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The Offense and Defense of a PhD Defense

7 December, 2007; 21:00 Leave a comment Go to comments

Two Bears

Originally uploaded by csmellish

On Friday, my colleague Markus defended his dissertation. It doesn’t work the same here as in the U.S. The biggest difference is that the student doesn’t present the dissertation; the opponent does….

Yes, there is actually an opponent. An expert in the field from another university—usually an accomplished professor, and often from another country—is invited to read and critique the dissertation, then at the defense, it is this opponent who presents the dissertation, followed by a presentation of the critique. The doctoral candidate’s job is to defend against sometimes scathing criticism from both the opponent and from the review committee (which does not include any of the student’s advisors). At the end, the review committee meets and makes a decision about awarding the degree. Another key difference from the U.S. is that there is no chance to change the dissertation at this point; it has already been through extensive review, finalized, and sent to the printers for distribution before the defense. So after the defense, the student can really be done.

Unfortunately I missed Markus’s defense—it was at the same time as my students were giving their final presentations—but I was told that he had tough questions indeed, but that he also defended himself very soundly. It was apparently an impressive performance. But I did make it time for the post-defense afternoon party in the break room, complete with cake and champaign toasts by Markus’s advisors. Departments here make a serious effort to recognize and to celebrate these accomplishments.

In the evening, Markus had his private celebration. This was no small event. It was held at Bosön, the training site for many of the Swedish olympic teams, in the old manor house on the site. There were over 50 guests all in casual dress, and we were treated to a complete dinner (the food was overflowing, I would even say).

The dinner was punctuated by toasts. Markus’s father opened it up at the beginning of dinner, and toward the end of dinner Markus’s three advisors gave toasts, and finally after dessert, Markus’s mother spoke, relating a story about the younger Markus who, when the family once visited the US, met an American Indian named Two Bears. (In Swedish, “bear” is “björn”, which is also a male given name, so Markus got the impression that this man had two minds, since he was apparently named Björn twice.) What was particularly impressive was that all five of the speakers were quite eloquent and funny, showing themselves to be graceful orators while also exhibiting typically Swedish modesty.

After dinner was coffee in a large sitting room, with sofas, tables, and a fireplace. The evening ended rather early, around 11:30 p.m., but by the end of it I was impressed by how highly the accomplishment of a Ph.D. was regarded. My experience was so different…such a feeling that I had been at it so long, that I was just so anxious to move on to the next thing and forget about the Ph.D. itself…but furthermore, since when we in the U.S. defend, we aren’t really done with the work yet (still having possibly extensive edits, depending on comments from the defense), it would seem too early to celebrate then. The real day of celebration is the day you get your committee’s signatures.

In any case, it was a true honor to celebrate with Markus. In case you’re interested, his work involves methods of achieving sustainable transport through employer-based measures for changing travel habits.

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