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PhD defense

IYOUITThis is something I wanted to blog for a while, but – hey – it’s better late than never 🙂

I did my PhD in Utrecht University, which is old (founded in 1636) and quite traditional. The defense is in a room full of old portraits, professors wear togas and no technology (photo, video, etc) is allowed without special permission. The defense is ruled by the Beadle (ceremonymeister), the defendant is accompanied by two paranimfs (assistants, who play similar roles as best friends at a wedding :), all dressed up pretty formal as well.

'The silent audience' by Ton ZijlstraIn the Netherlands by the time you go to the defense the PhD work is practically done: the main critical moments happen a few months before it, when the dissertation is first approved by the supervisors and then read by the PhD committee members, who decide if it’s good enough to let you go to the defense. Failing a defense is almost unheard of, but your performance still matters for your reputation and the future in academia.

From a personal perspective it was a fun and a bit scary day. While lots of people made jokes about the schedule in the building that said very definitively that  “Promotion L. Efimova M. Sc.” would be followed by the “Reception Dr. Efimova”, the hour between those two felt as an extremely long one.

So, there I was, facing a group of distinguished academics (and I hope to be forgiven for excluding all the formal titles below 🙂 that was chaired by Willem Koops, the dean of the Social Sciences faculty, and included my supervisors Robert-Jan Simons, Robert de Hoog and Edward Faber, members of the examination committee  Betty Collis, Mariëtte de Haan, Albert Pilot Jan Schmidt, and Jan Vermunt, Jan Schmidt, as well as Jonathan Grudin who couldn’t come, but was virtually present by sending his questions.

I had 45 minutes for the defense itself. Most of the questions were not about the dissertation itself, but various implications of the work. That made it challenging, since I had to come up with some of the answers on the fly. It felt like an interesting conversation, however too formal, stressful and way too short to enjoy it fully. I was also stupid enough not to have a watch in front of me, so I didn’t have a good idea how the time went and took a bit too short with the first couple of questions. I am still thinking of some of the questions and planning to write in more detail on that in the weblog.

Robert Bestowing Doctorate by Ton ZijlstraThen the committee left (through the secret door that I didn’t even know was there) to discuss their opinions of the defense before coming back to award the degree. As with other PhD defenses I went to, I found those few minutes very special – once the committee disappears the room turns very informal, with making photos, greetings and chatter, and all that is covered with a scent of anticipation… And then there were my doctor diploma and all kinds of nice words, including Robert-Jan’s qualification of me as “a curious, inspiring, persistent doubter” 🙂

IMG_7127 by Robert SlagterAnd then we all moved to the reception. Alexander, who wasn’t allowed at the defense and was running outside with his grandfather, jumped into my arms and stayed there through most of the congratulations claiming his share of attention for all the hard times he had while I was working on the dissertation… Being done with the PhD felt nice, but it was even nicer to be able to share the joy of it with others – family, friends and extended professional network.

Thank you, everyone, for making it special!


If you are curious for more you can see photos of the defense by Ton, Robert and all kinds of other people. While the recording of the defense wasn’t allowed, they didn’t say anything about twittering it, so thanks to @gervis and @ruudstweets I have a real-time transcript 🙂

4:11 @gervis Senate Hall Utrecht University 8 minutes before the ceremony with Lilia’s Defense in the spotlights – http://mobypicture.com/?y2lgf2
4:11 @ruudstweets at @mathemagenic’s phd defense; tension is rising 😉
4:13 @ruudstweets we’re not allowed to take pictures; never mind, all around me they are twittering…
4:20 @ruudstweets Q1: why didn’t you study the non bloggers among knowledge workers?
4:20 @gervis Prof. Betty Collins of t U of Twente asks t promovendus why many knowledge workers are not passionate bloggers?
4:23 @ruudstweets Q2: blogging as knowledge creation; how do you pass the scientific test?
4:23 @gervis Prof. Wouters of Erasmus focusses on blogging as knowledge creation. How scientific can a blogging activity be?
4:28 @gervis Wouters: Want a conventional PhD or do you want a blogging approach? Blogging allows nw ways of doing action research
4:30 @gervis Professor de Haan praises the candidate for the original way of developing this thesis. Blogging is also new learning
4:31 @ruudstweets Q3: what are the disadvantages of “learning online”?
4:33 @gervis Lilia reminds that the blogging approach and learning online cq knowledge creation also has its limitations for research.
4:35 @ruudstweets Q3a: what kind of knowledge and skills are needed?
4:38 @gervis Lilia mentions the competence of being able to distinguish the quality in the flood of information the knowledge landscap
4:39 @ruudstweets Q4: what makes weblogs special among web 2.0 tools for knowledge creation?
4:43 @gervis The difference between weblogs and other publation tools like twitter is functionality and space. Blogs are work in progress
4:46 @ruudstweets Q5: could weblogs hinder routine knowledge management as in, e.g., standard de-personalized memo’s?
4:49 @ruudstweets Q5a: would a standardized weblog format be advisable?
4:51 @gervis Another opponent questions if blogging hinders trad. ways of knowledge management? They shouldnt be t only tool
4:55 @ruudstweets Q6: how did you use your evaluation criteria (authenticity, trustworthiness, impact) in your research?
4:55 @gervis 3 criteria are mentioned f evaluating effectiveness of a blogging activity. 1 is authenticity. Another is trustwothiness
5:01 @ruudstweets Q8: hora est!
5:05 @gervis Lilia stresses cc evaluation on the connection between quality connection criteria – http://mobypicture.com/?s9iio2
5:08 @ruudstweets hmm, only seven minutes for deliberation…
5:09 @gervis http://mobypicture.com/?tr3a90
5:09 @ruudstweets Lilia Efimova, Ph.D. !!!
5:11 @gervis Doctor Lilia Efimova was promoted on Passion at Work – http://mobypicture.com/?bzyuu
5:14 @gervis Lilia’s supervisor tells about his supervising experience w this passionate blogger and he praises her f… – http://mobypicture.com/?t66sve
5:14 @ruudstweets chair compliments her with methodology section; sets the example for future qualitative researchers…
5:17 @gervis As a scientist Lilia is characterized by her supervisor as ‘a curious inspiring consistent doubter’ a gr… – http://mobypicture.com/?iwwjji
5:38 @gervis Congratulations Doctor Lilia with this milestone and great accomplishment!!!! – http://mobypicture.com/?l5g21a
5:40 @gervis The after party – http://mobypicture.com/?2jqsqe
{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Jussi August 27, 2009, 15:36

    Hi Lilia, This was very interesting. It must have been a thrilling session.

  • Janelle Ward August 27, 2009, 17:50

    Great summary! I’ve been meaning to write one of these about my own defense (it was in January). I was taking notes during your defense on my iPhone, and was wondering if the others were doing the same on their phones. Now I know what they were up to!

    It was really interesting to hear your thoughts on your work. Congratulations and good luck in the future!

  • Adeline Chua August 28, 2009, 11:03

    Hi Lilia! Reading through the Tweets….even my own heart was beating rapidly, as if I was there!LOL ! I can imagine the excitement in the room! Congratulations, Dr Lilia! You truly deserve a BIG holiday now! 🙂

  • Cornelius Puschmann August 31, 2009, 20:00

    German defenses are rather sober and only other PhD students were allowed as audience at mine, so it was a fairly low-key thing. The most special moment for me was when I was asked back into the room after the committee had convened. That’s right – they don’t leave the room, you do, and only the candidate is asked back in to hear the result afterwards.

    The head of my committee accounced the result (you don’t know it beforehand, not even for the thesis, so essentially anything is possible) and shook my hand, then everyone else did. It felt a lot like they were saying “you’re one of us now – you’re an academic grown-up”. Funny, how far away it seems now, even though it’s only been half a year…

    A propos – hey Janelle! My defense was in January too (and I had no idea you knew Lilia – small world!) 🙂

  • Sui Fai John Mak September 12, 2009, 16:49

    Congratulations Dr Lilia. I like your blog posts and it is wonderful to learn about your PhD journey. Best wishes from John

  • Annette Agerdal-Hjermind September 14, 2009, 21:00

    I just want to thank you for sharing your experiences. Being a ph.d-student it is really interesting to read the first-hand experiences from someone who has went through the whole ph.d.-process. Really interesting topic and findings.
    All the best,
    Annette (ph.d.-student in blogging)

  • M-H September 16, 2009, 05:37

    Congratulations Dr Lilia. Your blog has consistently been the most thought-provoking for me on my own journey (which is far from ended!) This is the most insightful thing I’ve read on your blog: “When I started the PhD I didn’t want to be a researcher, but wanted time and space for a research-based practice: being able to reflect, to explore conceptual world behind what happens day-to-day and then bring those insights back to work. What I didn’t realise that once you do a PhD you become a researcher :)”

    And now, on to the next thing…?

  • Lilia Efimova September 16, 2009, 19:29

    Kind of – on to trying to figure out what the next thing 🙂

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