Trials and tribulations

We were invited to attend the public ‘defence’ of a PhD thesis one afternoon in Paris. Unlike in the UK, in France and indeed in most other mainland European countries, universities hold the oral component of the PhD exam (the ‘viva’) in public. With preliminary assessments by the examiners, coupled with careful oversight by the student’s supervisor, the quality of the work will have been assured so that,  in some universities at least, the viva is actually a token performance. In some countries the examination hall will even be decorated with flowers, and friends, relations and colleagues will come along to witness and then, to party.

Things were rather different at the Sorbonne (more accurately University of Paris 1) that afternoon. Twenty or so of us sat in rows at student desks in a drab, grey room. Alone in the middle of the front row was Collette (not her real name), whose thesis was to be the subject of the interrogation. And what we witnessed were some of the worst features of university culture.

The four examiners entered the front of the room and sat facing us from a raised podium. There followed the usual formalities, and then the viva began. After a brief and confident summary by Collette, the first examiner started his questioning. It was a vicious and critical monologue raising detailed points about punctuation, grammar, syntax and style. There were legitimate questions, such as the one about the exact meaning of a word in Greek – the thesis was about one of Aristotle’s concepts. But that was dealt with in a bullying and clumsy way with no allowance given for legitimate differences of opinion. He talked a lot about his own work and shared asides with the other panellists. Little or no time was allowed for Collette to reply – perhaps she spoke for 10 minutes for his 50 – and in his spiteful hour-long tirade he treated her as an object. But despite the wave after wave of rudeness and attempted humiliation, Collette’s head never bowed, and her voice remained steadfast and resolute.

For a PhD, students do original research and set out the results, arguments and discussion in book form which in Collette’s case covered nearly a thousand pages. The viva is designed to discover what exactly the candidate found, how they reason and defend their position, and whether indeed the thesis was the student’s own work rather that of someone else. The examiner probed none of these issues. And amazingly, he was Collette’s supervisor, the very person who traditionally offers the candidate support and who should have ironed out all of the problems in the previous six years as they worked together as student and teacher. Could he have let errors through to give him an opportunity to harass her at a later date in the exam?

Next came examiner two. He was more pleasant but again it was a monologue, was used as a platform for airing his own views, and allowed little or no time to hear Collette’s responses. If the examiner’s role is also to verify the student’s calibre and originality, this just could not have happened.

Some two hours after the start, the chair announced it was time for a “pause café’” I could stand it no more and after explaining my position to Collette and wishing her well in the next session, I headed off for some fresh air. It transpired that the next two hours were more enquiring but for me, the damage had been done. Then finally, and after over 4 hours, the examiners upped and left the room, to come back a few minutes later to announce that Collette could now call herself ‘doctor’. The thesis had been successfully defended.

Afterwards, all and sundry met in a café and the celebrations and the post mortem began. Naturally there was joy but close on its heels was deep resentment about the demeaning way in which Collette had been treated. Importantly it was felt that were she to complain to the authorities about the events, the university would close ranks against her and ensure that she did not get work anywhere in France.

By virtue of the viva being held in public much has been revealed. That the examiners were happy to behave as they did in the public gaze suggests that they saw their conduct as normal and beyond reproach. That the chair of the examining panel failed to halt the bullying gave the strong impression that she condoned it. That colleagues and friends warned Collette against complaining for fear of victimisation suggests the behaviour is institutional. If each or any of these is true then there is a real problem at the Sorbonne (and probably other French universities) and one that needs to be tackled by the authorities with some urgency. In my experience it would most unusual for such behaviour to happen here, but one way to check is for us too to hold vivas more openly.

It might be that the university would justify such behaviour as being part of some kind of baptism of fire, a coming of age or a right of passage. But this is no longer defensible.


Photo: “El tribunal de la Inquisición”  1812-19 by Francisco Goya from Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, Madrid.

4 comments on “Trials and tribulations
  1. Graham Dukes says:

    Anyone who likes a positive and friendly approach to the Ph.D. defence should try defending his or her thesis in Leiden, Holland. This ancient university demands high standards from both the candidate and supervisor, but once these have been assured the public defence is an occasion for a spirited discussion and occasionally a little teasing about some minor point.

    One attractive thing is that these occasions are publicly announced and open to all comers, the candidate’s family providing a little reception with drinks and snacks in a neighbouring room afterwards. This means that there are little old men in Leiden with time on their hands who keep track of the timetable (Wednesday afternoons at 2.15, 3.15 and 4.15) and who turn up regularly to these occasions, knowing that if they are prepared to sit through the defence and then queue up to shake the new doctor’s hand afterwards, they will then be rewarded with sherry, a snack and a cake. With a little astute planning, one of these people can manage two or even three receptions in an afternoon. After my own defence in Leiden, I was congratulated by at least a dozen such casuals whom I had never met before.

    One other attractive point in Leiden: in the ancient aula the candidate is placed in a sort of pulpit, high up above everyone else including the examiners; that gives one a tremendous sense of confidence!

  2. Timothy says:

    Hi, Joe!

    I navigated to your WordPress in an accidental way ( I mis-pawed my phone’s display when selecting a Google result for “Sorbonne thesis”). But I thoroughly enjoyed your spirited writing. I hesitate to comment fully on the behavior of the academy, but your piece and its points have convinced me that it is worth considering.

    Cheers, buddy

  3. Joe Collier says:

    “We” were my wife and I. Our invitation came from the candidiate, who we had known for many years. The oral exam for PhDs in France and in many other mainland European countries is open to the public – and that means anyone.

  4. sue stevens says:

    Who were the ‘we’ who were invited to attend though? I bet not many ‘members of the public’ even know these events take place. much less that they are entitled to atend.

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