Amir Chaudhry

thoughts, comments & general ramblings

PhD Vivas: The Dutch do it better

I was at a good friend’s PhD viva a couple of weeks ago and I was impressed with the ‘pomp and circumstance’ surrounding it. Basically, the Dutch do PhD vivas/ceremonies way better than the Brits, especially given how much blood, sweat and tears are involved in getting to that stage.

There were lots of photos that day but I’ve managed to capture most of the story in the selection of pictures above. There are lots of differences between what I saw and the UK system.

For example, it’s obvious that the event is a public affair although seating is strictly limited so it’s usually just friends and relatives of the graduand (he’s the tall guy in the middle of the first pic). There is a committee of examiners who can question the candidate, which includes his supervisor and the period of questioning lasts no more than 45 minutes. That’s it. At the end of the 45th minute, the master of ceremonies (can’t remember his official title) will stop whoever’s speaking and usher the committee out to deliberate. By contrast, in the UK, the event would be a private meeting with only two examiners (supervisor not present), lasting anywhere between 1.5 to 3 hours.

Having said all that, the comparison isn’t really fair. In the Dutch system, the viva is much more of a ceremony than an examination. The Thesis will already have been read and approved long before the public defence takes place. That’s including any corrections that have been requested. Therefore, barring allegations of plagiarism, the outcome of the viva is already known to everyone which lends a much more ceremonial air to the proceedings. That doesn’t make the questions any less tricky though. Once the committee returns from it’s recess, there are some proclamations and the degree itself is awarded (it’s in the blue tube). After that, there’s a drinks reception and few family/friends head off for dinner. Overall, a very civilised affair with the attention squarely on the graduate throughout.

Frankly, I thought the Dutch method of graduating was way better than the UK equivalent (the expense notwithstanding). After spending several years working on research followed by the effort of writing it up, I’ve always felt the UK ceremony was a bit of a let down. Over here, families sit in a large room full of strangers, and watch a procession of other strangers spend 30-45 seconds in front of a robed figure before picking up a sheet of paper on their way out of the back door. There’s a brief flurry of excitement as you see your (insert_relation_here) have their few seconds of attention followed by the realisation that you still have to sit through the remainder of the class before you can leave. Not much of a celebration of the achievement in my opinion (not that I should disparage it too much since I have yet to finish myself!)

Given the fundamental differences in how PhDs are examined between the UK and the Netherlands, I’m not sure what we could do to introduce more of an ‘individual ceremony’, though it would certainly be nice to try. If I ever get there, I’m making sure I mark the occasion properly … which reminds me, back to work. :)

Comment on original post: Apr 30, 2011 - Gill James said... You can have your Ph D superviser in the room at UK universities. I opted not to, but in retrospect wish I had had him there. Just back form the Netherlands and watcehd a Ph D defense. Fascinating!