Sunday, May 22, 2011

Experimenting in the public eye

I performed an experiment of sorts this past week, with interesting results. I wasn’t at the lab bench working with cells or with different methods to study them. I was standing in front of a roomful of people, all of whom were there to listen to a PhD candidate whom I was actively questioning about his thesis work. What no one knows is that I had decided to model the style of my ‘opposition’, as it’s called in Norway, after the style of a Swedish scientist whose recent opposition a few weeks ago had resulted in satisfied customers all around. What I had been most curious about was whether his style had been acceptable because he was male and non-Norwegian, or because it was genuinely a careful and thorough way of questioning a candidate without terrifying or intimidating him or her. During this man’s opposition, I sat in the audience and copied down all of his questions to the PhD candidate who happened to be a woman. I counted how many questions this man asked in the space of seventy-five minutes and calculated how much time the candidate used to answer him. I decided to ask questions of a similar nature when it was my turn to be an opponent for a male PhD candidate. I was curious as to whether this style of questioning on my part would be just as acceptable as it had been for the male opponent. I can happily report that it was. This style of questioning works and is gender-independent. It does not intimidate the PhD candidates, and it relaxes the opponents so that they don’t feel pressure to perform unnecessarily in public on a day that should belong to the PhD candidate and not to the opponent.

I have seen too many public PhD defenses where the opponents ‘shone’ like the sun, and the candidate was just caught in one of the rays. I have seen defenses where both the opponent and the candidate were completely mismatched, so that the entire defense was painful to watch and an exercise in pulling teeth getting the candidate to answer any questions whatsoever. I have seen good defenses also—where the candidate actually challenged the opponent and then a discussion was underway. I’ve seen so many different outcomes of PhD defenses. I recommend the type of questioning that I and the Swedish scientist used; it leads to a good outcome and the public (mostly consisting of colleagues, family members and friends) are far more likely to remember the day as a good day instead of a day where the candidate made a fool of himself or was unfairly criticized or was unduly nervous. I don’t know if I’ll be an opponent again, but I recommend the non-intimidating but engaging way of questioning as a way of producing the desired outcome—a grateful PhD candidate, satisfied supervisors, and a happy audience.

I wish Norway would get rid of the public PhD defense. It is rather outdated and I don’t think it is necessary anymore given the continual reduction in the requirements for fulfilling the PhD degree that have been taking place over the past few years. It is exceedingly difficult to find willing candidates to sit on a PhD committee, given the current requirements that the committee has to be gender-balanced. I hope the country goes the way of many other countries, where the PhD defense takes place behind closed doors with a committee (that can consist of a PhD candidate’s own faculty members) who ask the candidate questions for a few hours and then the whole thing is over. In this way, it could be ensured that the candidate is not overly nervous such that he or she doesn’t answer any questions at all. I’m hoping that day is coming, but as with all things in Norway, it will take an inordinate amount of time to come to the decision to change this way of doing things. I hope that this time I will be pleasantly surprised and that change will happen much faster than usual.  

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