Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


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PhD Secrets: The Snake Fight Portion of your Thesis Defence

A friend elsewhere pointed to this. It contains deep truths about PhD vivas.

Q: This whole snake thing is just a metaphor, right? 
A: I assure you, the snakes are very real.

 

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An Academic Rite of Passage

Today I get to be the internal examiner for a PhD. This is an unusual rite of passage that all those aspiring to a doctorate have to undergo. The procedures are different in different countries, and even different universities in the same country. In the UK, the student and two examiners – one internal, one external – are sealed in a room for an indeterminate period, and the student is asked questions on not only their thesis but anything else the examiners deem appropriate. This can certainly be stressful, but in the best cases it becomes a scientific discussion between equals.

In other countries the vivas may be public, in which case woe betide the examiner who asks a difficult question in front of the student’s parents, and may include specific things outside the nominal remit of the thesis. I particularly like the Dutch system whereby the student must make, and be able to defend, a certain number of propositions several of which have to be outside their field. An good example of this from a Dutch astronomy thesis I read (they’re published as books and circulated to people who might be interested in them) was the proposition that ‘glaciologists who drive up the mountain to do their fieldwork are biasing their own research’.

So that’s how I’m spending my afternoon.