Thursday, 17 February 2011


I have blogged several times about the differences in academic practices in different countries, for instance this, and this, and this. Today I had my first experience of a UK doctoral defence, aka viva. All I had heard about this arrangement felt discouraging. Here is this poor soul, having worked hard for four years, and all it ends up with is two hours locked up in a room with two people talking a lot of rubbish! No, I certainly prefer any of the Nordic models. But here I am. Received the thesis in the beginning of January. Had to write an independent report by last week. Independent, that is, of the other examiner. We happened to communicate on Facebook about something else, but avoided carefully You Know What. But how are you supposed to set up your oral examination of you aren't allowed to agree on the set up? We met at quarter past noon today and had just about two minutes to exchange a quick "So what do you think?" before we were taken out for a fancy lunch, carefully avoiding any mention of You Know What. As if it were just any fancy lunch. The supervisor was perhaps more tense than anyone. Imagine: sitting with your two dear colleagues and not being able to ask: "Are you going to pass my student?" Need I say that the student was not invited?

Then we had twenty minutes to share our independent reports - which I am sure was against the rules - discovering to our relief that we were in full agreement and had prepared very similar questions. This made the whole thing easy, but what if we were radically opposite?

(As a side note: I had decided to be ecological and not print out my questions, instead using my laptop. It went mad, and the file woudn't open so I had to print it out five minutes before the defence. So much for ecology).

We were in a rather unfriendly room with a huge round table, so my colleague and I decided we should sit in an equal triangle to avoid power tensions. The student was brought into the room like a prisoner for a trial. The two hours went very quickly. My colleague and I navigated between our unrehearsed questions. I was quite proud of us. (Now, that's power exercise: forgetting the student perspective). We sent the student to get the secretary. We signed tons of papers. Meanwhile, I guess, the student was complaining to her supervisors. We were not sure what to say when they all marched in. We decided to say: "Congratulations, Dr..." This was the right decision - you should have seen the student's smile! Then we talked for a while about matters of no consequence. We shook hands and separated.

The other examiner and the supervisor and I went to my place where I had asked Staffan to put a bottle of sparkling in the fridge. I hope the student had friends to celebrate with.

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