Public vs private PhD defence


Image credit: Not that I think being Dr will make me gleeful, but I appreciate the sentiment!

I was very fortunate to be in Trondheim whilst there was a PhD ‘disputas’, or what we would call a viva. On Friday Karina Barquet successfully defended her thesis on “Transboundary Conservation and Conflict”. In the UK the examination takes place behind closed doors, for anything from an hour to several hours, as long as it takes, and the result is quite variable : from a straight and immediate pass, a number of months to make ammendments, an award of an MPhil instead or complete rejection! …

In Scandinavia things work a little differently, namely, a lot more publically. There are small differences between nations it seems, but on Friday I got to see Norway’s version: It was pretty much an all day, completely public affair. The one common aspect was there was an internal chair, and an external examiner. In addition, there was also a second external examiner and the head of department opened and closed proceedings, not to mention around 20 spectators, mostly geographers. The restrictions on who can examine that affect the process in the UK also seem to have been lifted and this I think is a distinct advantage: the first examiner in this case was Dr Chris Sandbrook (Cambridge University/ UNEP) and the second was Hanne Fjelde (Uppsala University, Sweden) – so an international and multi-disciplinary panel which seemed entirely appropriate to the candidates PhD. Such a panel would be an anomoly in the UK and need a strong argument to support it.
The day started with a trial lecture. This entailed the candidate having an hour to respond to two questions the examining committee had submitted and that she had prepared for. There was a break for lunch then the ‘actual defence’. This, I imagine was a bit like a normal viva, only made more formal by everyone watching the back and forth as the examiner quizzed Karina on all aspects of her work (everything from why there, positionality, methodology, theoretical stances and omissions). This was about 2 hours and even as an audience it felt harrowing! There was time for a quick comfort break before the second examiner took to the lecturn to further question the defendee. This was a lot shorter, but by the end it was 4pm – a very intense day!A plus side to this system is that by the time it gets to the public defense, it is basically a certainty that the written thesis is accepted and some comments have been given to the candidate already. This means you can plan a little bit for afterwards and order in the food and wine ready for refreshments after the ordeal.  This and the public nature of the defense makes the whole thing a more convivial process as we all shared the experience, from the safety of being an audience at least and it felt only right to celebrate with her for having gotten through it.  Congratulations Karina!I’m not sure I would want to go through all of that publically, but I really like the de-mystification and honesty of the approach. I am also enormously grateful to get a real insight into the kind of questions that get asked in a viva generally. I have to say there’s quite a bit to recommend doing a PhD in Nordic countries: more time, more money and less mystery. I’ll be heading back to Wales soon though and there’s no place like home…

9 thoughts on “Public vs private PhD defence

  1. Hmm. I kind of think after all the work that talking it over in some formal context is a good idea. To validate and to at least know someone else thinks it’s interesting!

    1. I agree that we should have Viva’s, examiners can always be persuaded, its quite informal really and that’s what I like about the UK version. There are arguments however that the Viva process is a problem, some brilliant PhD’s have been given short shrift particularly in the Sciences

  2. Far too intense and the whole ‘opponent’ position is far too confrontational. I hear in Australia there are no Viva

  3. Interesting to see this perspective from the audience! Speaking as the ‘opponent’ in this case I agree that the Norwegian system has many advantages when compared to the UK one. I really like the transparency in particular. One correction – the time for the first part of the defence was one hour not two! I guess the conversation was either extremely interesting or extremely boring for you to lose all track of time…

    1. Thanks for commenting Chris and my apologies! Yes interesting rather than boring certainly!The transparency is definitely something I think the Norwegian system has going for it.

  4. Sounds rather good, if intimidating to me. Wonder if the examiners pull their punches in a public forum though?

    1. Very intimidating, a bit like some sort of right of passage thing. I don’t think punches were pulled though, though I think as it was public it didn’t get to the level of on page 48… though aparently that does happen too.

  5. Blimey! I have read one other blog post about the Scandinavian public method, and it’s pretty scary! I can’t imagine surviving the day, must be so tough.

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