Academic Hazing


A recent conversation* on twitter made me think about academic customs. The conversation centered on PhD comprehensive exams (PhD candidacy in the US system that happens about halfway through the PhD) but applies to all gate keeping parts of a PhD (or Masters) program. These can vary a lot between countries, universities and even departments (I wrote about the defence a while back). But this conversation was basically about how these hoops/tests can drift towards a hazing function rather than a learning or career building function.

Let me just get my opinion out from the first. I don’t think hazing is useful, respectful or professional. Full stop.

But one of the things that struck me is the difference between true hazing and an experience that can feel like hazing or at least slightly ritualized torture but in hindsight really isn’t. I’m one of the lucky ones it seems in that my experience was more the latter.

Tests are tough. Moments where the purpose of a conversation/test/hoop is to push you to the edge of your knowledge and ability can be really tough. For most of the people who went through an ‘A-exam’ where I did my PhD it was a challenging experience. You studied a lot before hand and many of us had the experience where your committee would often skip past or move on if it was clear that you understood something. They didn’t really want to discuss what you knew but rather reach the point where you didn’t. I sat in a room with four really smart people and had them evaluate me. It was hard. It was mentally challenging and draining. It was also emotionally draining. I know I have lots of weaknesses both academically and personally but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to hear them. In the moment I wanted to cry (and that’s ok) but here is the critical distinction: my emotional struggles were my own not something my committee pushed on me. Afterwards I saw how good the experience was. I learned a lot and learned a little more how to handle constructive feedback. I was treated with respect and in no way were my committee out to get me. It was professional and a right of passage. A ritual yes, but not a hazing or merely a hoop.

I think problems can arise from the conflicting roles of the PhD. In some situations you wear the hat of student and others colleague. The transition between these roles is blurry at best. There is no reason to make things more challenging or to emphasize the power dynamic. ‘Its tradition’ and “My exam/defence/ect was demanding/harsh/torture’ are a flimsy excuses to let these moments of gatekeeping shift towards hazing.

Challenges are an important part of a PhD and I wouldn’t suggest that we necessarily remove them. But how can we make sure that these are positive learning experiences rather than hazing?

  1. be clear about expectations
  2. be professional
  3. be kind





*Thanks to @RallidaeRule and all those that joined in for inspiring this post

4 thoughts on “Academic Hazing

  1. Well said. My own experience was much like yours–challenging but not hazing. I’m currently sitting on a PhD committee for another department that is going through quals, and their process feels (to me) like it edges toward hoops/hazing. I struggle with how to handle this as the “outside” member.

  2. Great post! My classmates and I complained bitterly about all the various hoops (especially the qualifying exam—I suspect we complained as much as we studied!), but at no time did we ever feel like the process was unfair. I think it was because we knew exactly what was going to happen at each step, and when we had questions the faculty were more than happy to clarify things for us. Mutual respect on both sides goes a long way.

  3. I’ve actually thought much about this issue recently (from the professor side). I don’t think the exam itself is intended to be that much of a learning experience (although great if it is). But it is intended to trigger learning, in the shape of preparation beforehand. If students do not prepare enough, there have to be negative consequences. That doesn’t make the exam ‘hazing’, just as jail should (IMHO) NOT be about revenge. It is a deterrent.
    The main purpose of the exam process, in my opinion, is to make sure that a PhD in, let’s say, an Ecology program actually knows the main principles of ecology (sure, there may be discussion about what exactly those are). The point is that there is no incentive in the defense talk, or your CV building, that really enforces that someone knows something about their field outside of the specifics needed for their specific system/papers. How can we best ensure that?
    My institution at least operates on the premise that courses are a more or less optional activity for graduate students, they are not in itself gatekeepers that ensure that students are well-grounded in some general field. I think that works fine, because it means students can choose their own ways of learning, but it does require that there is some other point at which gatekeeping happens. That point is not the defense talk in my experience. So, that leaves the comprehensive exam.
    The exam may be unpleasant even if you are well-prepared for the reasons you point out above; hopefully they will be perceived, in hindsight, as minor and not intentional troubles. But often exams are unpleasant (for everyone involved) because the student does not actually meet the (perhaps ill-defined?) bar, or it is not clear if s/he does.
    What then? This is not a rhetorical question, I really don’t know. Should we simply break off the exam early, at the first signs that it’s not going to go well, and ask the student repeats it later? Should we poke around until we find some nuggets of knowledge, or poke until we expose the full extent of non-knowledge? Would the whole thing be better if it was a written exam, less interpersonal, more appearance of objectivity? Currently we are on a trajectory that is harmony-seeking and work-avoiding for all involved (incl professors), and means that we pass a lot of students who really are not remotely qualified to call themselves [insert name of your program here]-ologists. We all just hope that they’ll pick it up by osmosis in the coming years.

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