paper Proposal (unless they choose to change substantially the topic of their paper). Students in this situation will need to do the following:

  1. Register as a continuing student for the next term.
  2. Submit a new Diploma Application form to GRS (Diploma Applications are valid for the term for which they are submitted only).
  3. Submit a Change of Defense Date form by the Paper Proposal deadline for the term in which they plan to defend.
  4. Submit a Defense Authorization Form and Four Bound Copies of the paper by the appropriate deadlines.

When a student does not pass the Oral Defense, the Report of Exam form is filed in the student’s record in the IR Department and is not sent to the GRS Records Office. No record of the failed exam will appear in the student’s official university record or on the student’s transcript. There is normally no penalty for failing the exam, although the department does reserve the right to withdraw a student from the program who has demonstrated an inability to make progress toward successfully completing the MA Paper and Oral Defense.

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