Comparing PhD Vivas/defences across Europe

A couple of weeks ago I was in Germany to take part in a PhD defence. It was a very enjoyable experience, and the student performed impressively well. There was never any doubt he would pass with flying colours, but what was nicest about the event was that it took place in front of his family and friends (as well as colleagues). It’s great that after 4 years of graft, he could show how much he had learned and could demonstrate his expertise in what probably seemed (to the non-biologists there) a very esoteric area of endeavour. The biologists all appreciated how cool Nicaraguan crater lake cichlids are for studying speciation, but that is something that is probably lost on the wider public (sorry Andi!).

Anyway, while I was there, it got me thinking that we really seem to miss a trick when we examine PhDs in the UK. A typical UK viva involves an internal and external examiner  grilling the student behind closed doors for 3 hours, with a trip to the pub afterwards. The process can be quite stressful (for examiners as well as the candidate and supervisor) and tears are not uncommon (more often from the candidate, but occasionally from the examiners as well!). I don’t doubt the process is appropriately rigorous, but there is no sense of occasion, or opportunity for the student to showcase the end result of all that hard work. To me, this seems a real shame, especially as friends and family don’t get the opportunity to share in the celebration in the same way.

The experience I had in Germany was by no means unique. I’ve examined PhDs in Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Germany, and in all cases there was some form of public defence. This may sound more daunting than the behind closed doors scenario, but in fact it isn’t. The thesis has already been examined by experts, and the student has already made revisions to it. The defence is not technically a formality, but in reality any problems have been addressed by the candidate before the big day, and it is exceptionally rare for candidates to receive anything other than an outright pass. More importantly, the defence feels like a big occasion that everybody gets involved in and can celebrate. The degree of formality seems to vary between countries, but the more formal vivas actually feel more theatrical and that makes them even more of an occasion. Of the ones I’ve been involved in, they rank Finland > Sweden > Switzerland > Germany in terms of decreasing formality. The Finnish and Swedish vivas involved sit down meals afterwards, that actually felt more like a wedding; contrast that to the UK trip to the local. For the Finnish one, I arrived in my best suit, thinking I was dressed to the nines, only to be promptly taken to an ‘outfitters’ to be measured up for a suit (including tails, separate daytime and evening waistcoats and  two different pairs of shoes). I looked like that notorious picture of Cameron, Osborne and co, only without the (alleged) offshore bank account. It seems to me that there are several advantages to the mainland European defence.

1) Family and friends get to celebrate in a much more involved way.

2) The candidate gives a public talk about their work, which will stand them in good stead for job interviews, conference presentations, etc. It’s not that unusual for a UK student to never give a talk between the start of their PhD and being awarded it, and there is no requirement to present their PhD work to an audience.

3) The public talk may even lead to a job offer there and then. In some countries, there are several opponents (examiners) and it is quite likely that an opportunity to work for or collaborate with one of them will arise.

4) After the defence, everything is done and dusted. In the UK, a common outcome is ‘minor changes’ with a window of 3 months to make them. In other words, the degree isn’t actually awarded right after the viva.

I don’t want to sound too negative about PhD vivas in the UK relative to in mainland Europe (even if it is like comparing a soggy sandwich with a Michelin starred meal). They can often be a rewarding chat (for everybody) and usually the candidate’s friends will make a real effort to celebrate the PhD award with them. A recent trend in Sheffield has been for ‘study organism cakes’, which has led to some genuinely brilliant creations worthy of Bake-Off ‘Showstoppers’ (see below). Of course, there is always the graduation ceremony as well, although that can take place months after the viva. In fact, I didn’t go to mine, as I was living 8000 miles away by the time it came around. I do think that public defences help celebrate the event a bit more, and they are certainly personal to the candidate.

Anyway, I’ve been lucky to have examined 4 such excellent and hospitable students (Paula Lehtonen, Maja Tarka, Pirmin Nietlisbach and Andi Kautt). Perhaps by extolling the virtues of European vivas, I can make it onto a Daily Mail ‘dangerous’ list. I can only hope anyway.

Some viva/defence pictures

Study Organism Cakes – Great tits with large brood (Jenny Armstrong viva); Timema with dark morph (Aaron Commeault viva); bedbug (@Toby_Fountain viva, cake by Sophie Webster @SE_Webster)

JennyVivaCake TimemaCakeTobyVivaCake

Study organism hats and beards seem to be more common in Switzerland and Germany.

Mandarte Island song sparrows (Pirmin Nietlisbach, Zurich) and Nicaraguan crater lake cichlids and lots of seemingly unrelated organisms (Andi Kautt, Konstanz).

PirminHat AndiKautt

Typical attire for a Finnish viva (Paula Lehtonen, Turku). I’m the bald bloke with glasses ….. the one on the right.


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