"Communists?""Pirates?""Communist Pirates?"Nicolae Ceaușescu?
Whoa, Ceausescu was at your defense? Nice to see you back, Strelnikov.
yes. One guy was totally unconvinced and was very snarky about it. But my adviser was very supportive and the other two members on the committee were convinced so it was accepted. When everybody else shook my hand at the end and congratulated me, the last guy just walked out without saying a word. jerk.
Oh, and when my book came out, based on the dissertation and published by a good university press, my adviser made sure to show a copy to the jerk....
Nobody attacked my thesis. I could tell, though, who actually read and maybe even understood it, based on the questions that were asked. Among those who seemed clueless were the departmental members on my committee.After the defence and an agonizing half-hour wait while the members deliberated, I was told it was approved, pending certain revisions. There are times, however, when I think they signed it just to get rid of me.
My defense consisted of giving a talk to three people, and my adviser wasn't one of them (I did the work at a different institution from the one conferring the degree). I'm pretty sure the talk itself was the first time they had been made aware of the results. But these were smart people. In the question period, one of them (a Fields medalist, no less) asked something about one of the results possibly holding in greater generality. I couldn't answer it at the time, but continued to think about it. He was right, and the more general result led to a nice paper. After the talk I waited outside while they probably exchanged jokes for about five minutes. Then they came out and congratulated me. "Aren't there forms I need to sign?", I asked. "No, there are no forms". Very informal place, that school.
Yes. I must have provided an acceptable defence though because I spent maybe five minutes in the hallway before they came out and congratulated me.
Nobody challenged my thesis, but one of my wife's committee members tried to torpedo her dissertation defense. The guy was so antagonistic that I looked with raised eyebrows at the department chair, one of the world's most mild-mannered fellows, who met my gaze and then rolled his eyes. After the defense wrapped up, everybody but the committee--and, unusually for a defense, the chair--filed out, shaking their heads. Then the door closed and stayed shut for a long, long, long time. Loud voices were heard. When the door finally opened, the recalcitrant committee member zoomed out, looking unhappy and purposefully avoiding eye contact with everyone in the hall. We later discovered that he was told to shut up and sign or suffer the consequences.
I've never attended a thesis defence in which a thesis was attacked. I've heard of someone being hung out to dry but he was allowed to revise the manuscript and try again. He passed it the second time around.A former neighbour of mine had that happen to her in her candidacy exam but passed it a year later, going on to defend her Ph. D. thesis.The only time I've actually watched a student being put in that position was during a seminar he conducted. His supervisor was present as was a prof from another department who also worked in the same field. Those two academics didn't get along and they used the student get at each other.Eventually, the poor student was put on the spot and couldn't come up with a proper answer, standing there in frustrated and embarrassed silence for a few minutes. One of the grad students in the audience decided to break up the proceedings by loudly crushing the styrofoam cup he had with him and waking up the prof who officiated.A few days later, the supervisor apologized to the student.
I gather that attacks during defenses usually have more to do with faculty conflicts than with any real objection to the dissertation-writers' work. Still, the one case I saw (described below) did, indeed, stem from actual unresolved conflict between advisor and advisee. The advisor was a pioneering (female) feminist who had a reputation for working far better with gay men than with women. Whether that reputation was, in fact, deserved, I'm not sure, but she sure didn't get along well with the advisee whose defense I attended, and, though she apparently concurred in approving the candidate's receipt of the degree at the end (and had presumably produced a favorable-enough reader's report for the defense to be scheduled), she wasn't willing to refrain from pressing points they'd clearly already discussed, and disagreed about, in the defense. That defense could have used some sort of interruption -- cup-crushing student, Strelnikov, chair who was willing to intervene (the advisor was also the graduate director -- another dimension of the problem), whatever.
CC:While my thesis itself wasn't attacked, I was put on the spot twice during my defence.My supervisor, who for some reason grew to dislike me, put me on the spot and asked me a question about an obscure point in my thesis. He enjoyed watching me make an idiot of myself as I stumbled around trying to find an answer. (What was I to expect from someone who, 4 years into my Ph. D., told me he wasn't interested in what I was investigating? After that nasty bit of news, he did as little as possible, perhaps hoping I'd quit and go away, thus relieving him of any responsibility or obligation.)To this day, I don't know why he did it. Was he trying to get even with me or did he do it for political reasons to prove something to someone else on the committee?Ultimately, it didn't matter as he signed my thesis and I received my Ph. D.
That is the bottom line, isn't it? Mind you, I've seen advisors gracefully bring up points on which they and the candidate disagree, usually by saying something along the lines of "you and I have discussed this point at length, but I'd like you to explain your argument once more for the other folks here." That strikes me as fair game (and is quite different from what you describe: bringing up an obscure point). After all, an advisor doesn't have to agree with every part of a candidate's argument to decide that it is solidly-argued enough to merit the degree. Such requests are usually taken in good cheer by the candidate, who in fact is well-prepared to argue his/her case thanks to the extended conversations to which the advisor refers in the question. Others may then take up the thread of questioning, but tend to follow the advisor's model: they're not attacking the candidate, but having a genuine intellectual exchange with hir. That's fine (better, in fact, than a defense where nobody has anything to say).
CC:The points that I was skewered on were things I hadn't looked at for more than 20 years but, I guess I should have known them. Still, I think he was trying to show me who was boss.Regardless, I'm glad I'll never have to go through that again.
Regardless, I'm glad I'll never have to go through that again.^This.Goddamn right.Fuckin' A.
The only (fiendly) attack on my thesis came from my advisor. I was right, and he agreed.
I usually try not to notice typos on this page, but boy do I love "fiendly."
My defense was anticlimactic. Given the amount of time I took to finish, and the amount of faculty turnover in the department during that period (which are not entirely unrelated factors), I suspect many people's reaction to the defense notice was "who's she?" They did, however, manage to gather the requisite number of faculty (including one of my advisors; the other had departed several years earlier for a university on the other coast, having arrived several years after I theoretically began work), and I think one grad student sat in. One very loyal friend flew in for the day (admittedly I'd done the same for her, by car, a year or so before). Another -- a grad school classmate who still hadn't finished herself -- didn't want to come into the department, but very kindly hosted and fed both of us afterward. And they didn't keep me waiting in the hall for long -- just five minutes or so before someone came out and said the requisite "congratulations, Dr. ---- ." I think I'd already done most of the paperwork (which had to do with depositing the diss and having it microfilmed and agreeing to its inclusion in Digital Dissertations -- which nobody was yet talking about the pros and cons of) when I dropped the thing off for binding a few weeks before. I may have actually walked a copy over to the repository; I have a vague memory of doing that. And then I drove home and tried to catch up on about a month's worth of grading. I have, however, seen someone attacked during a defense -- by her own advisor, no less. That was fairly early in my grad career, and it was a bit scary to witness (basically, advisor and advisee had philosophical differences, but advisee already had a tenure-track job in a somewhat different field -- creative writing rather than lit crit -- and besides, my grad department worked on the system that advisors didn't allow candidates to schedule a defense unless they were willing to write a positive report, so that shouldn't have happened). Also, since the attacking advisor is someone I could plausibly have worked with, it made dealing with the peripatetic faculty mentioned above, and the need to find 2(!) new advisors just after I passed generals, all the more difficult. Also, I was young and not at all good at department politics. Only so much has changed; now I'm old and not good at department politics.
CC:You're lucky the department you were in had the policy of not scheduling defences unless one had a good chance of passing. I nearly failed the defence for my first master's degree, but that was, to some extent, my fault because I wasn't adequately prepared. (That was hard to do as I had a job in another part of the country at the time, so meeting with my supervisor beforehand wasn't possible.)But I've heard of Ph. D. candidates who ended up with a master's degree for some reason, presumably because they failed the defence. In the department where I started grad studies, we had someone like that. He came from overseas already with a master's in his discipline several years before I arrived and he ended up with a second one. His "master's" thesis turned out to be several hundred pages long.The poor chap decided he wasn't going to return home empty-handed and made another attempt at his doctorate, and I believe he succeeded this time. By the time he finished his degree, he'd been in the country for well over a decade.
NLAN: customs do vary, by school and sometimes by department. At some schools (e.g. Berkeley, I believe), one simply "files" the dissertation (no defense required, but approval by one's advisors presumably necessary). At others (Columbia?), it's quite common for the candidate to be asked to make some revisions after the defense (and I'm not sure what happens then; I don't think there' s a second defense, but somebody signs off on the changes, and the degree is earned/conferred). My own grad program didn't offer a terminal M.A., and for many years didn't offer an M.A. at all. At some point, an M.A. was introduced as a sort of "consolation prize" for those who passed generals, but not at a high enough level to be allowed to continue; eventually, an M.A. became available to everybody who passed generals, but few of us bothered to file for the degree until/unless we became longterm ABDs, and needed the M.A. credential for a job. My own M.A. is dated years after I'd technically earned it, and not long before I received my Ph.D. These M.A.s require some paperwork and a small fee -- in addition, of course, to finishing the course and exam requirements -- but there's no diploma; at least I'm pretty sure I didn't receive one (maybe I could have paid separately for one?). As far as I know, though, pretty much everyone who actually finished a dissertation got a Ph.D. People who were asked to leave were asked just after generals, and anyone else who missed getting a Ph.D. did so because (s)he failed to complete a dissertation. In fact, I sang in a choir with a professor who had been chair of his department when a long-term (as in 20+-year) ABD came to him with what the candidate considered to be a completed dissertation, asking to defend. The chair didn't schedule a defense immediately, but did work with the candidate to update the work sufficiently to make it defensible, and the candidate got his Ph.D. Of course, my fellow choir-member is also an uncommonly decent man, especially for an Ivy League academic. I'm not at all sure the candidate would have met with so friendly a reception elsewhere in the university.
In my discipline at my alma mater, and the place where I started grad studies, one defended one's thesis. Revisions were generally required and, often, those were relatively minor. Generally, they had to be reviewed before the thesis is signed, though I'm not quite sure if the entire committee had to check them. For my first master's degree, all the members had to look at them but, for my Ph. D., I recall that only my supervisor did. Maybe it depended on who wanted what changed.Your last story reminds me of one of the better-known long-term ABDs: guitarist Brian May of Queen. He defended his Ph. D. thesis a few years ago and passed. One of the astronomy podcasts that I listen to regularly noted that and has since referred to him as Dr. May.
Far too often, I see students receive their PhDs without enough scrutiny. Everybody knows the student is not qualified but they don't want to rock the boat. Needless to say, I don't get asked to join many PhD committees.