Today a year ago I was defending my PhD thesis at Radboud University Nijmegen. It was quite a happening, what with the pedel, seven examiners in full academic dress, two paranimfen to support me, and all my friends and family present. This, of course, is not how it happens around the globe. For example, in the UK it is known as a viva (officially viva voce – Latin for “by live voice”), which is an oral examination with two or three examiners that usually takes place in private and can last very long – as long as they can think of questions to ask you. In the Netherlands the PhD has to be published as a book before the defence takes place – in Germany this happens after the defence. You have a year to do that and only then you are officially awarded your degree.
The Dutch PhD defence is very formal: there is a protocol to be followed, stipulating what happens at every step, what you should say at the beginning and at the end, and how you should address your opponents. For example, professors are addressed as hooggeleerde opponens whereas those who ‘only’ have a PhD are addressed as hooggeachte opponens. By the way, this is why it is a very good idea to prepare pieces of paper with the name of each opponent and the way you should address them. Believe me, when you are standing there you won’t remember which form of address to use for which opponent.
One of the quirks of the Dutch PhD defence is that you have two paranimfen at your side to answer questions for you if you get unwell, or even to physically defend you if the argument gets out of hand. Happily both things don’t really happen anymore – although paranimfen are still allowed to speak on your behalf, the accuracy of their left hook is never tested. Nowadays paranimfen are better compared to best men or bridesmaids; they support you in the period leading to the defence and arrange all kinds of practicalities during the day itself. No need anymore to choose tall, burly paranimfen!
Another interesting aspect is the pedel or bedel in English, who is the master of ceremonies at PhD examinations in the Netherlands (among other duties). She (in my case) carries the ceremonial mace and leads the external examiners to their place. She also is the one who comes back after an hour to rescue you, stamping the mace on the ground and calling Hora est before leading the examiners out again. And that is after exactly an hour – no matter who is speaking. In my case the last examiner had just begun asking his question, so he was rather abruptly cut off because the defence is then over (you are only allowed to finish your sentence). Because this bluntness is normal for PhD defences in the Netherlands and rather fits our image of being very direct, it was funny that many of my friends and family were quite shocked by it!
Hora est is when the fun begins – first with a laudatio (a speech by your supervisor), then a reception, and usually a party. Oh, and life without having to work on a PhD thesis!