Reflection on PhD Defences in Canada

PhD defences have become a bureaucratic formality to torment the candidate and entertain the professors.

The PhD Defence is the most important day of the entire program, not.

Having been through the process myself, as well as attending about a dozen of other PhD defences, I find that it is considered by the PhD students as one of the most important days in their lives, as if the success or failure of the past four, five, or most likely six years of work depends on how well they do on this special day. Little did they know – their fate had been decided about a week prior to the defence and there isn’t much that could go wrong during the defence, no matter how hard they tried.

Why doctoral defences are irrelevant

About 4-5 weeks before the PhD defence, your supervisory committee must sign a paper that states that they’re OK with proceeding to the defence. At which point, your thesis is distributed to the external examiner. About 1 week prior to the defence, the external examiner must submit a written report indicating whether or not the examiner is prepared to accept the thesis as satisfactory, typically subject to minor changes. Only upon receiving this, what I call “acceptance letter” from the external examiner that the defence data is publicized. So by this point, your supervisor, your readers, and your external examiner have all signed paper stating that they’re satisfied with the thesis. What’s left? Tormenting the student and entertaining the committee members. Once you make it to the defence, there are practically only two reason that may stop the committee from giving a final pass:

  1. They discover that your data, experimental results, or references are fabricated; or
  2. They discover that you have plagiarized a portion of your dissertation.

So unless you are guilty of one of the above 2 item, there is really nothing to worry about. I knew all this before my defence, and I was still as in intense the day before the defence as I ever was.

The Ceremonial Presentation

The PhD defence, thus, is a ceremonial events. It is a day to mark and celebrate the completion of a long journey, the end of a student life, the unofficial bestowal of the title “Dr.”, and a day of relief and joy for family and friends. From my personal experience as well as that of several people I personally know, the PhD student — now unofficially a Dr. — actually shares very little of this joy on this day. Overwhelmed by frustration, exhaustion, and confusion, their happiness is only a reflection of the happiness of their close ones. Which is why it is important for family and friends to recognize the significance of their support on this day, preferably by attending the defence. Without this support, without the caring audience, the show brings little joy to the performer.

Clarification: the goal of this article is to educate, entertain, and relieve some of the stress that future PhD defenders are going to face. It is not my intention to downplay the importance of the defence in the educational process, except in a humours and sarcastic way.

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