‘Tis the season for dissertation defenses.  Zuska shares the awful tale of hers, and ponders the bad behavior of some science professors:

Your advisor or PI, the person who should be your mentor, have your back, sing your praises, and be bursting with pride as they launch you into the larger world of Science, is sniggering in the back row like a frat boy in charge of Pledge Week. Yes, your PI has prepared a clever “roast” of you, the grad student, the person who has just spent the last many years working your ass off in PI’s lab to bring PI glory and honor and data and publications and grant renewals.

The PI will be sure that the roast is hilarious. It may mock your work ethic, your relationship with your significant other, the amount of time it took you to finish (hmm, and who does that reflect poorly on, PI?), your lab skills, your possession and/or use of a female reproductive system. Whatever, we can be sure it will be in poor taste, not terribly funny, and borderline in violation of several university rules about discrimination and harassment.

Why, you might wonder, if such goings-on are indeed in violation of university harassment/discrimination laws, don’t university lawyers say something to PIs about this behavior? Well, first, the university lawyers would need to know that such behavior was taking place. And who’s going to tell them?

Who, indeed?  Aren’t the grownups supposed to be in charge? 

The problem with research science is that it operates like little fiefdoms. Everybody in their own little kingdom, no oversight over the whole enterprise. Everybody making up their own rules about acceptable behavior and what kinds of douchebaggery will be tolerated in this lab versus that one, this defense versus that one. No one goes around observing what is taking place in each little steaming hellhole. The patriarchy of university labs is structurally much more like families, or church congregations, than like corporations. Abusive practices can be hidden in plain sight, despite clear stated norms against beating the children and having sex with them.

If professors are behaving like douchey frat boys running Pledge Week and humiliating their own students at the very moment that should be the most prideful for both the student and the PI, whose fault is it? Who is letting them get away with this behavior unsanctioned? Do we have to wait for university lawyers to discover that this $hit is going on, and send them a letter saying “we’d rather not be sued, please refrain”? If your colleagues are behaving this way, why are you not telling them that to act like this is complete a$$holery? That making fun of your student at the moment of their defense isn’t a bit of good sport, it’s vicious and mean and shabby? That you ought to be celebrating your student’s accomplishment and building them up?

I’ve heard of some bad dissertation defense stories in the humanities, but never anything like this.  (And fortunately for me, my department at Ben Franklin U. did away with the defense ritual long before it was an issue for me.  Since most students left Philadelphia to do their dissertation research, and many like Historiann never moved back, the faculty decided that it was an unnecessary hassle and expense so they nixed it.)  But if you read the comments on any of the SciBlogs, especially the feminist or women’s blogs like Thus Spake Zuska or Dr. Isis, you’ll see that this kind of behavior is rampant on the non peer-reviewed internets as well as in labs.

In the comments over at Zuska’s, I said that my university’s Graduate School requires that each grad committee include someone from outside the degree-granting department.  (Since most grad programs require that students take at least one course outside their own department, it’s usually the professor who taught that class.  I myself have sat on two English M.A. committees, and my students have usually worked with folks from English, Political Science, or Anthropology, for example.)  This is the Graduate School’s attempt at low-cost quality control–to make sure that departments aren’t credentialing people willy-nilly, because presumably the outside committee member would not vote to pass someone who didn’t appear to deserve a graduate degree.  I wonder if this also serves to insure better behavior on everyone’s part, too–because I for one would be shocked by any of the abusive behavior in a master’s exam or dissertation defense that Zuska reports.  I hadn’t ever thought about the outside committee member functioning not just as quality control, but as a guarantor of the students’ best interests, too.  Having a committee member from another department might fight the insularity of departmental culture that Zuska points to at the root of the ritual abuse she and other science Ph.D. students have endured.

But then, I’ve never, ever served on a committee in the STEM fields, nor am I likely ever to do so in the future.  I can only speak to how this rule plays out in the humanities.  How does your uni’s graduate school or your department handle committee composition and dissertation defenses?  What are the worst stories you’ve ever heard about abusive faculty at a dissertation defense?

0 thoughts on “Indefensible

  1. I went to graduate school at UC Berkeley where most aspects of those exams were what a friend called “humiliation rituals” and I am still amazed at how civilized they’ve been everywhere else I’ve worked — sometimes, though not always, to the point of passing work I wouldn’t. Often there are 2 outside members: one who’s close enough to field to actually offer input (i.e. the students is in American literature, the outside person is in American history of the same period and is culturally oriented) and another who’s far enough not to have any loyalties to any faculty but close enough to understand what the student’s project is (i.e. student in Latin American politics, in the Poli Sci department, outside member me). THAT outside member is there specifically to report abuse, or else to certify that it was civilized.

    HOWEVER it is true about science labs as fiefs, and I have heard MANY stories like Zuska’s. The adults are not in charge because there are no adults except for the students; the rest are toddlers with tommy guns.


  2. When I finished, the defense was optional, and I created a model (with the support of my committee) that was essentially a public presentation of my work, a few questions from my committee, and then others from other faculty in the department. Since it was a small department, and I was well known, I had questions from people in wildly different fields, which was actually fun. And the department provided wine and cheese (back before everyone was so nuts about wine at department events).


  3. We have always talked about the dual role, protecting the interests of the University and the student, of the committee “Grad Rep” in my department. Sadly, the University nixed the requirement this year. I don’t know why the change was made but my guess would be to reduce paperwork and thus personnel costs.

    The worst defenses I’ve seen have resulted from lack of advisorial oversight: dissertation not ready for prime time presented as final document and procedural irregularities. I have made a habit of giving MS students an outline of the questions I’m likely to ask. I don’t do this for doctoral defenses.

    In my observation, students are among the first to complain about procedural irregularities. They understand that protecting the integrity if the degree benefits them as well as the department. It also seems, however, that students concoct stories about factions and individuals attending defenses to “sabotage” students from other factions when the defence is anything less than a coronation. I guess that does happen some places but it doesn’t happen here and I wonder where the rationalization comes from.


  4. I had always heard that your committee only gives you a hard time if they like your work and think it might get published some day. Granted, by hard time I mean hard time ABOUT YOUR RESEARCH as opposed to the hazing described above.

    Every member of my committee absolutely despised each other (except the outside member from the Economics Department), but at least they were all civil while I was in the room.


  5. Historiann, breaking news: BFU has re-instituted the defense, or INstituted it, anyway, because it was long gone when I went through too. But the only one I’ve attended, as a member of the groom’s party, so to speak, about a year ago, was pretty celebratory and actually quite a lot of fun. I think this kind of practice does probably trend quite differently in the humanities disciplines than at the science bench. I don’t think a diss. would be brought forward to that stage if the director didn’t know it was ready.

    Over at my place, our MA defenses are pretty much as you report, and in practice, pretty cushion-y affairs.


  6. There are as many douchebags as dogs. Naturally, when your advisor is a DB, you will eat molto crap. Being a PI is a result of someone granting you money. Being a PI does not lower or elevate you DB measure.

    Douchebaggery has nothing to do with a formal defense or lack of it. And universities are not any better than any other part of society. Sometime I think that they worse.


  7. This is in no way meant to discount how terrible the experience of Zuska’s informants must have been, but my experience is that over the last 10-15 years, thesis defenses in the biomedical sciences have dramatically changed from genuine “defenses” of the thesis to more congratulatory pro forma events. The real due diligence of the thesis committee occurs in the years and months leading up to the defense, and no one is allowed to defend unless it is certain that they will pass.

    The “roasting” thing is a fucking disgrace. The only decent thing for a PI to do is talk about how wonderful it was to have the student in the lab, how sad she is to see her leave, how excited she is to hear about her tremendous future accomplishments, and then sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up.


  8. BFU re-instated the defense a while ago now, but seem to be generally collegial, celebratory events that serve as much for the community of faculty & students in a given field to mark the occasion as to certify the candidate’s qualifications. Mine was really fun (and useful in terms of later revisions to the diss), and I’ve found it kind of sad that my current department has defenses that are open in theory but generally attended only by the committee and a few close friends/partners in practice. Even if it’s relatively pro forma in terms of passing the dissertation, as Indyanna and Comrade PhysioProf suggest, I like the idea of bringing together faculty and students to discuss the completed dissertation (it’s a seriously big deal to write one, after all) and where it might go from there. It brings community back into what can be an isolated/ing experience of research and writing, and hopefully fosters it for the future.


  9. I can see how a defense could be enjoyable, as Susan, Indyanna, and Ellie suggest, and even a kind of capstone of the intellectual experience of writing a dissertation.

    For me, it would have been a pain in the butt and an additional expense. (Maybe that’s why I ended up chucking my diss. and writing a different book? But I have no doubt that that was the right decision!) As I recall at BFU in History in the early 1990s, students had enough problems getting their committee together for their qualifying exams, let alone for a dissertation defense.


  10. Even if it’s relatively pro forma in terms of passing the dissertation, as Indyanna and Comrade PhysioProf suggest, I like the idea of bringing together faculty and students to discuss the completed dissertation (it’s a seriously big deal to write one, after all) and where it might go from there.

    Just to clarify the tradition in the biosciences: The candidate presents a public seminar describing her thesis work that is generally very well attended by faculty, fellow students, and other trainees/scientists (such as post-docs, staff scientists, etc), and frequently even the family of the candidate. After that seminar, then the candidate meets privately with the committee for the official “defense”.


  11. I was the first student to get their PhD in the BFU history department after they reinstituted the defense–and boy was it a pain in the butt. My case was a little special, in that the Grad Chair who brought back the requirement had no clear idea of what s/he wanted–just that it should be something where everyone got together and talked about the work. But there it was up in the air about whether or not it would be open to the public, just committee members, etc. The fact that I received an August degree only made things worse. Who was going to get together to talk about the thing in the middle of the summer? The ultimate difficulty: the department was moving buildings that summer, so there was no public space available.

    Ultimately it was just a meeting with me and my three committee members. That was useful enough. Since I had already decided that I was going to be junking a lot of my dissertation as I turned it into a book, I wasn’t all that interested in “defending” what I had written. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t have gotten anything out of a larger, public discussion and that I would have seen it as a complete waste of time, all things considered.


  12. The defense I went to a year ago did in fact have “even the family of the candidate” on hand. It led straight into a brief wine tasting, and then adjournment up the street to a famous French restaurant that BFU tried unsuccessfully to tear down a generation ago to build the, um, structure where John S. probably defended (?). Thereat, the fifth chapter of the diss. was subjected to renewed and even more intensified analysis and contestation. Well, all except for that last clause… I don’t think the parents of the new Doc would have wanted to have paid for such a thing!


  13. I had to defend my dissertation *proposal* in an open defense – and my advisor’s enemy showed up. Fun times. I got out in one piece, barely.


  14. Hello Stranger,
    The defense is a waste of time and possibly a waste of money, as you point out. Having been through one myself on an August afternoon more than a decade ago, I can report the following: We had to reschedule because one of the committee members got in late on a flight from another country, and the outside person on the committee did not sign off on a defense without that member (even though he had said via phone that he would sign off anyway). Once we all got together, they were kind of cranky, and I was not able to smart off out of fear they woulnd’t pass me. I had a job waiting, and without a PhD in hand I would not get the “assistant professor” tag and, worse, my new department would pay a lower salary. This was all a nuisance because dissertations in the Humanities should stand (or not) based on the written work submitted.

    Horror story: I know someone who flew cross country for a defense, but before it could take place the committee announced they wanted more revisions. Tough crowd.


  15. Rad Readr: I hired someone who said he would defend soon (i.e. before moving down) and did. Then he moved here, and then a committee member decided to change hir vote and ask for more revisions after all. And the dissertation director agreed to that. And due to what rules on that here are it messed us up severely for a year, especially the candidate. This was definitely the wimpiest dissertation director I have ever experienced. I think that feeling of no support had long lasting effects on the candidate’s general confidence in the world, although ze is very discreet.


  16. I’ve spent a lot of time in the trenches of defenses. My dad’s engineering department NEVER did anything so crazy as the rituals mentioned above nor did my own graduate institution where my defense as a historian was all that was proper (my committee included a member of the Italian Studies department as the outside rep. and she actually gave me some very useful material for the final revisions as I had written about Englishmen who were studying at Padua).

    My experience with defenses at Regional Comprehensive has all been positive whether I’m a supervisor or committee member. We have a position that adds to the above — there’s a defense chair who represents graduate studies so I’ve chaired defenses in Biology and Geology as well as in disciplines close to my own. The position of defense chair, who has to come from another program and cannot have any close relationship with student or supervisor, is meant to ensure that the defense follows proper procedure. As chair I have had to intervene on occasion, telling people that questions were inappropriate. Because the system is so well-entrenched and the chairs are organized through the dean of graduate studies, I doubt there’s much chance at our university to put shenanigans into the defense.

    That said, a lot of rituals that accrete around academe are invidious. I shudder, every year, to watch the march of the freshman engineers, going through their ritualized hazing that involves all sorts of stupidity. They call it “orientation” but when you have people painted purple and parading through the U doing “the elephant walk” as the public face of orientation, that’s not acceptable. I would love to see that outlawed!


  17. Janice, your uni’s Defense Chair system sounds productive and helpful to everyone. It also would seem to force advisors to present students who really are ready for their exams/defenses. As others have commented above, it’s professional malpractice to permit a student to go into a defense if ze’s really not ready.

    The worst case scenarios are the ones Rad and Z report–potentially withholding a degree from someone who’s secured a job and is ready to rock’n’roll. But even for those who don’t have a job waiting for them, I can’t imagine the devastation of a hostile and/or unsuccessful defense.

    (And, to CPP: No, not everyone in this thread went to BFU, but a number of my regular commenters are people who did! What can I say: it was a top American history program.)

    I had no idea that you (John S.) had a defense–since I finished just a few years before you, I guess that’s another bullet I dodged. I have to say, knowing your committee members, that your defense sounds like about what I would have predicted.


  18. In the UK, the PhD in the humanities/ social sciences works slightly differently from the US in that you have usually two, sometimes one, advisor, who guides you through the process and eventually agree that your work is of a standard to submit (you can insist on submitting without permission, but it is at your peril). It is then sent to two examiners- one an external examiner from another institution who is a leading expert in your field (selected by your advisors, sometimes in collaboration with you, ideally they pick people who are nice- sometimes they don’t! You also want a bigwig as they will be your referee for jobs etc) and the other is an internal examiner, who is another member of your department, who may not have direct expertise in your area, but is usually in a related subject area.

    The examiners are sent copies of the phd and have so much time to read it. They then meet before the viva and decide the outcome- pass with no corrections; pass with minor corrections; pass with major corrections and fail. The external examiner is really the power here- in that they have the final say. Then you have a viva, which consists of your two examiners and a chair, who is usually Head of Dept (unless s/he is your advisor) and whose role is to keep things on track and to take notes. You can invite your advisors to sit in on the defence, but they aren’t allowed to say anything unless invited by the chair. Unless the examiners are really on the fence about passing you, they often- but not always- tell you that you have passed at the beginning of the viva. You spend the next couple of hours dicussing any corrections, potential areas for future research and publication- discussion at this point can affect what corrections you are asked to make (so if you defend something really well, you might not be asked to change it- although you may well be asked to justify it at greater length in the thesis).

    You are then sent out while they decide on what corrections they will formally ask you to make (if any). You then go back in and are told the exact outcome (minor corrections/ major etc) and given a deadline for any changes and who you have to submit them to. If it’s minor, usually they just go to the internal; major changes go back to the external. The chair writes up the formal corrections and you get a typed report a few days later to keep you right.

    I think the process of being examined by someone who is usually a stranger means that it is harder to make criticisms about you as a person- and restricts comments to the research. Plus a good advisor should try not to pick an asshole- but then we don’t all have good advisors and sometimes the expert in the field is not known to your advisor. However, I heartily recommend writing your PhD from a feminist perspective with liberal use of the word patriarchy- because at least then your examiner should share your political outlook- which I imagine mitigates against any misogynist comments!


  19. It seems like there are at least two issues here: the utility of the defense as an institution (the intellectual rewards relative to its in/convenience) and how to protect candidates from potential abuse/sabotage/bad behavior by committee members. In this regard, it sounds like many aspects of graduate education that are discussed here and elsewhere: it can be enjoyable and rewarding, given a helpful and respectful advisor/committee, or it can be horrible, given an unhelpful, disrespectful or cruel committee; it can be no problem under “normative” conditions (in this case, i.e.,candidate is local and defense happens during term time), or it can be a huge pain or worse, in a non-normative situation (candidate is based elsewhere and has to undertake expensive travel, defense in summer, etc.).


  20. Well, my committee had exactly the right take on the defense given the circumstances. They would have found what Rad and Z report to be unconscionable. In my case, I had a job and the moving van was on its way to get my stuff. (I left town 36 hours after dropping the diss off at Grad Studies.) They were unwilling to jeopardize my salary (I would have still been employed, but gotten lower pay) to jerk me around at the last minute. So yes–the right way to go.


  21. Don’t forget the measuring lady, John S. It would have taken a truckfull of tough movers to keep her from her appointed rounds. My scariest moment in academia came when she whipped out her ruler and said “you’ve been working for years. Just relax, and let me take over now.” That’s when you know you’re a sinner and put yourself in the graces of Clio! I heard she took a buyout package, went emeritus, and is working part time in character-assurance at Twitter these days!


  22. I’m getting a Ph.D. in English in what I would consider to be a very collegial department, but there’s always “that guy.” “That guy”–I shit you not–FELL ASLEEP during my second year Oral Exam. And what’s worse, I think there was a deliberateness to it, an expression of his utter disinterest in my answers to the questions the other professors in the room were asking. It was his way of saying, “Well, the important part of this exam is over, so I might as well put my head on my hands and get me some shuteye.” We all had the option of going to the exam chair in the weeks after for more detailed feedback, but I never did.

    Just to be clear though, I actually love my graduate program. I love my dissertation, and I love my teaching job. I never expected grad school to be anything other than really, really hard, and while I’ve been blindsided in a few cases, I can honestly say it’s been a character-building experience (cue Mr. Rogers theme song).


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