MA Paper Oral Defense

The paper defense is an opportunity for students to demonstrate their knowledge and the quality of their thinking. 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.

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 are 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. Defenses are held over a two week period, Monday through Friday (excepting university holidays), from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.

Defense scheduling begins promptly on the morning after the Defense Authorization form is submitted. The Pardee School will NOT schedule a defense for a student who has not submitted this form. Students are notified of their Oral Defense date via their BU email account.

Scheduling the defenses is always a difficult project. Professors tend to be very busy, particularly toward the end of the semester when two out of the three 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 schedules. We expect students to be available to defend at any time during the Oral Defense period. The Pardee School 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.

Such requests must be made in writing (email) by 5:00 pm on the day on which the Defense Authorization form is due. Requests made verbally or after that deadline will be disregarded.

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 panels; however, students should keep in mind that it is the Director of Graduate Studies, not students and not paper advisers, 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. In general, the presentation should run about 10-15 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 & Answer Session

After the presentation, the remainder 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. 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 committee members to leave the room. At this time, the 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 are no separate decisions 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 second semester IR 799 class.

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 Pardee School 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 Pardee School does reserve the right to withdraw a student from the program who has demonstrated an inability to complete the MA Paper and Oral Defense successfully.