Thursday, July 12, 2007

Anatomy of a PhD Defence

Grad students who didn't quite finish their dissertations in the academic year but who have postdocs or other positions lined up for the fall are racing to defend and finish by the end of the summer.

These final exams are always kind of strange. In my department, they consist of a talk (30-50 minutes) followed by general questions from the audience, then a closed session of questions involving the student and committee. After all the questioning, the student leaves the room and paces the hall while the committee votes pass or fail. If the graduating student already has a job lined up, it would be bizarre to fail them on this exam, and I can't think of any cases in which this has happened here. As a committee member, I tend to use the exam time to discuss any parts of the thesis that are not yet published -- e.g., manuscripts in preparation or still in review -- so as to give the student feedback on these. Asking questions to probe the student's knowledge is pointless at this stage.

There's also no point in commenting on already published work, unless there are major problems with it.. I was on a PhD committee that encountered this situation not so long ago. It was great that the student had published a few chapters of the thesis, but none of us committee members (other than the advisor) had been shown the chapters/papers until just before the defence. The committee was very critical of the published work, which had some glaring errors that any one of us (other than the advisor) could have pointed out if we'd seen the manuscripts earlier. I felt like my time was being wasted by being on that committee and that the advisor and, to some extent the student, were being disrespectful of the expertise of the rest of the committee.

So, although I am fine with the final exam not really being an exam, I also don't want the whole experience to be a waste of time for me as a committee member. Reading a thesis and going to the defence takes a lot of time.

At the final exam, the talks can't begin to encompass all that a PhD student has done in their graduate career, so the student has to make decisions about what to present and how to present it. For some students, it is painful to leave anything out, as if the audience might think they didn't do much in their research if everything is not described. The best talks are a synthesis of the first-order information, explained in context, and only a limited amount of detailed description of the more interesting aspects of the methods and results.

One of the strangest parts of the final exam process is the introduction by the advisor. These introductions typically involve praise of the student's talents and anecdotes about the student's graduate career. Some faculty are a bit extreme with the warm-and-fuzzy intro. I prefer the introductions that are more professional, though not to the point of being completely bland and impersonal.

My introductions are affected somewhat by whether the student's family is sitting in the audience. One time I scuttled plans to mention (affectionately) an incident in which a graduating MS student, who was a notoriously bad driver, had accidentally smashed into my car in a parking lot while he was trying to park. When I saw his parents in the audience, I fortunately remembered that they didn't think their son's frequent fender-benders (and their effect on auto insurance rates) were very funny.

When I was finishing my PhD, I most certainly did not want my relatives to attend my defence. They already think that my research is strange and useless. Attending my defence would have given them solid evidence for this. I prefer that they just have a vague suspicion that what I do can't possibly be useful (whatever that means).


Anonymous said...

Huh. Your response is the opposite of mine; I hope to have as many friends and family at the defense as possible. I'll probably make a cheat-sheet for them to follow along with, if they're interested. My reasoning is that I'll have worked so long and so hard on my research, I'll want as many people there to celebrate with me as possible!

Anonymous said...

UC Berkeley has dropped the oral thesis defense and replaced it with an exit seminar. The basic logic is that if faculty members are willing to meet with you, read, and sign a dissertation it's their own fault if they let you get up in front of a room with not enough research and background to pass an oral defense.

The great positives were that I was able to create a good talk (which almost directly became a postdoctoral job talk). Most students' personal pride makes them work hard on the talk, but since there is no pressure, the negative is that some people do not prepare sufficiently. Still, Ifelt that turning the talk into a celebration and summation of one's doctoral research was a much better system.

Female Science Professor said...

I like that idea. The final talk should just be for information and celebratory purposes, without the stupid exam aspects.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. When I defended I told my friends and family don't bother coming to the talk and I'll meet them later that night for some alcoholic celebration. Plus I would feel bad leaving them alone wandering aimlessly in a large medical center while I meet with my committee members.

Dr. Lisa said...

During my Ph.D. defense, one of my committee members had difficulty with part of the data analysis. Another member, who clearly hadn't read anything other than the introduction chapter, jumped on this idea as well. I pointed out that the chapter in question had been published in the premier peer-reviewed journal in our field. I didn't point out, because I didn't think I could do so politely, that I had given the committee that paper well over a year previous to the defense and before submitting to the journal and that the aforementioned members were the only ones who did not give me feedback. I'm glad I had friends around to calm me down while I paced in the hallway. ;)

Anonymous said...

Similar deal over here. But there can be strange highlights.... There was a member of my committee who was strongly critical of my work and pointedly questioned what I was doing and whether my method had ever been able to find an error in other's work. I looked briefly at my advisor (who knew, and nodded) and my cheering section (the fellow grad students) in the back, took a deep breath and said "Sure. In *your* paper .......".

My cheering section broke out in silent, pantomimic clapping.

I still passed :)

The biggest disappointment in the private exam thing was the dodding old mathematics professor. I must have read 1000 pages on his field of expertise, could answer anything pretty much in my sleep. He was just so happy to be out for a day of excitement, he didn't ask a single question.

In a way the oral exams are a rite of passage, not a real scientific examination. You walk over coals, and when you get to the other side, you *really* have a doctorate. You can take anything that is thrown your way and deal with it.

I don't think that anyone other than my adviser actually read my thesis - their questions were too general and not specific to my research. Seven years of work and maybe 5 people have ever read it. Oh well.

The school I went to had some weird rituals for after the exam. One involved the fellow doctoral students decorating a wagon with bits of your apparatus, symbolic items, alcoholic beverages, all sorts of stuff. The adviser was required to pull the wagon from the central, formal rooms where the exams were held to the department, where the champagne was then served.

Unfortunately, the department had just moved to new facilities about 10 km outside of the central campus, so my defense was in a strange room with fixed rows of chairs, me at one end squinting into the sunlight and the examiners at the other end. We had champagne right next door, so my fellow grads just made me an extremely silly hat to wear. I think my adviser was very relieved not to have to pull me 10 km....

Anonymous said...

At my university, the system is as follows. The candidate submits a first draft of the thesis to the jury, then about a month later there is a "pre-defense", which is a closed meeting between the candidate, supervisor and jury. This is the real exam ; for a couple of hours, the work is dissected from cover to cover. In most cases the jury give the go-ahead to defend but they generally request some modifications to the text. The candidate then has about a month to correct the text, get the final version printed to uni specifications and prepare a defense.

On the day of the defense, the candidate gives a 40 minute presentation, then there is a 40 minute session of questions. But it's more of a discussion than an exam, really. It's all public and mostly for show, since the jury has already examined the candidate's work and found it worthy of defending. There is a short period when the jury retires to another room to deliberate - or as I suspect, to discuss some further implications of the work that they just thought of and are excited about (hopefully). Then they come back and declare the candidate's doctorate, which is followed by a couple of speeches, then some celebratory drinks.

All in all a pretty nice, fair and balanced system I think. I'm very much looking forward to mine; I'll have the text finished in a few days (if I stop procrastinating), then pre-defense in August, and if all goes well, defense in September. I've already invited my friends and family, and some collaborators will be coming from abroad to attend, which is very gratifying. I hope to give them a good show. Woo, can't wait.

Oh yeah, my family and friends all think my work is strange and useless too - a few of them almost balked out of coming when I told them they'd have to sit through an hour and a half of nonsense, actually. But they said they'd humor me as long as there isn't a quiz at the end :-)

Anonymous said...

2 experiences from my defense.

1) I made the mistake of putting either nice people, or busy people in other fields on my comittee. I didn't get much feedback, other than from my advisor. OTOH, the defense was a breeze - one comittee member asked a question about a fundamental divide in my field, that her significant other and I were on opposite sides of. I gave a nice, diplomatic answer. She looked dissappointed. I checked my comittee, saw I was passing no matter what I said, and proceeded to stick my foot in my mouth. She had fun pouncing.

2) My dad is on the faculty of the institution I got my PhD at. He hadn't thought it appropriate to attend my defense; I was talking to the department chair the morning of my defense, and he explained that he was glad he went to his son's defense, and encouraged me to encourage my dad to come. "It doesn't feel real unless you go," he explained. So I called my dad, forwarded the message, and had a family member there. My advisor had fun introducing him.

Anonymous said...

At my university we have a mixed bag of students. Some go on to prestigeous fellowships, some go to corporate positions not directly related to their field.

We always try and grill the students about background they should but don't know. The ones that are going on to UCLA or Princeton will be surrounded by people very different from their current peers and sometimes need to have this pointed out. It also puts a little fear into the other students to make them work harder and be more prepared.

I know this makes me sound like some kind of bastard but we have seen improved attitudes and work rates since moving to this style of system. Of course, it also helps that we take the candidate out for beer afterwards ...

Doctor Pion said...

Heh. My adviser brought a bottle of champagne in a brown paper bag to my defense. That gave me a bit of extra confidence.

Anonymous said...

I'm studying overseas at a major UK research university. We have only 2 examiners and one must be from a professor outside the university (from another UK university or from another country).

After debriefing many students after their defense I've learned that the experience varies depending on the examiners. However, the defense often lasts more than 4 hours and although there is a lot of discussion of the actual original research, there is a strong 'exam' component.

I've seen people (who passed!) come out of the room practically or actually in tears. One recent survivor had many quality publications, including a book, and came out of a 5-hour defense seriously thinking they might have failed. They passed, but it was a nightmare experience.

I'm about to go through this myself...

A said...

very very useful post.

Anonymous said...

As an ex-professor currently at a DOE National Laboratory, I agree that thesis defense should not be about pass/fail; that decision should come much earlier in the student's career. However, a thesis defense should not be a laid back, relaxed, celebratory affair without tension and drama! I've always thought that the worst thesis defense was one that provided no opportunity for career-long stories about what happened at "my thesis defense". The scientist with no tales of off-the-wall rhetorical questions, embarrassing lapses of obscure, but critical historical findings or persons in the student's research field, etc. is impoverished and crippled in their ability to contribute to social intercourse at Study Sections and similar competitive assemblies. I think the best thing the thesis committee can do is harass the defendant until their ears bleed so they have stories to tell. To do less is to dishonor the occasion, the student, and tradition!

Anonymous said...

Our university had a pretty good system of annual review committee meetings from the 2nd year qualifying exam to the end. That way, there were no surprises. But I remember getting grilled in my 2nd committee meeting where some of my data representation (or lack thereof) really irritated one of the committee members and everyone jumped on his bandwagon. I thought it a very unprofessional way of giving constructive criticism and this was a real learning tool for me in how to effectively critique.

I had 5 children by the time I was in my fifth year of grad school (biochemistry & biophysics) and wanted my older children to see their mom at her thesis defense presentation-maybe leave a lasting impression on their young minds! Midway through the presentation, the 7-yr old had a fit of giggles, then started a fight with her 9-yr old brother, then had to go to the bathroom..luckily my husband was seated next to them in the back row! Everyone loved the idea of their coming, especially as the 7-yr old was born just as I was finishing my BS at the same institution and she attended my graduation as an infant! My final slide (I put up after the scientific discussion) was of the 5 children in our garden, which I entitled: Genetics experiment #1.

Anonymous said...

I think the real problem is the fact that US universities, at least, are fast turning into PhD producing machines. Where quantity excels, quality is bound to suffer.

Anonymous said...

The most strange aspect I had seen in these situations is, The committee acts as though they have seen the speaker for the first time. They ask questions, which they should have posted well ahead of time, as being a part of the committee, you are morally responsible at the productivity of the researcher. What were you doing all these years (other then just yawning in the committee meetings)and the only time you get to point out is at the exit seminar.
Probably this needs to be considered for change, rather then the policy change for the so called tenure track positions.
peace out.

Anonymous said...

I had the typical public seminar followed by the private committee grilling. Afterwards, I became a bit concerned when I heard raised voices coming from my committee's private deliberations as I paced outside. Turns out that one of my committee members had a student who had just defended a few days earlier. My advisor was on her committee and had refused to sign off until she had re-written some of the thesis (which apparently other committee members agreed with - it really did need some editing work). Now, this student's advisor was raising a ruckus on my committee - wanting me to re-write part of my thesis. Well, the raised voices belonged to the other committee members telling him he didn't know what he was talking about - most of my thesis had already been published in peer-reviewed journals. In the end, they agreed that everyone would sign except my advisor and that he would ensure that I made some appropriate changes before adding his final signature. Moments after my advisor related all this to me just after the session ended, he signed off on the thesis as he popped the champagne cork. Needless to say, no edits were made.

Anonymous said...

Where I got my doctorate, the student was expected to give a seminar at some point between passing prelims and the defense; typically the seminar was given when student and supervisor agreed that this thesis project was likely to work, which could be months or years before the thesis was actually written. The defense itself was open only to faculty; they would sometimes ask tough questions, but all involved knew failure was extremely rare. In most cases the decision would be unanimous, though University rules allowed a candidate to pass with a single dissenting vote. I never heard of a candidate failing to pass the defense -- that would have been seen as a major failure not only by the candidate but also by the supervisor for letting his or her student proceed to a defense with such a substandard thesis. In the one case in my time when a candidate passed with a single negative vote, this had a long term effect on personal relationships among the faculty members involved.

Anonymous said...

Clearly there is some misunderstanding or at least crosstalk about what a dissertation defense is and what the role of the committee is. There is also the confounding issue of the “in my day” syndrome.

Now days it is the role of the core committee to assure that each student gets the proper education (background courses) and the thesis research is on track. A committee can also help in those instances where there is conflict between the major professor and student, which we all know is a rare event. Do all these things happen to help the student – probably not. Did they happen in my days – dream on.

Clearly a graduate student should be thoroughly tested before it is time to submit ones dissertation and I would dare say more students should be weeded out at this early stage. Yes there are too many PhDs that really do not meet true PhD standards and as you can see by the other comments that it would be a rare event to do this weeding-out at the dissertation defense. Sure I am going to tear a student apart with the family there if I want to commit political suicide. No it has to happen much earlier. In addition, if the dissertation cannot be properly defended then it might say something is wrong with the major professor – perhaps in those cases the advisor should have to submit to some grilling and a little rebuke.

If your dissertation defense is a seminar followed by question then I would say it is not a real defense. However it is an excellent time for the student to stand up and say to the world “look what I did and I did a darn good job.” It can also be a time to showcase your ability to think on your feet

What my major professor told me and I have told all of my students is that when you defend you should be the expert in the world on this subject, because you did the research, and there should not be a person in the world or at least that room who knows the subject better than you do. If you cannot live up to that simple standard then perhaps being a good professor or researcher is not your calling.

Anonymous said...


I just defended my PhD thesis today and yes I passed. However, I was not pleased with the behaviour of two of my committee members. Neither one has said anything at my last 5 committee meetings about my work other than "good job on publishing these papers." Today, both of them ganged up on me and asked questions regarding the sizes and distances between brain structures. They wouldn't let it go until the everyone else jumped in and said this line of questioning was a waste of time. I was so upset, it was as if they waited until my defense to make me sound stupid in front of the rest of my defense panel.

Koldito said...

Things are sort of different in the Netherlands, where I got my PhD. After you complete the more-or-less final draft of your thesis, you send copies to the committee members and they are expected to return comments in about six weeks. Then you revise the manuscript accordingly. It is pretty much like submitting a paper to a journal, except that a rejection means that you don't get your PhD (ouch!). You are not allowed to apply for a formal defence date until after every committee member has approved the manuscript. Since there is literally no chance you are going to fail the defence ceremony, that becomes mostly a show for friends and family. The only thing that might be decided at that stage is whether you deserve a cum laude, if your thesis is good enough.
Oh, and when I mean that the defence is a show, I really mean it. Sometimes the candidate shows up in a penguin suit. Every candidate has to choose two helpers that sit next to him/her during the defence, just to give moral support. Actually, the function of the helpers (apart from organising the after-defence party) is also to answer questions if the candidate can't do so (say, he faints or something). I told this to one of my helpers 10 minutes before my defence (she is an actress with no knowledge whatsoever about my field other than the fact that it exists). *She* nearly fainted at that point :D

Wanna Be Mother said...

The part that I really don't understand is when they kick the audience out for a private grilling of the PhD student. What sort of secret questions are they asking? Why can't everyone hear them? Do they typically do/say/ask something so terrible that no student watching would ever want to defend, thus they must kick them out so the whole silly system can continue to self-perpetuate? Do they plan on making the student beg for mercy, but are at least kind enough to not expect them to do that in front of the whole department?

I wonder how the academic systems such as this would be if it had evolved under female rather than male members and leaders?

Anonymous said...

So I defended today and I have to say I SHOULD get the NIGHTMARE.
I have to do a bulleted story because I am totally drained.

-My defense was scheduled at 10:00am
-My chair showed up at 10:20 without the committee
- He pulled me out (yes my entire cheering squad was there, parents who had flown in et. al)
-The committee wanted me to go see them at the department prior to the already late defense
-I got yelled at BEFORE I even returned to the conference room
- They grilled me for 1 hour and you could cut the tension with a knife
- They didn't sign my documents, until I made the revisions.
- I will update the blog upon completion and hopefully graduation.
Aluta Continua!

Anonymous said...

I am a McGill University student and I am scheduled to defend my thesis in a few weeks.

My problem revolves around my supervisor's incompetence and sluggishness in commenting on my work. I have been completing all my course requirements and my manuscripts a LONG time ago. But he has not commented on any. He was unwilling to read my thesis until the department informed him that it was his duty. He has been holding back my papers, complaining why I was not confabulating (and I have been resisting because I KNOW the data doesn't support those speculations.) Instead he is yanking out things from my articles, simply because they are "too complex".
When finally a paper of mine made it to peer review, it was smashed for a few imperfections in the analysis; point that were never picked by my supervisor.
Furthermore, the reviewers were merciless on those supervisor-wished "speculations!"

I have been lucky to be independent and well informed in my research; but I do not have experience or clout. I have given talks in important conferences; have won presentation awards, and have pleaded with my supervisor to discuss the comments I get at my public presentations. To no avail!

In stead, he has been giving bad feedback to potential post-doc supervisors, indicating that "she is smart, but has an attitude!" Well of course one DEVELOPS an attitude when faced with such a$$hole! I have managed to secure a job though, only by omitting his name from my reference list!

One of the problems at McGill is that professors are allowed to take on as many students as they want, as much teaching as they want and as much administrative job as they want. My supervisor, judging from lack of his publications in the past 4 years, is not a brilliant scientist. he has been lucky to latch on to some heavy weighters in the department--whom he has also alienated! But, he compensates by taking on "directorial" positions (which no serious scintist wants to be bothered by) and taking too many courses to teach, so to make his tenure dossier thick!

I don't know who is supposed to regulate this!

But I am utterly upset that my life is being wasted in the "powerful" hands of a supervisor! I am also frustrated that academic types are so controversy-shy that they end up being complicit in each other's 'crimes' ... I feel my supervisor is abusing his powers!

What is worse, is that when I protest, he (a behavioral psychologist) blames everything on my personality and starts telling me tales of how his supervisors in Germany treated him; hence asking me to "suck it up"!

What do you think the recourse of a student should be?

Anonymous said...

My PhD defense is coming up soon. I already have a faculty position lined up in a top-tier university. I thought I would be happy at this stage, but one of my committee members (a prestigious senior faculty member) suddenly decided to disagree with a lot of my work and this person is making my life and my advisor’s life pretty stressful, but calling my advisor up with bullish type comments about how he/she thinks I am not ready to defend and that I don’t fully understand the problem I have addressed in my dissertation. The surprising thing is that through ALL my committee meetings and previous interactions with this person, he/she never mentioned such major issue (from his/her perspective). I know he/she has some political reasons to do this, but realistically speaking, should I be losing my sleep and having panic attacks, as I am? My other committee members don’t think the same way this person does. So I guess they are on my side. But given the fact that he/she is being a bully, I don’t know how much he/she can push for a fail in the defense date.

Female Science Professor said...

I had a committee member who indicated well in advance in various unpleasant and unprofessional ways that he thought I should fail my defense, so my adviser added an extra committee member who thought my research was good. Do you know the rules regarding the vote on the final exam? If you just need a majority of positive votes, you'll be OK. If one fail vote will sink you, maybe you can talk to various people -- adviser, grad adviser, chair -- about resolving the situation.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comment to me on 8/12. I was the one that wrote about the bully committee member. I just wanted to update you on the defense day. Well, I passed! In the end, all went well and I think he just wanted to stress everyone in the weeks before the defense. He was not scary or threatening at all in the defense exam. I guess I was so prepared for the worst that it just seemed like the best possible outcome. Again, thanks for responding to my post.

Anonymous said...

The system in Belgium is again different. The first exam is submitting your thesis to a committee of about five professors who are new to your work - experts in the field of course, but not in any way involved in helping you during your days as a grad student. They read the thesis, write up a lenghty report, and then read the report in front of all the faculty's professors. If they collectively think it's good enough, you've passed and are allowed to defend.

The defence itself consists of a 30 minute presentation and a 90 minute grilling by the committee members - not behind closed doors, but in front of all your family, friends, and collegues from various universities who are interested in your work or are just looking forward to see you mess up. The audience ranges from 30 up to about 300 people. Even though you know you've already passed when you're allowed to defend, it is still hugely stressful as it can really 'make or break' your public image. I've seen big guys break out in tears at the end of it.

Anonymous said...

I am having my defense next week and I am so0o0o scared :(

Anonymous said...

Wo0ohoo I passed my VIVA yesterday (I am the Anonymous who was scared last week)
The external examiner was very gentle...he did most of the talking explaining his points and even the corrections..I was only nodding most of the time!!
Maybe he could see that I was soo stressed and scared....I just realized that he would not come all the way from UK to my country to conduct the exam just to fail me...he would just refused to come from the beginning once he reads the thesis and finds it not worthed a PhD...this is a tip I give all those who will be defending soon that if the defence is scheduled, then you are most likely not going to fail, otherwise, it would not have been scheduled at all!!!
Happy defending to all :-)

Antillar said...

My defense is tomorrow. Ran for an hour today to work off some nerves. Committee is supportive but advisor is a douch who always throws me under the bus.

Anonymous said...

Where to begin.
I need advise. I am in a school of public health and ABD i.e. I passed all classes, written and oral exam. My committee and mentor made a contingency that I have to re-write my research q's to their satisfaction. The bullying definitely happened at my oral defense!

So 7 months of going back and forth with my mentor (who would delay getting back to me sometimes a month at a time), I presented the research questions to the committee. About 2 months ago, in a phone call, my mentor tried to discourage me from conning on to get the Ph.D. He said he "made an error in passing me on the oral exam." So I retorted with, you did pass me, so I am in candidacy, you cannot withdraw that now. He agreed. He admitted to talking to the committee about the progress when my next meeting with them was supposed to be for the re-presentation of the RQ's. I told him that he biased the committee. He said it was not the case.

At the revised RQ meeting yesterday, one of the committee members happened to say the exact thing that the mentor said to me on the phone. It was almost verbatim. She basically said, at this point, if you were to try to defend in August, I would be hard-pressed to pass you. She then left the conference call. My mentor then went on to say, "see, she feels very much like I did." To which I responded...yes because you two talked so much previously.

Though I had planned to write the long dissertation format that does not require publishing, I think my trump card would be to get published before I defend the dissertation.

The school has been a nightmare from the beginning and very low ranked compared to the Ivy league where I received my masters and the CAL university where I received my bachelors. There was a grand exit of faculty the year after I started the Ph.D to an IVY league which left my university with a skeleton staff and enormous disruption.

Do I have the right to get a new committee and mentor at this stage? I feel that no matter what I do they will vote against me. I am in this now for 7 years and $60,000, so I don't wan to give up though I will most likely never say the University name to anyone if I do get the Ph.D.

All opinions are welcome.