Tuesday, November 1, 2011

PhD pre-defence training

At the end of this week one of my fellow lab member will know if he is able to write his PhD thesis. In our university this is probably the most decisive step in the process of getting a PhD.

How you get a PhD varies tremendously between countries, universities within the same country and sometimes even between departments within the same university. For example, in the US it is not uncommon to spend between 7 and 10 years in graduate school before getting the PhD. In France the distinction between undergraduate and graduate is fuzzy, but the line between Master and PhD is not: you need at least 3 years of PhD, often a few months more in science and a few years more in humanities. Here in Japan and in science/engineering departments the rules is 2 years of Master and 3 years of PhD. The PhD defence season is also tightly constrained modulo 6 months, so actually almost everybody abides by this 2+3 years minimum.

The fellow I am writing about has a quite unusual curriculum. He took a job in the industry after graduating from his Master, got sick of it and came back to the academia at the same time I was starting my PhD (the 3 last years). He had personal problems on the way and extended his PhD to 4 years. According to the training I attended on Monday, he will surely get his PhD with honours.

Defending a thesis is a rather formal - some would say "outdated" - ceremonial. It also depends a lot on the country/university. I heard that in the university of Utrecht in the Netherlands the candidate and the jury are dressed in 16-17th century outfits, family is invited and you never fail at your defence, neither do you get nasty questions. If you fail, that's before.
A PhD candidate in Utrecht
In France the dress code is less formal, but the jury can push you quite hard the D day. One of my friends in Belgium had to re-write his thesis after an inconclusive defence and defend it again a few month later.

Here in Japan everything is made to avoid last moment failure, thanks to a pre-defence. It's not a training strictly speaking. You are in front of the same jury as for the real defence, but it is before you wrote a single line of your thesis. You pack up everything you did in the last 2 years and a half into a 1h talk. The jury knows nothing of your work beforehand except the title and probably a short abstract. You don't want to obfuscate their minds or they tend to sleep. You don't want to appear shallow or you won't be able to write your thesis now. So you need to be ready, trained and mentored.

This is the decisive step. After that, you do your best to write your thesis, probably patch a few missing experiments/simulations/analysis, re-do everything just in case, etc. This easily eats the remaining 2 or 3 month before handing out the thesis, but the essential part is done. If you don't blow up during theses weeks of intense pressure and self-discouragement (I nearly did, but I was save by my family), you are done. You won't fail the D day anyway.

This fellow is going through the fire on Friday. His rehearsal on Monday was excellent (there were a few minor details to fix, but nothing important). Good luck.


  1. Please wish, on my behalf, a very successful defence to Tsurusawa san.

    Here in France it is now the "PhD defence season". As most of the PhD start in autumn, they end usually 3 years later between September and December. In a big lab like mine with at this moment 49 PhD students, which means roughly 15 defences to come, the laser colour printer is constantly busy printing tens of manuscripts! Almost every week there's a defence... followed by the traditional drink ;-)

  2. I heard it went smoothly. I taugth him about LaTeX today.