PhD Defense Comparison

On Thursday this week, I attended my first Dutch PhD defense. I was very different from a US PhD defense. For those unfamiliar with a PhD defense. It is one of the last steps before someone actually receives their PhD.

The US PhD defense consists of a 35-45 minute technical presentation of a students aims, including an introduction, goals, methods, results and discussion. The presentation is very specific, technical and usually a person not familiar with the research topic may not fully understand everything. The better presentations are clear enough that any person within the department could understand. After, the presentation, anyone in the audience can ask questions. This can go on for 5-?? minutes. Then the general public is asked to leave. The committee, usually 5 people then begins asking very specific/hard questions to the student. This can go on from 20-120 minutes. It really depends on the committee and the student. The better the presentation and the student, usually the shorter the time that the committee asks questions. Then the committee asks the student to leave. They then discuss whether the student has passed and what they need to do to pass/finish their PhD. The student is called back in and told the results.

It should be noted that students will send this dissertation to the committee at least two weeks in advance. The final version of the dissertation (usually 150-200 pages) is not completed until after the defense presentation. Your publications are expanded to more pages, you write a lot of things. Then it is printed, bound in a book, etc. The actual printed book is a black hard cover book.

The Dutch version is a lot more interesting. Before you can defend your committee members (3) and others (5-7) all need to agree that you are ready. You dissertation is approved and printed in a very cool little book. The dissertation is now printed, usually consisting directly of your publications as chapters. Again, very nice and easy to do.

The day of the Dutch defense, men dress up in tuxedos with the coattails. Women can wear normal dress up/professional clothing. You then can choose two people be your moral support. In tuxedo with coattails as well if they are men. All three people stand outside the room as people entire the presentation room. Then you committee and the others (mentioned above) in full regalia (graduation gear) walk in. It is very ceremonial and things run exactly on time. The chair opens the session. The student then presents general about their research topic for 15 minutes. The presentation is not very technical so that grandma, etc can understand. Of course, it is in Dutch.

Now, the committee and the others start to ask questions. The thesis advisor or promoter is not allowed to ask questions. The questions are very technical and specific. Grandma no longer understands what is going on. The questions continue until 1 hour of time from the start of the presentation occurs. Then the committee/others leave and discuss the student. They come back and announce whether the student has passed or not.

I think that the Dutch way is very interesting. The US should adopt the practice of having PhD students only defend if they are going to pass. THere is no reason to have a student present if they are likely to fail. I also like limiting the time for questions. I am not a fan of the general presentation. I think that the presentation should be very technical.

Overall, I enjoy the difference between the US and the Netherlands. i cannot wait for my defense in April. Maybe I can have some morale support? Anyone interested?


2 thoughts on “PhD Defense Comparison

  1. Every PhD student should meet meeting with their committee regularly, giving them updates and receiving feedback. If this is happening, then everyone is on board, and there is no question about if the student will pass when they do their final defense. Everyone in my lab did this so had their final “update” meeting about a month prior to their final defense to iron out any last details and to make sure that everyone agreed that the students was ready.

    If the committee is meeting with the student regularly, then several things happen, but the main one is that the thesis is ALWAYS better. If you don’t meet with brilliant people and hear their ideas until you think you are done, then you are depending on yourself (and possibly your adviser) to catch every error, think of alternate paths or explanations, and you are not getting other viewpoints. This is the type of scenario that might lead to a student not passing their defense since they didn’t get enough good feedback.

    I think that the reason this doesn’t always happen is this perception that the committee is something that the student must overcome. The committee is there to provide feedback and make the thesis better – they are an incredibly valuable resource that is just terribly under-utilized. So, interesting to learn how the Dutch do it, but I think that many of those elements are happening here in the US as well, it is just highly variable based on the department, the PI, and the students.

    • Jaimie, great points you make. I did meetings with the committee members before my proposal so it went well. I agree, the US is different depending on a lot of factors. My lesson going forward is to have good contact with my committee before my defense.

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