News - December 1, 2009

Nine times a paranymph

Huaidong Du played paranymph to nine friends at their PhD defenses. Her colleagues call her a 'professional paranymph'. Her own PhD ceremony is on 11 December. What does a paranymph do, and how can you become one? Five answers from the expert.

Huaidong Du with nine invitations and her own in the middle
What is the role of a paranymph?
'In the old days, a PhD-defense could take hours at a time. The candidate was not allowed to leave or walk around. The paranymph was an assistant to get food or drinks. If the candidate was unable to continue, because of exhaustion or illness, the paranymph was also supposed to take over during the examination.
Nowadays, you don't need to have knowledge about the research itself; it just looks nice on the stage with two extra people. One of the paranymphs could read out the proposition, if asked.'
Were there any differences in the nine times?
'When the candidate has no time, or if he is based abroad, there is a lot of detailed work at the final stages: printing and binding the book, and delivering it to the deans. I also helped to organize the party or look for a restaurant. But sometimes there is not much work for the paranymph.'
How did you get chosen nine times?
It's not because I am good at it. It's more like a coincidence and I have a lot of Chinese friends who need my help. I have also assisted two Africans and a Dutch colleague.
My colleague once even teased me: 'Don't you do any research?' That's because I was often seen at parties.'
What have you learned from being a paranymph?
I used to be very afraid to speak in public. Now I have more stageexperience. I learned strategies for answering difficult questions that I sometimes don't even understand. This has helped me to prepare my own defense on 'dietary determinants of obesity'. My paranymphs are two Dutch ladies. One is my colleague, good friend and roommate. The other is my 'adopted mother' in my Dutch contact family. /Nicolette Meerstadt