Here’s how to fail a Master’s Defense:
It is possible to fail a master’s defense.
While it is uncommon, virtually any department will have some examples of failure that you can investigate and try to learn from.
The easiest way to fail a defense is to quit before you’re ready or ignore your advisor and push for a defense too soon.
So if you want to learn all about failing a Master’s defense, then this article is for you.
Let’s get right into it!
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Can You Fail a Master’s Defense?
Let’s start with the easiest part of this.
Yes. You can fail a master’s defense.
In fact, it happens every semester in every major university.
As scary as that sounds, the fact that it’s possible to fail doesn’t mean that you are likely to fail.
You can probably look up defense pass rates for your department.
Odds are, it’s over 90%.
There’s a lot working in your favor to pass.
So, I’ll explain all about defending a thesis and what failure entails, but throughout this, the dominating theme is that most people pass, and most people deserve to pass.
Has Failing a Master’s Defense Ever Happened?
Yes. People have failed master’s defenses, and in a number of different ways.
If you talk to people in pretty much any department at any school, you will find examples of people failing.
But, you won’t find a whole lot of examples.
Thesis defenses have very high pass rates—especially because there are multiple outcomes that don’t outright fail a student.
You can pass with revisions, fail with the possibility of trying again later, and more (I’ll get into all of it in more detail later).
On top of that, a master’s degree isn’t the same as an undergraduate degree.
More often than not, students in a master’s program are funded.
And, the department has a vested interest in that individual graduating.
This means that resources are invested to help you succeed.
None of this guarantees success, but pass rates for deafening a thesis are much higher than graduation rates for undergraduates (or graduate students who haven’t descended, for that matter).
What Goes into a Master’s Defense?
You will understand why pass rates are high when you know a little more about the master’s defense process.
Now, each committee can set their own rules to some extent, and you’ll definitely find differences from department to department, school to school, and country to country.
Despite that, there are common themes, and that’s where I’m focusing for the moment.
The first thing to know is that the thesis itself is usually graded separately from the defense.
Every reviewer (on the board, committee, or whatever the school calls it) gets a copy of the thesis, and they’ll decide if it passes according to their own scrutiny.
It can pass outright, pass with revisions, fail with revisions, or fail completely (meaning you don’t get another chance and get kicked out of the program).
Failing completely is by far the rarest outcome (but it does happen once every few years or so in some departments).
Keep in mind that the vast majority of theses that pass do so with revisions.
It’s basically a conditional pass.
As long as you make the requested revisions, your thesis is accepted without going through a second full review.
The second part of this is the defense itself.
Typically, this is where you will present your thesis to the review board, and they will ask you a bunch of questions.
This is the most intimidating part for most students, and it’s where the board decides if you (as an individual) are qualified to hold a master’s degree or not.
For many students, the defense is the last requirement for graduation, but that’s not always the case.
If you pass the defense and still have other graduation requirements, then you still have to meet those additional requirements to actually finish the degree.
In most cases, the defense has three possible outcomes.
You can pass, fail with the opportunity to defend again later, or fail with no more chances.
The third case usually only happens if you already failed your defense more than once.
Again, it’s super rare.
In fact, failing with the chance to try again is less common than passing, and I’ll explain why a little better in the next section.
Mostly, it’s because the department is invested in your success, but as I stated before, you will find some cases of failed defenses in pretty much any department.
Failing to a point where you don’t get another chance is possible but much more uncommon.
How Do You Fail a Master’s Defense?
Let’s talk about how you fail a master’s defense.
I’m going to list the most egregious things you can do to lead to failure as a bunch of subsections.
Before that, let’s talk specifically about how failure works.
You fail by getting a fail grade from the review board.
Since each committee member gets to give you a pass or fail grade, if you have more fails than passes, that’s it.
You have failed (but it could be a conditional failure, as I mentioned before).
That’s really all there is to it, but as we go through the specific reasons you might fail, you’ll see why it’s so uncommon.
#1 Ignore Your Advisor
This is by far the most common reason that anyone fails a master’s defense.
In order to do a thesis, you have to have an advisor.
The advisor’s job is to take you through the whole process.
Now, they won’t necessarily hold your hand at every step, but they are ultimately responsible for you.
This begins with picking a research topic and everything up until your defense.
Naturally, not all advisors are the same, but your failure reflects very poorly on your advisor.
They are going to want to carefully review your thesis multiple times and at multiple points before you defend.
You’re going to show it to them and get a bunch of suggestions for revisions.
Then you’ll go through that again. And again. It’s a thesis.
You can’t write it the night before it’s due.
Also, your advisor works with the committee that will handle your defense, including the chair of that committee.
They’re not going to recommend you for defense if you aren’t ready.
As I said, it’s bad for them.
On top of all of that, many review members, including heads of the board, will be available to go over preparations with you.
While no one is interested in handing out undeserved degrees, they really do want you to pass.
It’s the goal of this whole thing.
So, the easiest way to fail is to ignore your advisor (and/or members of the committee) and push for a defense when you aren’t ready.
If your advisor tells you you are ready, then 99 times out of 100, they’re right.
They’ve been through this before as a student and as an academic professional.
#2 Get Caught Cheating
Considering how you will work with your advisor throughout the process, cheating isn’t exactly easy.
For starters, a thesis is supposed to be high-level research.
You’re not going to find other examples of people doing your exact research that you could copy or steal from.
Part of approving your research is demonstrating its value to the field.
If it’s been done before, it’s less valuable.
Plus, your advisor is an expert in your field.
That’s why you’re learning under them.
So, it’s not entirely easy to fool your advisor and get away with cheating.
But, if you happen to have an underinvested advisor, or you’re just that good at cheating, then getting caught doing this with your thesis is an instant fail.
You can expect to be kicked out of the program and blacklisted.
This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but if you go digging into your department looking for total failures, you might find that cheating was involved.
And, it probably happened some years ago.
I’m trying to emphasize that failure is not normal here.
#3 Don’t Take It Seriously
This could all swing another way entirely.
I’m here telling you that you’ll probably pass your defense.
If you ask a bunch of other people, they’ll say the same things.
If you let that go to your head and start to think of the defense as a mere formality, that could put you in a bad spot.
Now, this is unlikely.
You have to put so much into your thesis.
How could you not take it seriously?
But, if you somehow talk yourself out of preparing, then you absolutely can fail.
As long as you give an earnest effort and your advisor genuinely thinks you’re ready, you should be fine.
Please don’t misunderstand.
Just because I’m telling you you’ll pass doesn’t mean it will be easy.
The point of the defense is to test the limits of your research and understanding of your field.
But, you can have an imperfect defense and still pass.
I sure did.
I said that ignoring your advisor is the most common reason to fail, but I want to amend that statement now.
Quitting is the most common way to fail.
The vast majority of people who start a graduate program and don’t earn a degree quit.
They don’t often fail in the sense of getting bad grades or getting kicked out.
Staying the course can be tough, and it’s common for a thesis to stall at points.
Burnout happens to most graduate students.
There are a lot of things pushing against you, and some people walk away.
This is compounded if you don’t fully pass your first defense.
If you get kicked back to research and told you need to make significant changes, it can be tough.
In reality, the department is still trying to help you succeed, but for some people, it’s too much.
Quitting at that point is more common than coming back and failing again.
So, in this sense, quitting is the most common form of failure in a thesis graduate program.
Why Are You Going to Pass Your Master’s Defense?
Even though it’s been a while since I went through it, I still remember asking these same questions in the weeks before my defense.
So, I’m going to do something a little different, and I’m going to give you my own personal advice.
This was said to me before my defense, and I think it’s still good advice, no matter your area of expertise or topic of research.
You are the one who did the thesis.
You spent the time collecting data, analyzing, and putting it all together.
There is literally no one in the world who knows it better than you do.
The review board can ask questions that you haven’t considered, but that doesn’t change what you know about your research.
If you need to, take a steadying breath.
Answer honestly, and remember that you worked hard to be here.