Dutch PhD defence a public event
The formal awarding of a PhD in the Netherlands is an interesting procedure. The final defence takes place not only in front of an examining committee, but is also a public ceremony. The WAU's international students have different opinions on the value of this tradition
You find yourself at the podium, in front of an audience full of friends and interested people. Your thesis has already been published, and your family has come a long way to witness your PhD defence. The metallic jangling of the keys hanging from the staff of the pedel announces the final return of your examining committee. Everyone sits, except the Chairman who dons his floppy beret to pronounce the committee's official vote: Today, we do not confer upon you the degree of doctor... You miss the rest as you fall in a dead faint on the floor
Fortunately, in Wageningen this scenario can only happen in your pre-PhD ceremony nightmares. Every year, between 160 and 180 PhD or AIO (the Dutch-equivalent) defences occur, with about two or three international students per month graduating. Having arrived at this stage, WAU candidates can be sure they will end the day as doctor. Here, the public defence is a formality which comes at the end of a long process of academic wrangling and after the publication of the research thesis. The ceremony can be used, however, to confer the status of Cum Laude (distinction), and the examiners' detailed questioning also confirms that a thesis has in fact been written by the PhD candidate
The public defence is an important ceremony in Holland, marked by formal words and dress, giving it the feel of a court of justice. PhD candidates must be careful to address their examining committee respectfully as most highly esteemed opponents or promotors, and to remember to thank them for their questions. The committee, mostly composed of academics, arrive in the official robes of their alma mater. The two paranimfs accompanying the candidate on the podium are personal supporters who help with equipment, or may be asked to quote from the thesis. But it is the staff-wielding pedel who most commands respect and authority in the hall. The role of the pedel stems from the Middle Ages, at a time when the staff was used to protect academics from the masses. The WAU's staff is topped by Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, and its three keys carry the coats of arms of Wageningen, Gelderland and the Netherlands
Although the formal public defence is considered to be the moment of crowning glory in a long and arduous process, some people see it differently. Zainab Semgalawe, a recent PhD from Tanzania: I found myself dreading the event at the moment when I should be feeling happy. The members of the examining committee were too direct in their attacks. I already knew that Dutch people are direct in their criticism, but I found it too harsh, especially because it was in public. Semgalawe would have preferred the system used in the US or UK, where you defend your PhD in a discussion with your examining committee behind closed doors. But according to Wageningen's British professor Linden Vincent, final defences in her country can be much more gruelling than here. Candidates can find out that they have failed to obtain their PhD even after they have completed the final version of their thesis. In the UK, candidates might have to rewrite certain sections and submit them to be examined anew. Semgalawe's husband who came to Wageningen to watch the defence found the WAU public ceremony good: I think that at the end of a PhD, you should be able to publicly defend and promote your ideas.
Other PhD final defence survivors agree. Valerie Curtis, from the UK: I like the formality of the ceremony - we in the West need more ceremonial rituals like this one. Cristine Muggler from Brazil had to laugh about one aspect she found typically Dutch. Everything is strictly timed. You get exactly 14 minutes within which to explain to the audience what your PhD is about. The subsequent grilling by the committee cannot last one minute longer than 45 minutes, at which time the jangling staff announces the arrival of the official time-keeper. The pedel ascends onto the stage, strikes the staff a few times on the floor to command attention, and calls out: De tijd is verstreken. Time is up