Posted by: Jeremy Fox | March 15, 2012

Advice: the ‘snake fight’ portion of your thesis defense

It’s the time of year when many graduate students defend their dissertations. Many students are anxious about the defense, especially the part where they have to fight a snake. Here is a FAQ that addresses common concerns about the ‘snake fight’ portion of your dissertation defense. I recommend that you check it out. You don’t want the snake fight portion of your defense to go like this.

Note that the advice in the linked article applies mainly to North American and British defenses. In many northern European countries, an external examiner known as the ‘opponent’ fights the snake on behalf of the student. In such cases, the quality of your thesis determines, not the size of the snake you have to fight, but rather the snake-fighting skill level of the opponent. If you write a very good dissertation, your opponent will be a skilled snake-fighter. If you write a weak dissertation, your opponent will be afraid of snakes.



  1. And don’t forget to be ready for the ninjas on unicycles. That part is always tricky, but a vital indicator of your readiness to move on in your career.

    • Of course, even going in with your eyes open doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to win your snake fight:

  2. Students who write theses on hybridization have to fight a snake ape:

  3. At my institution we don’t have defenses, and (even-though I read the post carefully) I don’t quite understand the snake fight as described in the post. Having said this, and watched the choice MST3K clip, it seems that the ideal would be to actually have Crow, Tom, and Joel/Mike as the committee/examiners. I think you could breeze through by keeping them on the riff-track

    • Umm, I’m pretty sure your institution has defenses. They may not involve literal or metaphorical snake fights (which is of course a silly joke about the sometimes archaic-seeming and pointless rituals associated with thesis defenses). But surely there is some procedure by which theses are evaluated, with some at least theoretical possibility that the thesis might be rejected?

      I like the idea of having Mike (who I prefer to Joel) and the bots as thesis examiners. But I think it would be even better to have them riffing on your defense seminar as you’re delivering it. 😉

    • Whoops, my bad. A bit of googling confirms that your department indeed does not require defenses, though it does require the committee to evaluate the thesis, and it does require an exit seminar. So while the thesis is indeed being evaluated, it’s true that this doesn’t involve what would usually be called a “defense”.

      Presumably your department adopted this policy due to a shortage of snakes, and the expense of hiring ninjas on unicycles.

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