Today, I’m inviting Barbara Vreede to talk about her PhD defense in Portugal. Barbara worked on cichlid embryos for her BSc (in Leiden, the Netherlands), moved on to butterflies (in Leiden) and centipedes (in Galway, Ireland) for her MSc, did her PhD (in Lisbon, Portugal) on flies, and landed a postdoc (in Jerusalem, Israel) working with bugs. She has clearly yet to settle on a model system, but doesn’t mind so much as long as she’s thinking about evolution. She blogs (in Dutch) at sciencepalooza.nl and tweets @barbaravreede.
The best advice I read in preparation of my PhD defense was: enjoy it. This is going to be an incredibly rare opportunity, where you will get to discuss your work, with important scientists who were hand-picked for their relevant backgrounds, and who have even taken the time — a lot of time, in fact — to read what you did. This is a unique occasion, and you should make the most of it.
I don’t remember where I found this advice, but I’ve been repeating it ever since. It was right on, and exactly what I needed to hear for this day. I like to think that I followed it pretty well. Granted, I was incredibly nervous, and completely lost my train of thought after the first question. I stumbled along for a while before taking a sip of water, asking the jury to repeat the question, and starting all over again — but after that, it all came together. I forgot we were sitting in a large room with my family, friends and colleagues, some of whom had experiments running and walked in and out as I talked with the jury. The entire audience simply disappeared: it was me and my jury, my jury and me — and it was fun!
PhD defenses in Portugal, or at least in the institute where I defended, are pretty informal. There is no dress code, no locked doors, and no chance you’ll not be awarded your degree at the end of it. All of this comes in quite handy if your aim is to enjoy it! On the other hand, it can last for a long time — up to three hours in total. You start off with a presentation (20 minutes), which is followed by individual discussions with each jury member. Two of them get 45 minutes each (these are usually Important Professors Flown In For The Occasion), the other two (the local invitees) have to make do with a mere half hour. After the discussion, your supervisor gets to say a few words (in my case those words were: “I have to go to the bathroom”), and that’s it! Your job is done, your degree awaits.
The jury then retreats to discuss how you’ve done (and go to the bathroom, presumably), while friends and family come over to tell you that you did great, despite the fact that they didn’t understand a word of what just happened. Amid the chaos that is inevitable when a room full of people descends upon a single person, the jury returns to find it is impossible now to formally address the room. So, the president of the jury will awkwardly raise his or her voice to say that “the candidate is now a doctor!”, and everyone in earshot starts to cheer; everyone else follows. More congratulating ensues.
In my case, I was lucky enough to grab a hold of my jury members as they fled the chaos in the room, and snap a picture. In my view, this photo completely captures the spirit of the day: it’s staged, but no one really poses. Some have their eyes closed; others forgot to put their bag down or are still fumbling with a jacket. I love that most of my jury is wearing jeans, and I’m wearing sneakers (my mom vetoed the jeans, so I’m wearing slightly more respectable trousers). Everyone is smiling.
It really was a good day.