Monday, July 15, 2013

Let the Sabers Rattle: A Cross-cultural Comparison of Doctoral Defenses

Along with getting tenure, the most important rite of passage in an academic career is the defense of the doctoral dissertation.  Across the globe, defenses range from academic inquisitions to folkloristic public events.

Dissertation defenses in the Netherlands fall on the folkloristic end of the spectrum. This is because the defense and conferral of the degree are rolled into one event. The candidate’s family, friends, and department colleagues are in attendance and the eight or so committee members, including the candidate’s major professor, are wearing full academic regalia.

Defenses in the United Kingdom are a decidedly more austere affair involving only the candidate and two external examiners; not even the major professor is allowed present. The examination I participated in took place in a small room in the bowels of a building. After the, successful, defense the candidate’s major professor and two lab mates suddenly appeared in the hallway with champagne glasses and the candidate was toasted. I’ve been to pet funerals that were more festive.

Defenses in the Unites States and Canada are less grim than those in the U.K. The committee is made-up by familiar (and usually friendly) faces from the department and the major professor is present. But they also lack the pomp and circumstance of Dutch defenses. This is because the defense is separated in time and space from the conferral of the degree.

Some countries have their unique traditions. Almost 10 years ago, I was asked to serve as an opponent in a Finnish dissertation defense. I agreed, assuming that a Finnish defense was going to be similar to a folkloristic Dutch defense rather than an American one. (After all, I was repeatedly asked to bring my cap and gown.) I carefully read the dissertation and prepared two questions.

The day before my departure, I was talking to my much-respected senior colleague Al Lang. I told him about my upcoming Finnish adventure, telling him that I would be one of several opponents, assuming he was not familiar with European tradition. No, you’re it Al said. What do you mean, you’re it? I asked. It turned out that Al had been an opponent at a different Finnish university some years before. He told me that the defense was indeed public but that I was the sole opponent and that I was supposed to question the candidate in public for at least an hour and up to however long it took. I quickly ran to my office and generated a whole bunch more questions.

Finnish defenses are folkloristic alright but in their own special way, as I soon found out. Right before the defense, the candidate, her promotor, and I gathered in the promotor’s office. He opened an expensive looking box, which contained three glasses. He poured each of us a single malt whisky. We toasted, downed our scotch, and then walked—thus fortified—to the room where the defense was to take place.

To this date, I’m not completely sure if the scotch is an integral part of the Finnish protocol or that it was an idiosyncrasy on the part of the promotor—after all his bookshelves were lined with empty cartons of Laphroig, MacAllan, Talisker, Oban, Aberlour, and Lagavullin— but I kind of hope it is the former (the box looked official enough).

There was one other unexpected twist. Where I was wearing my cap and gown (not exactly my most manly outfit), the promotor was wearing a saber. I felt jealous that I wasn’t issued a cool weapon as well—if not a sabre, then perhaps a crossbow. Or maybe a mace. As it was, I felt seriously outgunned.

The defense went fine, although I felt the pressure to be both critical of the student and at least somewhat entertaining to the audience for over an hour.

Later that day, there was a dinner at which I was to be the guest of honor. Great care was taken to make sure I was the last one to arrive. When I entered the dining room, everyone stood up. I was led to my table. The dinner was a buffet and I was wondering why nobody was getting food. Then I noticed that people were looking at me. I was supposed to to get up first. There were speeches, which were all held in English for my benefit, as I was the only one there who did not speak Finnish.  I found this very touching and humbling, although I also felt ill at ease in my role of foreign dignitary.

After the dinner, a band was making preparations and all of a sudden, the candidate said to me Now we have to dance. If she’d said Now we’re going to cut your left pinky off with the saber, I would have been equally pleased. But I was a good sport and danced, as best as was possible for a foreign dignitary. Luckily, the dance floor quickly filled up with other people so I could escape to the bar.

Much alcohol was consumed and the party had moved outdoors. The candidate received presents. I probably was not the only one who was surprised to see that one of her presents was a chainsaw. What with the saber, I could not be completely sure but I still thought it unlikely that it was a Finnish tradition to gift candidates with big power tools after a successful defense.

My confusion was resolved. Apparently, the candidate had inherited a vacation home and needed to clear some trees. She then made preparations to cut a copy of her dissertation, which was lying in the grass. Even after several drinks, I could see that this was a recipe for disaster. I was relieved to see that the plan was 86ed before any damage was done.

Back to our cross-cultural comparisons of doctoral defense traditions. I appreciate the public nature of the Finnish and Dutch defenses. Friends, relatives, and others can get an idea of what the candidate has been doing with their tax money for all these years. I am always moved by the looks of pride in the eyes of the candidate’s parents and grandparents. And I thoroughly enjoy the banter and drinks with colleagues at the reception after a Dutch defense. But I still wonder if this is the best way to organize a doctoral defense.

I think the British, usually not averse to pomp and circumstance, have it right. A defense should be austere and challenging. There is only one thing missing of course. External examiners must at all times be outfitted with a saber.


  1. Hey Rolf - Great article. I've heard stories about how defenses are done in other places. Even in our own department we seem to have different traditions. Our neuroscience program has a tradition where everyone in the program (including all grad students and faculty) attends and the Ph.D. candidate gives what amounts to an hour long "job talk". Then everyone (except the committee) clears the room and the candidate answers further questions from the committee. Other areas the candidate treats the defense as their "own private hell" and absolutely no one is in the room except for the committee and the candidate. It's interesting.

    But I agree completely - some kind of medieval weaponry should be worn by the external examiner. That would give it that little extra edge that these defenses are missing.

  2. Hey Chris, thanks! You're right. I remember that about the neuroscience area. I actually prefer their approach over the one we used.

    Here is how I picture my ideal defense. The candidate is seated in the pouch of a trebuchet. If they fail, they are launched into oblivion. Maybe a tad harsh but we're talking about a doctoral degree here.

  3. Interesting collection of observations! I definitely want the Finnish whisky tradition to come to the USA.

    At my institution (University of Oregon, in the USA) candidates are required to send their dissertations to the committee at least 3 weeks before the defense. The candidate will have up to 2 weeks after the defense to make any revisions requested by the committee. So committee members are instructed that if we anticipate any major revisions (ones that would take more than 2 weeks to make), we should ask for the defense to be called off and rescheduled. Failure at a defense is final, so the idea is to give the candidate a chance to get back on track before it gets past the point of no return.

    Of course, in practice defenses very rarely get called off, and it can be a big mess when it does. Especially because most major advisors won't let the dissertation get sent to the committee until they think it's ready -- so it can set up a conflict between faculty. Probably a good thing no weapons are involved.

    1. Thanks, Sanjay. Your system sounds similar to what we had at FSU. In Holland, there laos is a committee that reads and comments on the manuscript. However, for the public defense the committee is expanded by several people who have not had a prior chance to comment on the manuscript. Failing students is extremely rare in Holland and, as was my experience, also in the US. I once called off a dissertation defense when I was a beginning assistant professor and served on a committee in a different department. The next day, the student stormed into my office, threw a stack of paper on the floor and yelled: "So you think this is a pile of shit!" I was first taken aback but then I said, "Well, not ALL of it." She ended up defending six months later with a much better manuscript.

  4. In Sweden the defense is also public and normally takes 2-4 hours. First the opponent asks questions, then a committee consisting of 3 members ask questions, then the audience is allowed to ask questions.

  5. I went to a few defenses while I was a postdoc in the Netherlands, and they were great. Really made me feel like I had missed out, because Australian universities don't have them any more.

  6. Great post! Your description of UK vivas isn't quite right though. Usually there is an external and an internal examiner and a chairperson. The supervisor (who may or may not be a "major professor") may be present but only if the candidate agrees to it. In my viva this was part of the ritual where the first person the chairperson asked was whether I wanted my supervisor to be there. Two external examiners are typically only there in certain circumstances. For instance in my university this was the case if the candidate was employed as research assistant rather than being a student. I have no idea why that is to be honest. Generally, these rules and rituals differ a bit between institutions.

    The degree conferral happens in a very ritualistic ceremony in academic regalia and in some institutions this is in Latin or - in mine - it was in Welsh.

    1. Thanks. Since this post, I've done one more viva in the UK. It was as I described here, with only an internal and an external examiner. I didn't know there could be a chairperson.