Riding up the A19, grey skies, inner lane full of lorries moving Christmas goods from one city and country to another. My first trip back to the NL in four months. Has absence made the heart grow fonder? Maybe. There are two reasons for this trip: to attend a client’s PhD defence (we have not previously met) and to get an APK (a Dutch MOT) for my car. I left the APK until the last minute (the day before it is legally due) as I had hoped to be further down the road of getting Belgian number plates for my car before Xmas, but it wasn’t to be. Now I will also have to do a Belgian roadworthiness test in January or whenever that does happen. I hope that the standards are the same!
It’s my first time going to a PhD defence outside of Wageningen. But the format is almost identical. It’s rite of passage rather than a real exam. But it never fails to make the defendant nervous. The defendant is dressed up to the nines and backed up by two paranymfs (A Dutch word that has no English equivalent as we don’t have such theatrical defences – they are two close friends or colleagues there to lend support and also to organise the pre and post ceremony events). He does a twenty minute summary of his thesis (i.e. of his last five years work – no easy task) . Then the committee, all elder academic statesmen, dressed in black robes and white collars with floppy black velvet berets, enter. They are led by the Master of Ceremonies, dressed similarly and carrying a metal tipped wooden rod, which he bangs thrice on the floor to announce their arrival. All rise as the committee take their seats and are then introduced.
Then the questions begin. Some relate to the text and the value and validity of the work. Some questions are easy for the defendant to field. At other times they can hit at the heart of methodological or conceptual flaws or gaps in the thesis. That can really floor the defendant. Sometimes they are plain irrelevant and it is obvious that the academic concerned just likes the sound of his own voice or thinks his ideas haven’t had enough airtime recently. The whole event is couched in levels of courtesy that one would expect at a court or diplomatic function. The questions all begin with commendations on the excellent piece of work and the defendant addresses each of the members of the committee as ‘my highly esteemed opponent’. After a strictly defined period of time – marked again by the banging of the rod (rather than a game show buzzer) the committee retire (all rise again) to consider their verdict (a ‘pass’ is given, but a candidate can earn a distinction for the thesis and/or his defence).
There then follows the award speech, made by the promoter of the candidate, again full of arcane language, the doctorate is awarded on behalf of the Rector Magnificus and sealed with the Great Seal of the University. Jaap is now a Doctor of Philosophy. In