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?
- be clear about expectations
- be professional
- be kind
*Thanks to @RallidaeRule and all those that joined in for inspiring this post