Saturday, September 1, 2007

Academic jury duty

And so I have experienced being on a PhD commitee - the academic equivalent of jury duty. This is the first time I've played that part, even though it was just the glorified secretary role of administrator/third opponent. The ratio of paper work to glory sucks compared to what you have as either first or second opponent, and there is no extra pay, but the job needs to be done.

Also, the magic is fast disappearing from the entire concept of a PhD defense, as it is abundantly clear that if the dissertation has been approved and it was written by the candidate (i.e. no plagiarism involved), then the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of said candidate passing, barring screwups of cataclysmic proportions. That being said, the actual defense might not be a cakewalk, depending on the skill level of the candidate and whether or not Carmina Burana can be heard in the background whenever the opponents are present. Note: If you have no idea what Carmina Burana is, or have never heard about Carl Orff, then consider yourself musically ignorant, and substitute "Carmina Burana" with the "Darth Vader Theme" so as to make the above example work.

So; what does the PhD comittee administrator actually do, you ask. It boils down to the following:
  • Fill out a bunch of forms, including confirmations from the opponents, applying for the candidate to defend his or her dissertation, recommendation for trial lecture subject, recommendation of defense date, and some forms after the defense is complete with the final recommendation of the commitee.
  • Be the communicator between opponents and candidate
  • Hassle the candidate and constantly asking "Are ya done yet? How about now? Still nothing? Clock's ticking, you know.." until said candidate has completed the dissertation and sent it to the faculty and commitee. Or has a nervous breakdown, whichever comes first.
  • Read a whole lot of soul-draining official documents hoping to find the cipher with which to unlock the potentially useful information I need in order to understand what the hell I'm supposed to do and when so as to fulfil my duty.
  • Inform the opponents of the relevant procedures and timelines for this university, faculty and department.
  • Answering a whole lot of questions from candidate, advisor and opponents........
  • Reading and distributing the dissertation.
  • Trying to get a short summary of the dissertation and a statement about the quality of the work from each of the opponents, then compiling it into one coherent document and getting it signed and submitted by the deadline set by the faculty. Some places, this task also falls on the administrator, so that the opponents only sign an already written document....
  • Book hotel rooms for opponents.
  • Bully opponents into giving a seminar the day before the defense
  • Organize and announce seminars and defense (booking venues, lunches, dinners, etc.)
  • Meet&greet with opponents and advisor. Attend and chair seminars, organize lunch and probably dinner.
  • Sit as "guy in suit number three" through the trial lecture. Make a short summary of content and quality with respect to background, scope and pedagogical level. Decide with opponents whether or not the candidate passed this portion of the defense.
  • Have lunch with entire commitee, advisor, candidate and department head. Keep conversation rollin' throughout the meal, and make sure that the candidate is allowed to leave so as to gather his or her nerves prior to the actual defense.
  • Be "guy in suit number three" for the actual defense, and make notes about content and quality as described above. Be prepared to ask questions to the candidate should the opponents finish their questioning way ahead of schedule or if you find some fatal flaw in the work.
  • Shake hands with the candidate
  • Compile your own notes with those of the opponents on the trial lecture and defense and compile it into a big honkin' document to be signed immediately after thesis.
  • Go to PhD defense dinner. Meet&greet with family and friends of candidate. Tell candidate's parents how proud they should be of their son or daughter, and yes, it's difficult to follow the defense as a layperson, but I'm sure that if it had been THEIR chosen profession, they'd have no problem doing it either. Have nonsensical conversations with people you'd rather see on the back of a milk carton, and use most of your conversational standbys. Be prepared to give a short speech congratulating the candidate for his or her splendid work. Mingle some more, talk to people you either know or don't mind talking to (if you're lucky). Stumble home completely exhausted.
  • Fill out some more forms and communicate between department secretary and opponents.

Pigeon is right; there is no such thing as a free lunch or dinner. Still; it's a useful experience, it's expected of faculty members, and it will take up a line on my resume.


Anders said...

We, the PhD committee, find the defended...

...guilty as charged! May God have mercy on your soul.

Naw, the PhD defence is just a ceremony. An interesting ceremony, I might add, if the candidate is able to have a good discussion/defence with the opponents. Or it could be a really embarrassing show, if they candidate haven't even bother to read his own publications...

Wilhelm said...

A PhD defense has the potential for being utterly embarrassing for all parties concerned. Besides the "ignorant of own work" example you mention (which in all actuality means that said candidate probably didn't do much work on that publication either), you could have a case where the opponent didn't really read the work (signs of this include just basic science questions or general topics rather than details from work), etc.

Wilhelm said...

Loved the "guilty as charged" btw - I'm gonna jack that one for a later occasion.

Anders said...

Jack away!
(somehow, that didn't come out quite right...)

Wilhelm said...

.....somehow it didn't - no......