I’ve just examined another PhD. It wasn’t the usual experience. It wasn’t the UK style report followed by a viva. Nor was it a lengthy report Australian style. Rather, it was the full-on European defence. I was one of two so called ‘opponents’ whose job was to conduct a public conversation with the candidate about their research and the dissertation.
And when I say public I mean that there was an audience. In this case the public was made up of family, friends, doctoral students and staff members from the faculty in which the doctoral study had been undertaken.
Of course, the oral defence wasn’t all there was to it. There’d been a written report to start with in response to the thesis – and then the candidate had had a chance to revise the manuscript in the light of what the two examiners said.
The candidate began proceedings with a twenty minute presentation of the research – its origins, the question, the methods and findings and the contribution to knowledge. Then came the questions. There I was, with another external examiner, dressed in academic gowns, interrogating the candidate just as I would have in a viva. And while after the questioning we did depart to consider our verdict, there really wasn’t any uncertainty. We all knew that the candidate had passed before we had begun the formal proceedings.
So what was the purpose of the interrogation by the opponents/examiners if it wasn’t to pass or fail the dissertation?
This problem vexed me and my colleague opponent. We eventually came to the conclusion that the defence served purposes other than passing and failing. We identified three important things that were happening:
1. The defence was a ceremony which served as a rite of passage into the academy. The conversation with the opponents symbolised the way in which any contribution to knowledge is in reality a conversation with other scholars who receive it appreciatively, but also critically. As opponents we acted on behalf of the wider academy, and materially but also symbolically, welcomed the candidate into our ranks.
2. The defence continued the learning process for the candidate. All research is always partial and incomplete; there is always more that can be done, even if it is considered a ‘pass’ or ready for publication. The conversation in the defence indicated areas where more work was needed, possible and desirable. This is also true in the viva, but there the things still to be done can remain a privatised affair. Here by contrast everyone knew there was still more to do.
3. The defence provided a dedicated time where family and friends could share with the candidate the pleasure of their success. This was not simply by seeing them receive a degree, but also seeing them perform as an expert in front of their peers.
The occasion caused the two opponents, both of us currently in the UK system, to reflect on how unceremonious and lacking in importance some doctoral graduations seem to have become… Each of us had certainly sat through a number of graduations where the achievement of completion seemed somewhat trivialised by the rapid file of relatively large numbers of new doctors across the graduation stage. While their families were in attendance, and no doubt celebrated, there was no opportuntity for them – or indeed anyone else – to hear what any of the research had been about, and to see the doctors as experts in their own fields. We agreed that it sometimes even seems as if the PhD award is just another degree in some kind of degree factory.
The unceremonial graduation ceremony seems to miss the reality of how hard the doctorate actually is. It is unlike any previous study. It requires a particular kind of physical, intellectual and emotional stamina. It also involves more than simply learning a new set of skills or doing an extended piece of work. It is, as my colleague Barbara Kamler and I insist, both text work and identity work. Doing a doctorate is about becoming a particular kind of person who does particular kinds of work.
There is something to be learnt, I think, from this European tradition, from dedicating more time to celebrating the contribution and sheer hard work that goes into a doctorate, to making public the knowledge that has been generated, to acknowledging the significant role that families and friends play in supporting the doctoral endeavour. Celebrating doctoral completion via the public defence is a marking of the formation of the scholar, and is an important milestone in consolidating that emergent identity.
A little more ritual and a bit less dourness in doctoral graduations wouldn’t go amiss, I reckon, in Blighty and beyond.
Thanks to the Faculty of Education, the University of Iceland, for helping me to learn a new way of examining.
Hooray! After working for four long years for my doctorate in the history of medicine at the Australian National University, I trotted across the stage, got knighted, received my testimony and it was all over in 30 seconds. The title of my PhD wasn’t even recorded in the official graduation program. What a letdown.
Thanks for this! I am about to go serve as an opponent for a European defense and I am very enthusiastic about it. This helps a great deal with my preparations!
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