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The Ph.D. Defense

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In continental Europe, in contrast, matters tend to proceed in a very different manner. In Scandinavia, the examination is conducted in a large room, with as many as fifty people present, with a senior university official such as a dean presiding, everybody decidedly dressed up, the examiners in full academic regalia, the chair, examiners, and candidate processing in and out of the room in a fixed order, and some use of ceremonial Latin.


The posting below gives a nice comparison across countries of the Ph.D. oral defense. It is certainly not the same everywhere. The posting is from Chapter 5: The Ph.D. Defense, in, Research Genres: Explorations and Applications, by John M. Swales of The University of Michigan. Cambridge University Press. Published by the Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge

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? Cambridge University Press 2004. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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The Ph.D. defense, oral examination, or "viva" is a very interesting genre and only partly because it presents another opportunity to consider the repurposing of genres, as discussed in Chapter 3. Are dissertation defenses, on the one hand, just "meaningless rituals," mere epideictic celebrations, simple instances of "just going through the motions"? Or are they, on the other, tough and true oral examinations of the submitted work, consisting of carefully prepared but unpredictable interrogations of the texts under review and thoughtful and intelligent responses by the candidates? Or are they sometimes both, or at least sometimes more and sometimes less one or the other? Unfortunately, our primary knowledge of the discoursal properties of this genre is limited to a massively investigated instance of a single sociology defense recorded in a complex manner at Indiana University in 1975 (Grimshaw, 1989; Grimshaw et al., 1994). In addition to this, I have studied the four d!

issertation defenses that have been recorded as part of the MICASE project.

Defenses Outside the United States

Before we look at the discoursal characteristics of the U.S. defense itself, it is particularly important to put this event type into a broader geographical context. Elsewhere, oral examinations of the Ph.D. can take very different forms and have different names, such as "viva," "viva voce," and "disputas" (Norway). In Britain, and in countries influenced by British academic traditions, the assessment of the Ph.D. thesis, as it is normally called, is carried out in a closed room and conducted by an external examiner from another institution, and an internal examiner, who is not the candidate's supervisor/advisor. There also my be a senior academic from the home university present who acts as chair and is there to make sure that no unseemly wrangles or hostilities break out. The candidate's own supervisor can ask to be present but is not usually allowed to say anything; often the supervisor busies herself or himself taking notes, including those designed to assist the can!

didate in making any revisions, emendations, or additions that the examiners may require. In this system, the external examiner has a great deal of power, including that of "referring" it for resubmission, or insisting that, whatever revisions might be attempted, it only qualifies for a lesser degree, such as an M.Phil. Under these circumstances, a key issue for supervisor and candidate is choosing the right external examiner. In my experience, these vivas last about two hours and have much of the "quasi-informal" (see later) character of U.S. defenses, as perhaps might be expected given the small number of people present and the lack of an audience.

In continental Europe, in contrast, matters tend to proceed in a very different manner. In Scandinavia, the examination is conducted in a large room, with as many as fifty people present, with a senior university official such as a dean presiding, everybody decidedly dressed up, the examiners in full academic regalia, the chair, examiners, and candidate processing in and out of the room in a fixed order, and some use of ceremonial Latin. The seating arrangements may resemble that of a court, and the external examiners is often called "the opponent." On a recent instance in Finland, I not only had to provide a detailed report before the thesis was approved for defense, but also had to prepare a ten-minute oral critique of the work being examined as a means of getting the examination fully under way. As might be expected, the discourse was pretty formal, with questions taking such form as "Would the honored candidate now like to address the question of??" No first names w!

ere used. In France, according to Maingueneau (2002), a key genre is the Report of the Thesis Defence Meeting (RTDM), which is the official document produced by the examining jury and which, as an official archived text, is of considerable significance for the candidate's future career.

According to Burling (1997), the Norwegian "disputas" will typically be even more elaborate, with the candidate ("doctorand") being required to present two formal public lectures on the day before the accrual disputas, one being a topic of the candidate's own choosing and one assigned by the examination committee. The defense itself takes most of the day, with the first "opponent" asking more general and theoretical questions in the morning - after having given a twenty- to thirty-minute summary of the dissertation for the benefit of the attending "publikum" - and a second "opponent" asking more specific questions in the afternoon. Burling also notes that the preferred form of address is again in the third person ("Is there anything that the doctorand would like to add?"), at least partly because the opponent is addressing two audiences: the candidate and the attending fifty or so members of the "publikum" consisting of faculty, colleagues, friends, and relatives. After t!

he disputas, there is a formal banquet known as the "doctor's dinner" at which "the candidate is simultaneously host and guest of honor" (p. 13).

On another occasion, when I was an examiner in Holland, the defense genre had much of the same character, except that each of the several examiners was permitted to ask only one question (!), and the university's "pedale," or beadle, appeared after forty-five minutes, banged a large ornamental staff on the floor, and announced "Ora est" ("Time's up"). Aside from the highly ceremonial nature of these oral examinations, another distinguishing feature is that the thesis in much of continental Europe will already have been published, usually by the local university press. Although the candidate may think otherwise, the oral examination has the character of a ceremonial public academic debate designed to showcase elegant formal language and intellectual dexterity on the part of the protagonists.

U.S. Defense

Two hours are usually set aside for the U.S. dissertation defense, and the time and place of the defense is typically published, although it is by no means always the case that outsides (other interested faculty, fellow doctoral students, friends, and family of the candidate) are present. This is quite a heavily instantiated genre, with tens of thousands of exemplars in any one calendar year. (As far as I am aware, almost all doctorate-granting U.S. universities require a defense before a doctorate is awarded, one of the few exceptions being the University of California-Berkeley, where only the original proposal requires a formal oral examination.) Typically, the principal defense participants include a candidate, the candidate's chair or advisor, additional faculty members from the candidate's department, and one or more faculty members from outside departments. As Grimshaw notes:

Typically, the defense participants have views about appropriate evaluative criteria for both the written product (and the research it incorporates) and the candidate's performance in the defense proper as part of their stock of cultural resources; typically, the institutions themselves have normative charters of varying degrees of specificity and enforceability. These dissertation defenses vary somewhat from institution to institution, discipline to discipline, department to department; they collectively differ from defenses of fifty years ago and from those in the societies from which the practice was originally borrowed. A satisfactory answer to the question of how defenses vary over time and place is also an answer to the question of how social structure is generated, sustained, reproduced and changed. (Grimshaw, 1994: 444-5)

Although much of what we know about dissertation defenses from a discoursal perspective comes from the nearly twelve hundred combined pages of Grimshaw (1989) and Grimshaw et al. (1994), there are additionally anecdotal stories from various participants that add color to our impressions of the genre. Of course, this rite de passage can also make an appearance in the subgenre of the (English department) campus novel. The earliest instance known to me that includes an oral examination is by George Stewart and indeed has the highly relevant title of Doctor's Oral. At the close of the novel, the Grand Old Man of the English Department, who had eventually come to the rescue of the young candidate, reflects on his experience earlier that day:

How many examinations had he sat through? Sometimes he felt a monotony. Each was different, and each was the same. He could plot the normal curve. First the highly excited period; then the "rising action" when the candidate had collected himself and was still fresh; the growing weariness marked by slowed reactions and almost careless answers; then the dead half-hour when it seemed that you had to flog up the candidate to answer every question; finally, the little rally which might come before the end when realized that he was just about through - the last heart-breaking, pathetic sprint of the long distance-runner as he sighted the tape ahead. (pp. 239-40)

Stewart also nicely characterized different questioning styles by the faculty members. Here is a brief extract:

To be through with Brice's sharp staccato was a relief. Now Martiness was having his turn. He asked questions like a man snapping a black-snake whip - at first the slow moving grace of the loops as the question shaped, then the lash leaping forward and the crack as the last words released the question's real point. (p. 195)