A dissertation defense should be anti-climactic

Jul 17 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I'm sure there are instances of grad students getting all the way to their defense only to have things go terribly, but it is a massive failure of the system (in the North American system) for this to happen. Unless the students just freezes up and blows the question period, no one should fail their defense. If an advisor or committee (and preferably both) are doing anything for a student at all, there should be a near-zero rate of failure at this late stage.

26 responses so far

  • Katie says:

    I agree! I was lucky enough to have a mentor that informed me of the same thing. He pretty much said, I know you are nervous but just know there is no way I would ever let you defend if I didn't think you had this in the bag. This calmed me down significantly (or the complete exhaustion took over...) My poor mother on the other hand was a nervous wreck! I have watched students go into their defense without this type of mentoring however, and their defense was very, very painful for everyone involved.

  • Dr 27 says:

    Amen to that. Indeed, that's also what my PI said. Interestingly, I still have people searching my blog for "failing PhD defense." I did write about failing the qual, but unless you show up drunk and do a lap dance to the chair's mom/dad, I think the chance of failure is 0 to none.

  • HCA says:

    It's pretty much open knowledge in our department. The dept takes in so few students each year (typically 4-6 out of ~100) that you don't even get admitted unless your adviser thinks you'll excel.

  • studyzone says:

    Very true - my program had a structured committee system, so there was no way our defense could have been scheduled without the committee believing we were ready. My defense was anti-climatic for another reason - after many hours spent polishing my defense talk, having answers prepared for expected questions, etc., I got ONE question, and it was more or less a technical one. Not a single probing question, not even from my committee - they rushed to sign my paperwork, and left. I thought it meant that my talk was a failure (others reassured me that it was quite the opposite, but still...) I left that talk feeling more disappointed than relieved.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    My MS thesis defense turned into an all out war between my advisor and other faculty members, with me as a traumatized spectator. On the other hand, my PhD defense was pleasant. aAt the end, my committee members, in sequence, shook my hand and addressed me as Doctor, then we went to lunch.

  • anon says:

    Not one but two "failed" defenses when I was in graduate school. I believe the advisor was the common denominator. There were various issues having to do with the advisor and both students, poor communication and conflict avoidance. I put failed in quotes because both redefended later and passed. Funny thing is at about the same time a person who might have been the worst grad student in program passed easily. They just wanted to get him out.

  • DJMH says:

    Anti-climatic? Only in the Dept. of Geoscience Denial..

    I have seen "private" PhD defenses (unlike the usual public defense; generally happens when student has 0 papers after 7 years and needs to get out), and PhD defenses announced and then rescheduled for an unspecified later date. Either solution seems to be preferable to a failed actual defense.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Yes, it's well-established that spelling is not my strong suit. I fixed it nevertheless.

    Has anyone ever seen a failed defense when the involvement of the PI was not either the strongly suspected or known cause? I have not.

  • Hilariously, my own bachelor's thesis defense devolved into a battle between my two mentors (I had done research in both of their labs), and the post-docs of the two labs basically had to separate them. This had nothing to do with the quality of my thesis (which won the best thesis of the year award), but due to philosophical differences between them concerning scientific approaches.

  • I've seen a "failed" defense because the student pushed to defend with tepid support of the PI and against the advice of the committee. Xe actually got the event scheduled despite that. (Xe had nailed down an industry job that required hir to start NOW. With the PhD.) Didn't go well. The situation was quietly resolved after about six months of night/weekend work and significant revisions. So "fail" is perhaps incorrect here as well.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    I agree. If the system has been working properly then the defense should be a formality.

    I do recall that during the Q&A session at the end of my public* thesis presentation I was pretty viciously attacked by a faculty member, but it was pretty obvious that he was actually attacking my adviser (they'd been feuding for years) so it didn't really bother me.

    *I'm assuming that most places do the "public presentation, closed door defense" thing. Although I was invited to be the outside examiner for a thesis defense in Europe and was surprised to find that the whole thing was public.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I've seen the PI feud thing and always marvel at the stupidity of waging one's latest attack on a student, as if they had anything to do with the dispute besides being the messenger. However, as pointed out, this isn't really what I am talking about. I'm referring to individuals who's inability to defend their work leads the committee to force a redefense or fail them outright.

    WRT to how the defense works, I find it varies all over the place. We do a "public" defense and then allow (but do not require) the audience to leave. Those who stay are almost exclusively students soon to graduate who want to see the process before they face it.

  • Melanie Haber says:

    I've seen people fail their Ph.D. where a whole team of people were truly bending over backwards to provide their time, extra training, psychological support. Two were cases with some difficult-to-pinpoint learning disorders. The students were trying their best, and the professors thought these women deserved every chance. It was heartbreaking, but everyone worked hard. I think it's important to realize that the Ph.D. defense is a real test, not everyone passes. Not everyone gets a Ph.D. just for trying.

    Some feel strongly that saying, "the defense is a ritual with no actual chance of failure" is disingenuous and not representative of the honesty of science. For example, the defense is open to the public so that everyone can witness the validity of the scientific process and the background of the candidate. If there is little or no chance of failure, it is all a sham.

    When I go in to a defense optimistic about a student, I often prepare a special introduction that is clearly beaming and celebratory, with special affectionate in-jokes about the student and some expository info for the parents and relatives about the importance of the moment...I get criticized for this based on the argument in the preceding paragraph.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    In the case of the one failed thesis defense I've seen, it was made abundantly clear beforehand that he wasn't going to pass, but he insisted on going through with it anyway.

    He was being kicked out of his PI's lab after multiple attempts to get him on track. I believe that, as Melanie Haber mentions above, that an unresolved and/or undiagnosed learning disorder was the crux of the problem.

  • anon says:

    My own defense was anticlimactic and intensely disappointing. It was a public defense, with standing room only. Questions were allowed from the audience throughout. I felt that the audience questions were thoughtful and challenging, especially since they didn't even read the thesis. My committee members, though, ended up showing themselves to be a bunch of sexist dumbfuckkes. The only questions they could come up with had to do with testing whether I understood how the electronic equipment I used for the project (and only one aspect of the project) worked. A female post-doc whispered to me afterward that all female graduate students at her University were also asked these insulting and inane questions, whereas for male graduate students, committees typically focused on conceptual aspects developed by the thesis. This wasn't that long ago (mid '90s). I really hope it isn't like this anymore.

  • SEL says:

    I've actually got a grad student like the one zwitterionique mentioned...."Xe had nailed down an industry job that required hir to start NOW. With the PhD."

    Apparently Xe "didn't know" that a doctorate usually takes 5+ years, and figured 3 was enough, and went job hunting without me knowing. Xe can't write for crap. Xe can't analyze. Xe was in the "data deluge" part of an excellent project, getting a LOT of interesting results, but didn't analyze any of them, just dumped it all on my desk to sort through. Xe got a job (how, I don't know.....I didn't get a call for a recommendation), and has moved to the new town and started it, with the expectation from hir employer that Xe would come back to defend and therefore get hir PhD. Xe has sent me an initial draft of hir dissertation. It is a shoddily written nightmare.

    God only knows what will happen at hir defense.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    SEL, don't you have to sign off on the thesis for the defense to even get scheduled?

  • SEL says:

    The signing of the dissertation occurs after the defense. However, just as a point of self-respect, there's no way I'd let hir send copies of this document in its current state to any of hir committee members....it would make ME look bad. So what will happen is I will end up essentially writing the whole thing.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Why? It's not your problem if they don't defend. I would write the papers (and 1st authorship would be an open question in that case), but the thesis is on them. If the job depends on it, they will make it happen. If I got a train wreck as a draft, I would send it back telling them it is not ready to even be edited yet.

  • studyzone says:

    At my current institution, some of the problems with students wanting to defend stem from a recent rule change made by the program that basically says students cannot even schedule a defense with a paper in press (before, it was an expectation, not a requirement). There was a lot of confusion about whether students who started the program before the rule change were grandfathered in, or held to the new standard. So much so that several defenses were delayed because of strong differences of opinion among committee members.

  • Anon says:

    I recently witnessed a PhD defense that by all rights should have failed, but which was given a conditional pass (the condition being that the student rewrite their dissertation before the examination committee would sign off on it). Having read their dissertation before-hand, it was obvious that the PI & advisory committee had not signed off on it as it was poorly written, full of spelling/grammar mistakes, and was complete bull shit from beginning to end (at our institution students can still request a defense even if their committee & advisor have recommended against it). To top it all off, the student failed to answer a single question during the defense. It was a train wreck from the start and embarrassing to watch.

    It was also clear that the relationship between the primary advisor and the student had deteriorated to a point of open hostility, which manifested in the most awkward question period ever. I thought the PI was going to jump across the table and strangle the student after the student made an extremely unprofessional & personal comment in response to a question from the PI.

    Being a graduate student attending the university (in another department) I was morbidly fascinated with the entire display, and fairly pissed off that the student was awarded the conditional pass. I don't know what caused the student's situation to reach the point that it did, but it certainly didn't reflect well on the advisor, department or even the university that it happened (and passed) the way that it did.

  • "In the case of the one failed thesis defense I've seen, it was made abundantly clear beforehand that he wasn't going to pass, but he insisted on going through with it anyway."

    Same here. The student had produced a barely adequate thesis, insisted they be allowed to defend it against all advice, then went back to their home town before the defense (extremely common in the UK - I did it myself - because your funding is cut after 3 years and a lot of people just can't afford to stay in grad school city with zero financial support. Staying up there for a 2 month stint of completely unpaid thesis writing while still paying rent and bills was difficult enough that living with my parents for the next three months paled by comparison, and that's saying something). Then they showed back up on the day of the defense a couple of months later having ignored all emails and calls from the PI, done zero preparation, and apparently having forgotten everything they'd done during their time in the lab. They couldn't even answer extremely basic questions such as "how would you test whether two proteins bind to each other?" because "that wasn't part of my project". The (100% private, the UK default) defense lasted six hours (mine was a more typical hour and a half), the examiners apparently desperately trying to find any redeeming qualities in the candidate, and failing miserably.

    The student was never seen or heard from again despite repeated attempts by the PI to contact them.

  • [...] this was one of the main reasons I started blogging in the first place. And since I've been kinda spouting off this week about mentoring, it seems like a good [...]

  • Corinne says:

    I've witness 3 defense failures at my university, in different departments. In each case the student was unproductive, had a fairly adversarial relationship with their PI and voided communicating them. Two of them had failed their candidacy exam, and really should have been dismissed from their program thens, but they both managed to scrape a pass on the re-examination.

    All 3 of these students insisted on defending against the advice of their PI, who eventually gave in hoping this would either result in the student learning a lesson and applying themselves more diligently or just going away forever.

    Post-failure, two of the three then spent 6-12 months fighting to get the result overturned or invalidated, rather than revise their dissertations substantially and produce something worth a pass. Regrettably, they both made enough noise and trouble and managed to push the right political buttons to have their failing results overturned. They received doctorates they didn't deserve, but were told to please not attend graduation. There was a lot of ill will in their departments towards them, especially from their peers.

    The third student spent several weeks crying all over the university administration about how mean her PI was and trying to affiliate with another lab. I had to sit her down and explain you can't lab hop to get the exam results you want, and definitely not in your fifth year. She cried for a few more days, but finally accepted the result and left with no degree and a lot of mutterings about her mean her PI was for telling her to stop watching movies in the lab when she should be working.

  • Workerbee says:

    I just defended my MA thesis and failed, yesterday. Completely blindsided. My committee has been fairly crazy and demanding lots of revisions, and my Supervisor left on sabbatical. So, I was in the hands of a new supervisor (director of grad studies), who said after I completed my revisions, I could defend. Honestly, I feel misled and that my committee was having me edit and revise (and never complaining to them!) useless chunks of my thesis constantly, while ignoring big, glaring flaws in my work.

    I can resubmit without having to defend again, but I'm not looking forward to the next few months.

  • John Tat says:

    This is a great thread. Can anyone share more stories of failed dissertation defenses, why they happened, and what can be learned from these mistakes?

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