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PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: Defending your PhD in the Netherlands

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better – and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

As I write this post, it’s been more than seven years since I defended my PhD. Since then, I’ve developed a particular interest in everything related to the PhD defense. On my blog PhD Talk, I run a series of guest posts “PhD Defenses around the World”, in which I gather testimonies from people who have defended their PhD in different countries, different fields, and different universities.

If I recall the origins of the beginning of this series well, it was after comparing a colleague’s defense in the Netherlands, my husband’s defense in the US and my defense in the Netherlands in blog posts that Veronika mentioned some oddities in Scandinavia related to the defense (and how new doctors are celebrated) and suggested I start compiling testimonies from PhD defenses.

As I read more testimonies about PhD defenses, I became more and more fascinated by the topic. A defense brings together your academic knowledge, strong emotions (you worked for many years on your research), as well as human interaction in a stressful setting. As I was finishing up the two-volume book set on load testing of bridges, I received an email from Helen Kara to see if I would be interested in writing a book about the PhD defense together with a coauthor for a series of books for PhD students on Routledge. I teamed up with Olga Degtyareva to delve even deeper into the topic of the defense, which included plowing through the scientific literature on the topic as well as analyzing the all guest posts on my blog. Through all this reading, I started to wonder if there is a link between the defense format and the perception of the doctoral student of the defense – so I started to actively research this topic. I’m in the thick of this research and hope to share my results in a preprint sooner rather than later.

With this background information, I am confident I can answer the question about what it is like to defend your PhD in the Netherlands, and how this practice differs from other countries. Here are a few important things to know about the defense in the Netherlands:

1. You defend your thesis and propositions.

Not many countries require that the PhD defense includes the defense of propositions. Propositions are statements from your research, your field, and society in general which you should be able to argue in favor of during your defense. So, if you prepare for your thesis defense, don’t forget to prepare for defending your propositions.

2. The defense is very formal.
Caps and gowns. A beadle who is in charge of following the protocol. Old-fashioned ways of addressing the committee members in Dutch (even though you or your committee members do not speak Dutch). The Dutch defense follows some elements that have not changed over a long period of time – so it feels like a very formal event.

3. The defense is a mere formality.
At the same time, the Dutch defense is just a formality. You can’t fail your defense, and your thesis is already accepted, printed, and distributed. It’s a day of celebration of your achievement, yet not without getting examined in depth by your committee.

4. You will be anxious before your defense.
Even though you know you virtually can’t fail, you will still be nervous. You will be put under pressure to answer hard questions by some of the most knowledgeable people in your field, on a topic in which you poured your heart and soul for the last three to ten years. It’s normal to be nervous, stressed, and/or anxious before your defense.

5. The defense is fully public.
Your friends, family, and colleagues all get to attend your defense! The good news is that you get to celebrate together with your loved ones. The bad news is that their presence may add an extra layer of stress and insecurity, since you don’t want to “fail” in front of them. Failing here would mean to appear nervous, not being able to properly answer a question, or otherwise perform at less than your best.

6. You graduate on the day of your defense.
At the very end of the defense, you walk away with a large red tube which holds your PhD thesis (including a giant wax seal). There’s nothing left to do after your defense but celebrate. In other countries, you may need to wait months after your defense to go through commencement, but in the Netherlands, it all happens on the same day.

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