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PhD Defenses around the World: a Defense in Chemistry from Canada

Today, I am inviting Dr. Monica Gill to discuss her PhD Defense for the “PhD Defenses around the World”. Dr. Gill grew up in Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province. She studied chemistry at the University of Prince Edward Island and earned a BSc in 2002 and a MSc in 2005. She then worked as a research scientist at BioVectra Inc. in Charlottetown, PEI. In 2008, she moved to Ottawa to return to school and pursue a PhD in organic chemistry at Carleton University. She then completed a postdoctoral fellowship, in collaboration with BASF, in the same department. She is currently applying for academic positions and hopes to establish her own research group.

Two years ago, on March 31, 2015, I defended my PhD thesis in Chemistry at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. It still seems somewhat surreal that it’s all over!

My defense committee was composed of seven individuals. The first, most obvious member was my own PhD supervisor. Next, there were two more chemistry professors; the first was from Carleton University, while the second was from University of Ottawa. The two schools have a joint graduate program (the OCCI, Ottawa-Carleton Chemistry Institute) and require representation from both schools on PhD defenses. Then, there was a professor from the Engineering department at Carleton. This role is colloquially known as the “internal-external” examiner. They are far outside the candidate’s specialty, but are able to evaluate the overall research approach and conclusions. The external examiner is generally viewed as the most important member of the committee. My supervisor and I had discussed potential external examiners, and a chemistry professor from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada, had agreed to serve in this capacity. These six individuals were voting members of the committee; that is to say that they each had a say in the outcome of the defense. The seventh member of the committee, the Chair of the defense, assures that the defense is carried out according to the rules and regulations set forth by the Faculty of Graduate Studies, but is not a voting member. The Chair of my defense had served in this role for over 1000 PhD thesis defenses during his career! I was fortunate that my external examiner was physically present on campus. Due to financial constraints, many PhD defenses at Carleton University use teleconferencing with the external examiner. My external examiner presented a research seminar to the department earlier during the day of my defense, thereby making his visit multi-purpose.

The defense process began with me presenting a 45 minute seminar which summarized my doctoral research. This seminar was presented to the entire department. Graduate students are required to attend these seminars. Most other faculty members also attended, as well as a few close friends. There were approximately 50 people in attendance. In addition, all the members of the committee are required to attend. This was a nice experience for me. It was gratifying to present my work to the whole department. Everyone was very supportive and pleased for me to have reached this milestone.

Immediately following my seminar, we moved to a smaller conference room. The formal defense portion with the seven-membered committee began approximately 20 minutes after completion of the seminar. It began with the Chair outlining the format that the defense would follow. The questioning would take place in two rounds. During the first round, each member of the committee, beginning with the external examiner and finishing with my supervisor, would receive 20 minutes to ask anything they desired. During this round, the Chair tightly controlled who was permitted to speak. Not all of my examiners took the full 20 minutes for their questions; in particular, the member from Engineering had only brief questions and comments. None of the questions posed were unreasonable, but some were challenging and required some contemplation. I was able to provide satisfactory answers and commentary to each of the examiners. Then, a second round of questions was started. In the same order as before, each of the examiners is given additional time to address anything they would like. This round is a lot more relaxed with more conversation and debate between the candidate and the committee. We had a lot of great discussion during this time.

When each member of my committee declared that they had no further questions, the Chair asked me to leave the room while the committee deliberated. That was a very surreal part of the process. It was easily the most stressful part of the process. I could hear muffled voices in the room; I ended up pacing away from the room so that I couldn’t hear anything! I remember glancing at the clock, and realizing that the defense had lasted about 2 hours. I honestly had no concept of time during the defense. After approximately 5-10 minutes (although it felt like an hour!), the Chair opened the door and invited me back into the room. He told me that the committee was unanimous in their decision that they were accepting my thesis with minor revisions. He shook my hand, congratulated me and called me Dr. Gill. I became a bit emotional at that point because my late father was a physician and was Dr. Gill; he passed away when I was a teenager. The mood in the room became jubilant and relaxed and each of my committee members was very generous with warm congratulations.

Each of the committee members provided me with comments and corrections for my thesis. I was required to address these items before deposition of my final thesis with the Faculty of Graduate Studies. In my case, the issues were minor and easily addressed. My degree was officially awarded in June 2015 at the spring convocation at Carleton University.

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