Thursday, March 24, 2016

PhD Defenses around the world: Universidad de Chile and University of Groningen, the Netherlands

Today, I'm starting a new series of posts at PhD Talk. While writing with Veronika Cheplygina for her interview, we touched upon the subject of how different her PhD defense in the Netherlands was from her boyfriend's defense in Sweden. Then she said: "Wouldn't that be a topic for a series of posts on your blog?" - and so I decided to host a series of posts about the different styles of defenses worldwide.

The first post in this series is by Pablo Muqoz LLancao. Pablo is a biologist, with PhD in the field of neurobiology. He performed his studies in 2 PhD programs. His first PhD was at Universidad de Chile (Chile) in the PhD program of Molecular and Cellular Biology and Neurosciences. Hissecond PhD was performed at the University of Groningen as a fellow from the Abel Tasman Program talent (The Netherlands). His interest is mainly the study of neuronal polarity, psychiatric disorders and emotional brain.

So let's see what a PhD defense is like in Chile and the Netherlands!


My career began studying Biology at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, and then I continue my PhD in neurosciences at Universidad de Chile. During my PhD I could have the opportunity to apply for the Abel Tasman program of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. So basically at my second year of PhD I started another PhD (yes, crazy, I know). My two PhDs were focused in the study of the cAMP signaling pathway involved in neuronal polarity.

Trying to combine to different style of doing a PhD was difficult at the beginning. To be able to defend your thesis at Universidad de Chile, the PhD student has to approve at least 2 previous evaluations with the PhD committee, which are in principal mini-defenses.

After that we received the approval to start to writing the thesis. In a period of 6 months we have to send the manuscript of the thesis and if everything goes well, we get the date for a private defense. This defense is the most difficult and stressful; we have to present a power point of our data and the committee asks question based in the thesis or something related to field or topic of the thesis can last between 3-4 hours ( it is feel like you are a gladiator and have to fight all the time).

After the private defense we are almost PhD, but still the last step is ahead, it is a public defense. The public defense should last 1 hour and we can invite family and friend. This defense consist, again, in a power point that summarizes the research and after one hour, the public can ask questions. It is supposed that the questions from the public are easy, but sometimes you have some professor that likes to give you the last pinch.

Finally you finish and your main supervisor gives you the congratulations and a little gift from the University. One year later the University of Chile organize a ceremony where all the new PhD are invited and they receive an special medal in a very formal ceremony, to remember the PhD

In the University of Groningen, we have to publish at least 2 papers in order to create a book, which contains all the publications delivered during the PhD.

Then we have to follows several rules or guidelines called "Hora finita", which include sending the thesis to external advisors or a revision committee. If everything goes well, your thesis is approved and you have to make changes from the reviewers. During this period you have to ask for a date for your defense.

The final date arrives but you have to follow a protocol, this is a very formal ceremony, the time is 45 minutes but last one hour. Normally the man should wear a very formal suit or in my case I wear the "penguin suit" (this suit is typical used by the Opera singers) for the occasion.

I forgot to mention that you have to choose two persons, which are your "paranymphs", ceremonial assistants, but also they help you with all the bureaucracy of the Hora finita system (it is a lot). Together with your paranymphs you have to go and wait in the academic building of the University of Groningen (an old building which date since 1614 but it has been rebuild several times).

You and your paranymphs are waiting for a master of ceremony dressing an old toga that come to you and you receive instruction how to behave and salute to your committee that is called "Corona" ( Professors that are invited to participate as a board and they ask the questions that you have defend. Full professors wear cap and gown and other professors just formal suits).

The moment of waiting is very stressful, the room that you have to wait, it is called "The sweating room". Then, a knock on the door, the master of ceremony ask you if you are ready and you have walk in to a very old room that looks like a church, all the people stand up when the corona enters and then when you enter. When you arrive to the front of the room, you have to salute bending forward to your corona, wait for a formal opening from one member of the corona, which is the represent of the Rector Magnificus and then you take your seat, withyour thesis book, pen, and a paper.

Then every member of the corona asks questions. You have to respond following a protocol, for example: Thanks for your question, highly esteemed opponent. After 45 minutes of questions, the master of ceremony enters and screams "Hora Finita". The defense is over, and then the corona goes out, then you, and waits 10 minutes.

After that you return to the room and the ceremony continue with the representant of the rector giving an speech and telling you that you approved your PhD. After that, your main supervisor give a speech and congratulate you too. You receive gift from the corona and your PhD diploma in Latin and English (for the Dutch students is Latin and Dutch). Finally you are done then you have a cocktail where people go and share with you and party.

The experience of very different defenses processes was very rich; it is a stressful situation but after all is a good memory because all your sacrifice, joy, stress, and tears finish with that event and the new adventure in science is ahead.

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