starting off

I’ve been preoccupied with work and haven’t had a blogging groove this week, but The Colonel’s last post about students giving gifts has led to a thread about students bringing smorgasbordly food-spreads to their thesis and dissertation defenses. If Scatterplot contributes to reducing this practice, I would feel like this blog had made a worthy contribution to academickind. (Bringing cookies is fine but not obliged; donuts instead of cookies, even better.)

But: regarding thesis or dissertation defenses, what about the practice of delivering a presentation about your thesis or dissertation at the beginning of the defense? I’ve seen these range from 3-5 minutes to a student who went over a half hour, largely reading selections from a paper I had just read, with the advisor looking on as if this was not a thoroughgoing waste of everyone’s time. I’m not sure if this custom exists to give cover to those faculty who show up to the defense without having read the student’s work, so they can formulate some questions based on the presentation. In economics, perhaps this is the case, as I’m not sure what the norm is there for how much attention committee members other than the chair are expected to give to a student’s work.* Me, I read the thesis or dissertation beforehand, and so I sit there wonder what the point is of hearing a presentation on something I’ve already read. I suppose it may help the student feel more comfortable by giving them the opportunity to speak first, although then it seems at least the presentation should be kept quite brief.

* As an assistant professor, I was asked last minute to be on a dissertation committee in economics. I still read the thesis, especially because I wanted to have a couple of informed questions and not contribute to the view that quantitative sociology is just the unfortunate moron cousin of economics. The student does his presentation, and then the ordering of questioners is going to be: economist, economist, me, and economist/chair. The first economist says, “I pass.” My thought: You can pass?! Then the second economist also says, “I pass, too.” I sure as hell was not going to pass, myself, but I did just ask one of my two questions. I have no idea if having committee members “pass” is normal or unusual in economics.

Special bonus addendum for those who followed the jump: In reaction to abarian’s comment on the previous post, maybe we should have a regular feature on Scatterplot where we take something that a graduate student has heard about academia or professionalization or etiquette or whatever, and we consider whether we think it’s true or an academic urban legend.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

21 thoughts on “starting off”

  1. maybe we should have a regular feature on Scatterplot where we take something that a graduate student has heard about academia or professionalization or etiquette or whatever, and we consider whether we think it’s true or an academic urban legend.

    Brilliant! Now that is an idea that will democratize grad school. I can’t wait to see if my own sense of things matches the group (and I’m no academic spring chicken).

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  2. Our proposal and final defenses are open, so I think it is nice to have a short (15 minute) presentation of the work. Norms for reviewing and commenting on dissertations vary, but I try to remember that the dissertation will be published with the university logo (and my name) on it. I feel it is my responsibility to provide as rigorous examination as possible (even as just a reader).

    At the same time, I think it is good practice for students to send members of the committee a final draft and a thank you card. No food is needed at the defense, but I think students forget to extend common courtesy after the dissertation is completed.

    I would welcome a recurring column about grad school etiquette.

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  3. I tell my students to speak for about 5 minutes and absolutely not more than 10. We also send every student out of the room before the oral, so that there is no invidious distinction to be made about whether you are sent out or not. Re order of questions, the custom in our department is for the most outside person to go first, although we usually agree on an order and a strategy during the time the student is out of the room. In other departments, the advisor often goes first. I have never been on a committee where anyone said “I pass” about questions. Although I have not been on an economics dissertation.

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  4. At Princeton Soc it was just a few minutes. (That’s what I recall for the three defenses I’ve participated in at NU as well.)

    But I was stuck with the traditions of another field for my defense. One of my outside readers was from Engineering since I thought it would be fun to diversify especially given the topic. Unfortunately, in Engineering they do give long presentations. So I ended up having to go to this committee member’s office and give a 45-minute talk about my dissertation one-on-one a day or two before the defense. Yipee.

    I’ve never heard of the “I pass” variation, curious.

    Of course, there are also very different traditions when it comes to audiences as well. At Princeton Soc, anyone could come, and people did attend the defense. The three defenses I’ve been on at NU (two in Media, Tech & Society, one in Soc) only had the student and the committee members.

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  5. I’ve never heard “I pass” in sociology, although people have effectively passed because of time reasons or because their main question had already been addressed. Like I said, I have no idea how unusual this was for economics (or for economics at Madison). There was some interruption of his talk with a few brief questions, but those were questions of clarification, as I recall.

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  6. Norms across departments and disciplines vary a great deal on the defense presentation. Our psych department here uses them as an opportunity for students to practice a short oral presentation of their argument, which has value.

    I empathize with the not wasting time and boredom argument, but let’s face it, listening to students present information you already know is a huge part of the job description. Defenses are part of that–the defense is about the student, not the faculty member.

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  7. Blue Monster is right that norms differ substantially across institutions, departments and disciplines. One important distinction is whether defenses are open to the public, or restricted solely to the candidate and members of the dissertation committee. I’ve taught at both kinds of institutions, and I much prefer closed defenses — they’re less theatrical, and often less perfunctory. (I’ve found the presence of the candidate’s spouse and kids to have a chilling effect on my willingness to really go after someone when I think it’s warranted.) Also important is how the membership of the dissertation defense committee is constituted, i.e., the prior familiarity of the candidate with the members.

    I usually advise my students that they should assume that the members of the defense committee have read the dissertation, and that therefore their introductory remarks shouldn’t simply repeat what the members have read (often the night before). I view an opening presentation as a way of “warming up” before the tough questions come. Try as I might to assure students that I wouldn’t let them get to a defense if I thought there was a serious question about their ability to be successful, it’s impossible to neutralize the anxiety about such an important symbolic event.

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  8. I’ve found the presence of the candidate’s spouse and kids to have a chilling effect on my willingness to really go after someone when I think it’s warranted.

    I know of someone whose parents came to their defense and whose dad then proceeded to obliviously take a cellphone call in the middle of it. His siblings dragged dad out of the room.

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  9. but let’s face it, listening to students present information you already know is a huge part of the job description

    Certainly, however, if there is limited time available at a defense (and there is always limited time available at any event) then one has to wonder whether that’s the best use of defense time. That is, it’s one of the rare occasions when several people come together to discuss one person’s work. It seems the time would be better spent listening to comments and having an interesting exchange.

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  10. The grad school I went to had abandoned the oral defense as a meaningless ritual. I guess they felt that faculty had better things to do with their time. And academic lore was full of tales of faculty members at other places using the occasion as a vehicle for continuing their own petty squabbles at the expense of the doctoral candidate. I can’t say I regretted not having the defense — I had moved out of town and was on the faculty elsewhere by the time I turned in my thesis — but I wonder what benefits it’s supposed to bring to the university, the department, the faculty or the candidate.

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  11. I like oral hearings, generally. Well, OK, maybe that is extreme, but I think they have value. Most of the time, people ask questions and draw out issues that are useful for the student as s/he thinks about how to move the work toward publication. It’s also one venue for working with colleagues and seeing how they approach issues. But we do “private” orals — they are officially public, but in practice spectators need to get prior approval of everyone involved. Once someone wandered in to watch an oral we knew was going to be messy and we asked him to leave. But the other times it was an “ordinary” happy oral that was fine with a spectator.

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  12. I’ve got another one to contribute: One grad student told me that her adviser said not to wear black at a jobtalk, nor shoes that were too stylish and “youthful.” This same adviser reportedly said that one wasn’t to dress too nicely, either, lest they look too wealthy and ‘unneeding of the job.’

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  13. nor shoes that were too stylish and “youthful.” This same adviser reportedly said that … one wasn’t to dress too nicely, either, lest they look too wealthy and ‘unneeding of the job.’

    Oh for the love of God.

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  14. Welcome to the world of women. Women’s clothes are a multidimensional pain (nothing like the simple system of men’s clothes), and men don’t help. I have heard men make negative attributions if a woman is too dressed up, but you can’t be too dressed down, either. So I think this is a good one for its own post.

    Still, I’ll toss in a story. Maybe two. Years ago (this was the 1970s) a male colleague immediately wrote off a job candidate as totally unprofessional because she asked him if there would be a problem if she wore a pants suit at the interview. It was her asking the question that offended him, he thought nobody should care about clothes. Well, of course, any woman in that decade would have known that that was a perfectly reasonable question; her mistake in judgment was thinking she could ask a man the question. There was another candidate where I went to grad school who was immediately discarded because she showed up for an interview in a color-coordinated blue outfit where even her fingernails matched. It was overdone, but it was the men who ruled her out because of it.

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  15. MANY people commented to me about my choice of clothing on job interviews and while attempting to promote myself at ASA. I was told that I looked good, that I looked fat, that I looked like I was too rich, that I looked uncomfortable, that I looked like I was trying too hard, that I looked like I was taking it seriously and that I looked ridiculous. I got more feedback on my clothing than any other aspect of my job-market process.

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  16. A member of the faculty in my grad department said the following to me as I was about to head out for my first campus interview: “don’t smile”. Two days later I was back and had already been offered the job. I stopped by this prof’s office to let him know and couldn’t resist adding this bit: “and I smiled”.

    Ugh.

    Jeremy, I think the weekly feature should include myths by and among faculty as well.

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  17. Yes, you are terrifying me! But it seems the moral of the story is to do what makes us comfortable (within reason), because anyway you slice it, we are probably going to displease some malcontent with our fashion or lack thereof. As for the food, geez!!

    I would, however terrified I may get, enjoy a weekly column to learn from your collective wisdom across institutions. How about “Tales from the Crypt, or, Tales of the Tipped” (as in “tipped”-off about mythological norms). Just kidding:) I enjoy these discussions!

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