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'PhD defense has nothing festive about it anymore'

| Stan Waning

Many PhD students regard the defense, with all its ceremonial rules, as the grand finale of his or her research. It is the crowning glory of four years of hard work. But now, during the corona crisis, there is only the digital alternative. And that doesn't feel right to many PhD candidates.

Academic ceremonies have been cut down considerably by the current circumstances. In 2020, with the necessary adjustments, all sorts of physical events were still possible, but now the norm is to be completely online. No audience, no layman talk, no paranymphs, no autographs and photos, and no festive reception either. Although almost everyone can understand the need for these exceptional circumstances, the grapes are no less sour for PhD researchers.

Anika Boelhouwer, for example, is defending her research today (Wednesday). She doesn't have to come to the campus for this, but experiences the crowning of her work at home at the kitchen table. ‘You work towards this moment for years and you see colleagues concluding their PhDs with beautiful ceremonies and parties. For me, it's a sober online meeting. I'm the first in my family to experience a PhD defense. I've been told about this moment for years and now it has to be this way. I can understand the circumstances, but it has nothing festive about it for me anymore,' Boelhouwer says.

Amin Zaami describes his digital promotion - which takes place tomorrow - with similar words. The Iranian praises himself for seeing in time that his defense will not be held physically on campus. 'Nobody told me that my defense would be online. I happened to look on the website last week. I'm bummed about that,' Zaami says.

He, too, is sympathetic to the circumstances, but doesn't understand why the defense has been stripped down so much. 'The library is open and people still work on campus. Why not have a defense in a big room with a few people? Then at least you still create the atmosphere. I saw that more is possible at other universities. I no longer have any feeling about this defense. It feels like a digital meeting of which I have had a hundred in the last few weeks.'

Irena Maureen experienced her defense last week in the evening, while the rest of the video call attendees just woke up. The online conditions ensured that she could do her defense from Indonesia. 'I would have loved to come to the Netherlands for the ceremony and of course for the after-party. I could already see myself walking to The Waaier building in a dress, but I understand the flip side of the coin. This is such a bizarre crisis. Many people lost family members and friends. So the fact that I was able to do my defense in good health and surrounded by family, I see as a gift.'

At P-NUT, UT's PhD network, they see the stories with pain in their hearts, says chairman Anton Atanasov. 'I don't want to point a finger at anyone, but many things go wrong because the rules keep changing. In 2020, a defense was still partly physical, now everything is online. In between, the rules have changed so many times. We try to assist PhD students as much as possible, but our people are exhausted. We are trying to find new members for the board, but right now we are just arranging things. You don't get new people excited with that,' Atanasov says.

He heard the story of a South African PhD student in October. She had allowed her family to travel to the Netherlands according to all protocols. Just before the defense it was determined that people from outside the UT were not allowed to attend after all. 'It was terrible to see, especially because there was little we could do. With an official letter and a lot of effort, her family was allowed to attend at the last minute, but it is a powerful example of the disappointments we hear from PhD students.'