Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dutch PhD Defense Ceremony

I watched my first Dutch PhD defense ceremony last week, and it is very different from the US version. Below you'll find a detailed comparison, which will probably only be interesting to my UF friends ... especially the part about the defense here only being an hour.

Well before the PhD defense at TU Delft, a candidate has their dissertation approved (I presume by the whole committee) and then (at TU Delft anyway) must have a certain number of copies professionally printed/bound. Committee members, friends, relatives, and complete strangers are furnished with copies. In the US, the dissertation is only pre-approved by the committee chairman and committee members are furnished with [not professionally] printed copies.

At TU Delft, all PhD defenses take place in a single room of the Aula Congresscentrum. This is an ongoing irritant of PhD candidates, because it means that in order to get their over-scheduled committee members in a rarely-available room at the same time, they may well have to schedule their defense ceremony as far out as 6 months. In the US, we hold the PhD defense in whatever meeting room happens to be open and probably don't schedule it more than a month ahead of time (except in special circumstances).

The room itself is nice but not extravagant, with dark wooden walls and carpet. There's a center podium for the candidate that is flanked by tables (with microphones) for the committee members. There's also room for an audience, as the ceremony is public. The [male] candidate wears a tuxedo. In the US, the [male] candidate would probably be wearing a button-down shirt, tie, and slacks at minimum and possibly a suit.

In the US, the dissertation defense is opened with a public presentation about the thesis topic (usually 1/2-1 hour), in which committee members are expected to be present. In the Netherlands, the public presentation is strictly 30 minutes and for the convenience of onlookers only - it is not even attended by the committee. I think it is OK for the audience to ask questions afterward if there is time before the committee arrives. In the US, the audience is encouraged to ask questions and the committee may well jump in too.

The committee is led into the room at precisely the scheduled time by the pedel (master of ceremony), who marches them to the middle of the room and beats a [very ornate] stick (whose name escapes me) on the floor. All must rise. The full professors on the committee wear gowns and hats while the lesser professors wear suits. This part of the ceremony - the questioning - is precisely one hour long (while in the US it can last as long as the committee sees fit). It is completely public in the Netherlands, while in the US it is usually private.

The professors take their seats and the pedel marches back out of the room. The rector magnificus (moderator) opens up the defense and the committee members start asking questions in turn. This is an important point - they may only speak in turn after being recognized by the rector magnificus. This means that the exchange is only between the candidate and a single committee member at a time and no other committee members may participate in the discussion. Each committee member is allotted a certain amount of time and they must relinquish the floor when prompted by the rector magnificus, if not before. Once they have relinquished the floor, they may not ask any further questions. This is wildly different from the US version, where the committee usually attempts to ask questions in turn ... which lasts for about 10 seconds. A question from one member will inevitably prompt a question from another, and the discussion will jump all over the room, sometimes even with the candidate virtually excluded as committee members get excited about a particular topic.

When time runs out, the pedel marches back into the room, beats the stick on the floor, and yells "Hora est!" - paying no mind to if someone is in the middle of a sentence - and the questioning is over. The committee then goes off to a special room (where I think they have drinks) for 10-15 minutes to reach a decision about the candidate. In the US, the defense ends at the committee's behest and then the candidate has to go away while they make a decision.

When the decision is made, the committee marches back out and awards the candidate with the diploma (or at last some highly coveted object that I must assume was a diploma since they were speaking Dutch) if they passed. As in the US, it is very rare and embarrassing for someone to have to do their PhD defense again. However, the meaning of "pass" in the two countries is quite a bit different. In the Netherlands, when a candidate passes, they are truly done with their PhD responsibilities. But in the US, a candidate "passes" with a list of thesis corrections that have to be made, and then the final thesis must still be submitted to the university, who may well complain about formatting. Depending on how quickly the candidate wants to make the corrections and what deadlines are approaching, it could be months before a passed candidate is truly "finished" in the US.

Finally, the defense ceremony in the Netherlands ends with the committee chair giving a public congratulations that will probably include a funny or embarrassing anecdote (again, this was in Dutch). Then the ceremony is adjourned and everyone usually goes to have drinks nearby.

So in the end, the Dutch PhD defense ceremony is very much a ceremony, while the US version is more of a presentation/discussion with absolutely no pomp and ceremony. I don't want to judge too hastily, but I would tend to think a US PhD candidate would gladly wear tails if they knew their committee could only bludgeon them for an hour.

One other note: Due to the professional printing (and presumably better graphics standards), the average Dutch dissertation tends to LOOK about 1000 times better than its American counterpart. Every time I pull an American dissertation off the internet, I'm blown away by how terrible they look - so to flip through a Dutch dissertation that doesn't consist entirely of double spaced Times New Roman and pictures drawn exclusively in MS Word is a welcome change. (I suspect my less anal-retentive colleagues are rolling their eyes, but I'm sure there are some that understand.)


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