Minutes into the defense, it became clear to me that the time-honored tradition of Dissertation Defense is not taken seriously by anybody except, of course, the candidate.
Let me explain. I knew that, at least in the Lone Star State1, this cruel and ritualistic form of hazing always happened behind the closed doors of a conference room. The obvious consequence of this lack of transparency is that prior to his or her own defense, a candidate has never seen the tradition unfold. Moreover, unlike a trial by jury, where nearly thirty years of watching unrealistic movies depicting courtroom procedures have more or less fully prepared you for the moment you take the stand in a court of law for a crime you did or did not commit, there is no glossy Hollywood account of the thesis defense to help you calibrate your expectations. You have to rely on the oral tradition. Here again, you’re hosed. The advice you might extract from a faculty member is useless because he or she has been on the opposite side of the tradition for at least a decade, and worse yet, the account you might piece together from asking newly minted Ph.D.s “what was it like?” is untrustworthy for the reason that a candidate, no matter how collected, is simply too flustered at the moment for their memories to yield a stable, veridical narrative.
I assumed it is traditional to wear a suit to a dissertation defense. It’s a big deal, after all. Soon after I set up the A.V. equipment and laid out some snacks (academic baksheesh), the committee takes their seats—five Caucasian, heterosexual men all occupying the intellectually fertile space bounded by thirty-five and fifty years of age, one of whom takes the form of a laptop computer, not because he lacks a physical body but for mundane logistical reasons. The first order of business, after the four physically embodied committee members discuss whether or not the snacks are deleterious to their physiques or are in keeping with their strict, paleo-centric diets, is the suit. The suit, a perfectly inoffensive navy blue two-piece, has clearly upset the ranking neurophysiologist of the group. He’s flummoxed by the notion of a candidate wearing a suit to his own defense.
After this lengthy haranguing, the committee members instruct me to leave the room, close the door, and loiter in the hallway until further notice is given. This procedure is not altogether different from being involuntarily dismissed from an elementary school classroom. With nothing left to do but sit on the bench outside the room and ruminate about the suit2, the candidate’s job at this point is to eavesdrop on the proceedings inside the room. By the time a student has completed the 20th grade (or thereabouts), spent five years laboring over a miniscule question that fifteen, maybe thirty people in the world understand, and devoted two hundred painstaking pages to its answer3, it would seem reasonable that a very serious and scientific conversation should be taking place on the other side of that door. But through the door I hear laughter, and what may or may not have been a high-five. These four professors (and possibly the guy with the laptop body) have decided to use this moment to catch up with each other. I suspect their decision to Pass or Fail the candidate was made long before this secretive and chummy deliberation session.
Ten or fifteen minutes later I am asked to come back inside. The cheerful ambiance of the room can only indicate one thing: you pass with a capital ‘P.’ The events that unfolded after this silent realization of having done an OK-enough, or at least a not-bad-enough-to-fail job are not particularly interesting or climactic: I give a long presentation and entirely redundant presentation (after all, the committee has read the document, or at least its members say that they have) with the help of fifty overly polished slides; a couple of cursory methodological questions are raised, and I am lightly castigated for the document’s general typographical sloppiness. I pass around a piece of paper resembling a permission slip, all of the physically embodied committee members sign it, and tell me as they left the room: “congratulations, Doctor.”
1That’s Texas, the Bluebonnet State in short, or “The Stars at Night/Are Big and Bright/Deep in the Heart of Texas” in long.
2Upon reflection, one can’t help but think the bedraggled appearance of the candidate in the suit is what really rubs the neurophysiologist the wrong way. The cut of the jacket necessitates broader shoulders than what I can provide. Similarly, the baggy, octogenarian fit of pants does nobody any favors.
3Full disclosure: my troubled document came out on the short side and in all likelihood, raised more questions than it answered.
[In the style of David Foster Wallace]
Ross Otto is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at McGill University. He obtained his Ph.D. in Psychology from UT Austin and worked as a postdoc at NYU’s Center for Neural Science prior to his faculty position McGill.