Last Friday there was a PhD defence in our department and Terry’s post about open defences in the USA got me thinking about the different cultures surrounding PhD defences. The first thing that came to mind is how different they can be, from country to country, university to university and even from department to department within universities.
A few axes in which defences can vary:
- defence versus none
- an open versus closed defence
- external examiner(s) versus none
- student presentation versus none
- external examiner gives a presentation on or not
- official book printed prior to or after your defence
- who makes the decision (a unbiased committee or one that has been involved throughout your PhD)
So, why so much variation?
Well clearly, some variation might come about from outside sources, such as the law. Much of the variation might simply arise from traditions of the university and culture (we’ve always done it this way…). But this got me thinking about the purpose of a PhD defence. In our teaching it is always better if we have defined goals and learning outcomes of the activities we do and a PhD at its core is fundamentally a learning process. Being a bit new to the other side of the equation, I don’t really have any idea about how much discussion is given to the purpose and expectations of the defence in departments. Are there clear objectives? What is the point? What does it all mean? These questions and many more may drive the form of the defence across universities. Clearly there could be a difference in the form of a defence where the main purpose is to evaluate the quality of the work versus where it is seen as a time point to gather your various projects into a cohesive story (and presumably the evaluation of the work has been done earlier, e.g. in the decision that you’re ready to defend). [Update: scroll down to the comments for a much more detailed examination of the purpose of a PhD defence by Paul Klawinski]
When I started writing this post I realised that I don’t have strong opinions about how a PhD defence ‘should’ be. It seems to me that there are lots of different and equally good ways of awarding PhDs. What constitutes ‘good’ will likely vary a lot based on how the entire program is formulated. But seeing different traditions now in Sweden has opened my eyes to some of the benefits of doing things differently. And thinking more seriously about PhD defences has gotten me thinking about the broader potential impacts of the event beyond being able to call yourself Dr. afterwards.
First maybe I should lay out my own experience on the table so that my biases are in the open. I have a degree from the USA and so my defence went something like this: I handed in my dissertation to the committee that I had throughout my PhD a few weeks before the day, I gave a seminar (50 mins) on my research to the department and answered questions, then I went into a room with my committee and talked with them. They sent me out of the room and talked about who knows what while I waited (the time went on forever…). Then they brought me back and congratulated me (hooray!). I think I might have been told that an open defence was illegal somewhere in the planning but honestly with juggling a baby, an international move and finishing up, that time is a bit hazy for me….
What I liked about the process that I went through is that it gave me a defined goal to work towards for ‘finishing’ writing. In my department you only print bound copies of your dissertation after the defence. That means there is still more to do and you need to incorporate changes that your committee suggests. But the seminar gave me a chance to communicate with my department and let them know what I had managed to do in my time there. So although it was a little stressful, I appreciated having a defence rather than not. I think I benefited from doing mine. It was the first full length seminar on my work, for example. And getting through your defence is definitely something to celebrate.
I’m not sure what it would have been like to have an open defence. The ones I’ve been to so far here in Sweden are much more focused on the details of the papers included in the dissertation. To be honest, I didn’t really feel like I was defending anything in my ‘defence’. In fact, my yearly committee meetings were always much harder and challenging than my defence and that wasn’t a bad thing. It made sure that my progress was going in the best possible direct rather than challenging details after it was too late to change them. So my committee and I talked very little about my dissertation but they focused more on big picture ideas. It was a really a great conversation that got me thinking about my place in science and how I could contribute. I think I’m still learning that but it was a wonderful broadening conversation. I was definitely asked some challenging questions in that closed-door portion of the defence, but I wasn’t actually defending my specific papers as I’ve seen more recently. Even in my former department, I think what constitutes the defence varies a lot between students but I appreciated the form mine took.
One thing I think I might have missed out on with an internal defence with my committee is that I didn’t get a chance to have an in depth conversation about my work with someone from the outside. Watching the defences here in Sweden, I am beginning to appreciate how valuable that can be. I know of a number of people who ended up doing a post-doc with their external reviewer. It seems like a great way to meet and interact with a leader in your field and also gives them a chance to get to know you. I also know of another example of a paper that came out of discussions during the defence. Generally the process seems like a great way to connect with someone and in our department the external examiner also gives a presentation about your work to put it in a broader context. In a way, this gets them to be an advocate of the student and really get to know their work. So even if future collaborations aren’t an outcome, you’ve had someone new think deeply and carefully about your work. However, if I had an external examiner for my own defence, I don’t think I would have had the same kind of interesting conversation as I did. It could have been just as good but likely pretty different.
So overall, I can see benefits to different PhD defence styles but unfortunately you can’t do everything…
What are the traditions at your department? Are there active discussions about what could be broader outcomes of the process of the PhD defence (besides a point where you can pass/fail a student)? And please share more extended outcomes of the PhD defence process! I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface in this post.