Exams never end

(Title of famous play by Italian playwright Eduardo De Filippo.
To my knowledge, it was not inspired by his own PhD defence)

Dear fellow Committee Members,

as the appointed Chair of the Examining Committee for the upcoming doctoral exam of Mary J. Great, who will be defending her dissertation next week, I thought I would share with you ahead of time my views on what a doctoral exam should be, and my expectations on how I wish to see it administered. I understand that some of my views may seem unorthodox, but the notion that some things should be done in a certain way just because “they have always been done that way”, has never sounded very convincing to me.

Exam ? Gimme a break…
I know, it is called “final exam”, or “doctoral exam”, but it really is a misnomer. You see, according to the dictionary, an “exam” is … a formal test of a person’s knowledge or proficiency in a particular subject or skill…. Consequently, one of the possible outcomes of a bona fide exam is “fail”.
The thing is, I do not believe that there exists any objective need to assess Mary’s “knowledge or proficiency” in her subject of choice, much less can I imagine a situation in which she, or any other doctoral candidate, would “fail” the doctoral exam (at least not without invoking bizarre scenarios, which would inescapably point to negligence on the part of the major professor and supervisory committee, or to a dysfunctional graduate program. Thankfully, I am quite confident that that is not our case).

Just like the totality of our doctoral candidates (or of doctoral candidates at any serious institutions), Mary has spent in excess of five years in the program. She took all of the required graduate courses, earning excellent grades, and passed the qualifying exam before the end of her second year in the program. What is more important, over the past three and a half years Mary has done research work under the supervision of Joe Glotz, a respected member of our faculty, who has consistently expressed his satisfaction with Mary’s research ability. Equally positive an assessment has been made by her supervisory committee, which has met with her regularly since she started doing her doctoral research work. Mary has delivered a number of departmental seminars, both to Joe Glotz’s group as well as to the whole department, on one occasion. She has attended and spoken at a few international conferences, where her presentations have been well received.

Last but not least, Mary has co-authored five articles, published in distinguished, peer-reviewed journals, three of which as first author, the latest one on the highest impact journal in her area. I am no expert of her subject, but it seems to me that all of that points to a promising young scientist, ready to take on her next professional challenge. It is my understanding that she has entertained a number of offers, both in and outside academia, and has eventually decided to take on a postdoctoral position at a very prestigious university.

Of course, none of that comes as a surprise. If Mary did not “have what it takes”, if she had serious difficulties mastering her subject matter, or carrying out her research work, it would have become apparent early on — surely it would not have taken five years for someone (if not Mary herself) to notice her weaknesses.
If there were obvious gaps of knowledge in her background, which could seriously impair her scholarly performance later on, if there were concrete reasons to harbour doubts on her talent, maturity or preparedness, her major professor and supervisory committee would have taken action early on, recommended that she take additional coursework or spend some more time in the program — they surely would not have recommended that her doctoral exam be scheduled [0].

The members of Mary’s supervisory committee have been closely following her work over the past few years, and her thesis has been in their hands for a month, as required by University regulations. Thus, the likelihood of “surprises”, of any one of them finding something objectionable, that in their view might potentially undermine the conclusions of the work or in any case compromise its validity, is exceedingly slim.
Still, if that were the case, if any of them felt that some parts of the thesis had to be carefully re-examined, they should have notified Mary before agreeing to go ahead with the exam. The doctoral exam is not the venue to bring up supposed “major problems” with the thesis work, especially if much of that work has already received the vetting of anonymous referees of specialized journals. By the time the candidate is given green light for the final exam, any recommended change to the dissertation should be “stylistic” [1].

OK, so, what is this (non-)exam for ?
The way I see it, the exam is largely a formality, but one that can serve a number of useful purposes. As you may have noticed, I have explicitly requested that notices of Mary’s exam be posted well in advance, and that it be scheduled in our large seminar room, at a time when most of the department will be able to attend. A graduate exam (especially a doctoral defence) should not be held on Friday afternoon at 5 pm, in the smallest room that can be found on campus. It should be a departmental event, for which attendance should be expected of everyone.

The purpose of that is twofold. On the one hand, giving the candidate an opportunity to showcase her doctoral work to the rest of the department, including faculty in other areas of research and junior graduate students, constitutes a symbolic gesture of acknowledgment, appreciation and even gratitude for the candidate’s accomplishments, for which the department as a whole is rightfully proud. Graduates who then go on to be successful in whichever path they may follow, represent a mark of distinction for a department, a graduate program, an institution [2].

Perhaps more importantly, seeing a senior graduate student deliver a seminar summarizing her years of research work, illustrating her original contributions, giving a sense of the most important milestones, all of that can have a galvanizing effect on her junior colleagues, who will ideally be inspired and excited about their own journey into graduate school.
To make a graduate thesis defence a private affair between the student and her own committee, is passing on an opportunity to build a sense of community, to foster enthusiasm and comradeship among graduate students, and, what is much worse, conveys a sense that the department does not really care about its own graduate students and program.

Please refrain from…
I know that part of the ritual is to have a first part that is public, with the candidate delivering her presentation and fielding questions from the audience, and then a second part that is “closed-door”, restricted to the examining committee. You know, the part that lasts like, oh, I don’t know, six hours… during which members are expected to ask all sort of crazy questions (to which they themselves can at best fake to know the answer), making the student feel like an idiot and reminding her that, degree or not, her senior colleagues will always know more than her. Believe it or not, I do feel that something like that may have a place at a qualifying exam — but it seems really meaningless on a final exam.

Personally, I think that the final exam should be really treated like a seminar, just like one of those delivered by external scholars visiting the department.
It will not be the first seminar given by the candidate, who must have already been taught how to give seminars and has already spoken before much more intimidating audiences. So, let us not patronize her, and let us let her speak for fifty minutes like every speaker whom we invite here — not twenty minutes. Let us all show some respect, and refrain from acting as if this is a big bother.
Oh, and that scary “closed door” part… how ’bout we make it ten minutes long, just enough to tell Mary about typos in her dissertation, sign it and shake her hand.

Of course, at seminars people ask questions, and so, my fellow committee members, please do feel free to seek clarifications from the candidate, if you are confused by some parts of her presentation, and by all means do ask pertinent and pointed questions.
And, just like on occasion one witnesses spirited disagreements between a member of the audience and a speaker, there may be a spirited disagreement between a member of the audience and the doctoral candidate… but come on — would we ask a visiting physicist presenting a seminar on their own research, maybe on a subject not directly related to electromagnetism, to recite those Maxwell’s equations for us ? You know… just to make sure that their general background is acceptable… Now, that would look kind of ridiculous, would it not ? Make no mistake, I am sure that a lot of speakers would be unable to spell out Maxwell’s equations (especially using international units — just kidding) but, what would be the point of that ? If one of our colleagues asked that kind of a question of a visitor, would we not feel embarrassed ? That is what is mean by pertinent questions.
The fact is, a candidate defending her doctoral dissertation should be treated like a visiting scholar. Whether they have really learned everything that they were supposed to learn or not, is largely immaterial. They will be out on their own anyway. Might as well make their last day as students, well, their day.


[0] Oh, come on, now, there are so many major professors who keep graduate students around for selfish reasons, knowing full well that these students “do not have what it takes” — they just squeeze them out of their last drop of hard work and then toss them… .
I have heard that contention myself, but in my twenty-plus years in academia I may have witnessed, oh, I don’t know, maybe two… three cases where something like that might have had some merit — by and large, however, it is an urban legend. Granted, it is an operation involving fallible humans, and therefore sometimes things do not go as planned and someone does “slip through the cracks”, but I do believe that those occurrences are not the norm.

[1] I am not suggesting that the job of committee members consists of saying that everything is great, signing off on the dissertation and shaking the candidate’s hand. My point is, if they have issues with the work, if they do not believe it to be of the required quality and level, if they feel that graduation is premature for whatever reason, they have plenty of opportunities to state it in advance, and should not wait until the day of the exam. Naturally, that assumes that there be the proper communication between the student, the advisor and the members of the committee.
At any rate, even if one of those unfortunate circumstances occur of a student slipping through the cracks, ending up displaying major deficiencies in her background on the day of the exam, I am not sure that I would know what the best course of action would be. Failing the student, after she has been told for five years that everything was great ? Telling her to repeat the exam in three months, as if she could be expected to learn in three months what she has not learned in five years ?
As I wrote above, such a situation is a major embarrassment for the supervisor, the members of the committee and the department as a whole.

[2] This is the most important reason for departments to keep in touch with their former graduates and follow them in their professional achievements. Whether or not they keep in touch with their own alumni is very high in my personal list of criteria to establish whether a given graduate program is worth applying to or not.

13 Responses to “Exams never end”

  1. James Says:

    Well, aren’t you just perfectly reasonable. I sure hope (but wouldn’t bet more than a nickel) that all of your colleagues are in agreement with you on this one.

  2. GMP Says:

    Hihi — perhaps we should ask all our faculty candidates (once we are able to hire again, which may be never) to write down Maxwell’s equations?

    Have you seen anyone fail the final defense? I haven’t, even some sorry-ass candidates. It’s mostly due to faculty not wanting to get in conflict with other faculty. There may be a bit of feather ruffling, but no one actually fails.

    The candidate you described seems totally awesome though.

    • Massimo Says:

      No, I have never seen anyone actually “fail”, but I have heard stories of people failing. I mean, I suppose that there is a limit to how far one can push anything, including how bad a defence can be.
      Still, I think that most committee members, confronted with a dismal performance on the part of the candidate, see shutting their noses and passing them as the least of all possible evils. To fail outright is extremely hard in America, I think. At that point, who wants to sit for “part deux” six months later, knowing that the person will do just as badly and will probably end up passing anyway…

  3. Transient Reporter Says:

    1) I’m not sure how this is even up for debate. A PhD student should be having meetings with his/her thesis committee on a regular basis throughout his/her graduate career. If s/he fails her thesis defense, it’s as much a reflection on her thesis committee as it is on her. Any faculty member who thinks otherwise is a fool, and should not serve on thesis committees.

    2) First question I got at my thesis defense: “Hey, did you catch the Giants game last night?”

    • Anonymous Says:

      A student having regular meetings with their committee? Sounds like a nice fantasy to me…

      • Transient Reporter Says:

        I said “regular,” not “frequent”…

      • Massimo Says:

        We require it once a year. Having said that, as a graduate student I did not have a single meeting with my committee between my oral qualifying exam and my doctoral defence.
        Back in those days, the advisor was the absolute Master — no other faculty would dare intervene, no matter how out of control the person would get… Now, that is something of the old days I do not miss…

      • Anonymous Says:

        And in some places, that is still the way it works…

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

    I know of someone who failed their thesis viva.

    This person had been at the same institute as me. They’d left the lab at the end of their allotted time, just before I arrived (so I never actually met them in person), went home to a different city to write up, and after a few months sent what was apparently a decent but not outstanding thesis to their supervisor, who deemed it good enough to defend. From what I heard, the examiners met in private first and agreed that they’d suggest a few edits before passing the student. However, the student then showed up and was unable to answer even the most basic questions about the work. After five or six painful hours, the examiners decided that there was no way the person in front of them was the person who’d written the thesis, called the supervisor in, and failed the student.

    Many people automatically assumed that the supervisor had written the thesis for the student. However, I do not believe that, having got to know the supervisor quite well by the time this happened and finding them to be a person of great professional and personal integrity. They were also too damn smart to write the thesis and then not spend any time prepping the student to pass the exam. The whole thing was talked about for years (and is probably still being discussed now), there’s a cloud still hanging over the supervisor in the minds of the people who don’t know them all that well, and it’s still a mystery (although I did hear that the student’s brother was also a PhD cell biologist, so maybe he wrote it…)

    • Massimo Says:

      Did they just fail the candidate ? No chance of taking the exam a second time ? In the US I think a lot of Deans and Provosts would be very nervous about something like that…

      • Cath@VWXYNot? Says:

        Yep – outright fail. I guess if the student had indeed got their brother or someone else to write the thesis for them, they could have got the same person to coach them for the second exam and then pass it despite not earning the degree. There was some talk of awarding a masters, but that was dismissed as being too insulting to people who’d actually earned a master’s in the usual way.

        Is the nervousness you mentioned to do with the potential threat of legal action by the student against the university? Because that could go both ways… if the student was found guilty of fraudulently presenting a thesis that they hadn’t written, they might have been made to pay back the money (from charitable donations by the public) that was used to support their 3 years of lab work…

      • Massimo Says:

        Yes, the university (at least on this side of the ocean) will settle a million times before going to court… especially over one damn degree which in all likelihood won’t make any difference anyway. They are terrified of the bad publicity.

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