Herring out of Brine: Indefensible

The PhD defense or viva voce examination is the Humanities’ ultimate rite of passage. In part, a court of your own, soon-to-be peers; in part, a speech act conferring and in some less lucky cases denying the status of a Philosophiae Doctor. Despite its arcane name, the variety of graduation formats and procedures is surprisingly broad, and it tells arguably more about the granting institution and its surrounding culture than the discipline, department or quality of research being evaluated.


My own thesis defense, about a decade ago, was a pretty casual affair, in the presence of my committee, friends and family. It took place at the designated end of my five-year program, required a handful of emails to set up and entailed a lively, one-hour discussion with the committee and the signing of a form or two. A newly minted PhD, I marched with a hardcopy of my thesis to the university archives, which constituted my final material donation to that institution.


If that strikes you as informal, in other universities the event, if you can call it that, amount to receiving a signed form, once your supervisor and the committee are satisfied. The certificate comes in the mail, much like an organ donor’s card. No public oral defense, no tie; but feel free to take yourself out for a drink. And no, this has nothing to do with an institution’s resources. I graduated from Princeton, and the second type of procedure I mentioned is common here at Stanford, arguably an even more obscenely wealthy university.


Another fun fact: rejections are rare. Much like FemaleScienceProfessor, I have not heard of anyone failing their PhD defense in the US. This has less to do with the inherent quality of local PhD students or programs (which vary), and arguably more with supervisors’ professionalism on the one hand and the job market on the other. The tension between the two does exist, at least in theory. Some of my peers delayed their graduation until they had a job lined up, for very legitimate reasons. I would like to think that the contrary case, that is, of students being allowed to defend a sub-par dissertation so they can take up a job offer, is very rare.


Spiraling debt is (still) mostly alien to our PhD students. Where their challenges do become unique is red tape. Despite attempts to simplify and streamline the process, the procedure as a whole remains baffling. Certainly, some of its discrete elements are important, but somehow in the flattened landscape of bureaucracy a clear center and periphery are absent. For instance, our students must defend their theses either in the university’s Aula or the Agnietenkapel, creating a huge and unnecessary pressure on these historic buildings and greatly limiting candidates’ schedules for no defensible reason.


Not that these schedules would otherwise be simple. A typical student, and her supervisors and dissertation committee, run through an administrative gauntlet so complex and ever changing, currently enshrined in no less than twenty-three steps and overseen in part by a dedicated office in the faculty and a central university office. Certainly, everyone is doing their best to ensure that (mostly) public money is properly spent. But in the end, the process’s core purpose of quality control gets sacrificed at the altar of compliance with regulations that may be tangential to it.


Ultimately, awarding a PhD degree is an act of recognition on behalf of your direct academic interlocutors. Given the atomization of knowledge, fewer and fewer people could give that stamp of approval, especially if they are mostly expected to belong to your own department or institution. It is simply futile for a university to try and regulate each and every aspect of a superficially inflated procedure. With the exception of independently checking a text for plagiarism, directly relevant feedback is almost entirely within the scope of a department or institute, discipline or field. After all, it is their reputation and future that is on the line.