Defenses around the world: a PhD defense at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Dominique Maciejewski did her bachelors in psychology in Wuppertal, Germany. In 2011, she came to the Netherlands for an internship at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. It was supposed to be a 3-month internship, but Dominique really liked the Netherlands and so she stayed to write her thesis there. She graduated in 2014 from her research masters “Clinical and Developmental Psychopathology”, after which she started her PhD research. In 2016, she received her PhD Degree for her thesis about the development of mood variability during adolescence. In 2016, she went to the United States (Virginia Tech) for a postdoc on neurobiological determinants of adolescent psychopathology. After 6 months, she got offered a job as a postdoc and project coordinator for a large project – the Mood and Resilience in Offspring Project (MARIO; www.mario-project.nl). In 2017, Dominique and her colleagues received 1.4 million euros to set up the MARIO project, a project in children of parents with mood disorders to better understand, detect and prevent depression in those children. Dominique lives with her boyfriend in Amsterdam and enjoys yoga, playing guitar, meeting her friends, and drinking beers on her sunny balcony.
On May 2016, I defended my dissertation at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. My dissertation was entitled: Keep your mood stable! Adolescent mood variability: Measurement, development, and association with adjustment”. Specifically, we followed around 500 adolescents from 13 to 18 years. During this time, they filled in internet diaries about their emotions 3 week as per year. We were interested about how mood fluctuations developed during adolescence and how they were related to adolescent adjustment. Short story: Adolescent’s mood is most unstable in the beginning of adolescence, but gradually becomes more stable. However a subgroup develops more unstable mood and those also show more psychopathology. If you are interested in the thesis, you can check it out here:
In the Netherlands, a PhD defense is a big event. My defense took place in a large hall with my family, friends and colleagues. Before going into the big hall, you sit in a room that is literally called the “sweat room”. Here you wait until the committee comes to pick you up to explain the procedure to you. The first person going into the hall is a person from the “pedel”. In my case this was a nice lady with a large golden stick. She made sure that everything is running smoothly. Then my supervisors and reading committee entered. Lastly, I came together with my two “paranimfen”, which are two people of your choice who support you during preparations and your defense. I chose two colleagues and close friends of mine and I was happy they were there to call me down, because I was quite nervous.
I had a reading committee consisting of 5 researchers, ranging from assistant to full professors. They had already read my thesis and approved it 5 months before. I started my defense with a 10-minute talk about the results of my PhD research (see a video of that talk here). This is called the “lekenpraatje” and you are supposed to summarize your research over the past years to a lay audience. So, I tried my best that even my parents understood what I was talking about all these years. Although I was really nervous, as soon as I stood on the podium, all my anxiety was gone and I was really ready to defend my thesis.
After my talk, the questioning began and took about 45 minutes. Each member of the reading committee asked me questions about my dissertation. They ranged from broad questions (“why should we study emotions?”) to very technical questions (“what are degrees of freedom?”). I even had a member who did similar research, but found completely opposite results. I was initially scared of her questions, but it turned out to be a wonderful scientific discussion!
After 45 minutes, the lady from the pedel came in with her golden stick, put it on the ground and said “Hora est”, which is Latin for “the time is up”. Then, I left the hall again with my paranimfen, supervisors and committee. The committee went into a separate room and I sat outside with my paranimfen. That was the moment that they decided whether I would receive my PhD or not (although to be fair – if the reading committee approves of your thesis, you generally also pass your defense). Then, they called me in and told me, I received my PhD. Together with them, we went back into the big hall, where the dean told everyone that I officially received my PhD and that I graduated cum laude (i.e., with distinction), which I did not know before and did not expect. This is a really big thing in the Netherlands, as it does not happen a lot. My supervisor then held a really nice speech and I was given my official diploma.
After that, it was time for a celebration. The weather was amazing! I had an official reception and invited my supervisors and family to a dinner. In the evening, I rented a bar and I celebrated with my colleagues, friends and family until 3 in the morning. I can seriously say that this was the best day of my life.