Thursday, May 26, 2016

PhD Defenses around the world: a Defense in Belgium

Today, Damien Debecker talks about his PhD defense in Belgium in the "Defenses around the world" series. Damien is a bioengineer by training and received his PhD in the field of heterogeneous catalysis. He is now an Associate Professor at the University of Louvain, in Belgium, teaching physical chemistry and separation processes. In his research he focuses on the preparation and study of new heterogeneous catalysts and biocatalysts to design chemical processes in a greener way. He is also an occasional blogger, and quite active on twitter.

Recently, he launched a science blogging hub called "External Diffusion", convinced by the idea that scientists have a strong desire to talk about their findings, not only via scientific publications but also through engaging online contents. You can connect with them on social media or visit the blog.


I defended my PhD in May 2010, at the UCL in Belgium. My contract was running until the 30th of September. However, I wanted to apply for a specific post doc fellowship and I had to be a doctor by June. When you have such a strict deadline (normally it’s the end of the contract but it can be something else) you have to start counting backwards. Indeed, in Belgium we have a two-step PhD defense. Basically there are two events: a private defense and a public defense. This is rather specific. Let me explain!

Approximately one month ahead of the private defense the manuscript must be sent to all jury members. The private defense is actually the most important step in the process. It is not public – as you may have guessed from the name. Everybody’s meeting: the candidate, the promoter, the jury member along with a president of the jury (who is usually an experienced professor from the faculty or Institute). So, I had to make a short presentation of something like 20 minutes just to get the session started. Then, the jury is asking questions. They take the time to go chapter by chapter into all the details they like or dislike. Believe me; they sometimes like to go into the details. Usually the promoter remains silent, but he may also jump into the discussion from time to time to give his opinion. My promoter was even kinder: he was taking note of all the remarks so that I could concentrate on just answering the questions I was asked and then get the complete list at the end. The session is supposed to last 3 hours max but it regularly goes over time. It did in my case. We even had to order sandwiches for lunch! This doesn’t necessarily mean that the jury was not happy with the work. Simply they had a lot of things to say and some of the points were actually debated among me and the jury and also among different jury members.

Ultimately, the jury has to decide among three decisions:
  1. “there are big flaws and the candidate is not ready: we have to meet again in a few months and start over!”, 
  2. “the thesis is acceptable but some major modifications have to be made in the manuscript or some additional experiments are needed; we ask the candidate to send again a draft of thesis in e.g. 3 months, and after a distance check we will notify if a public defense date can be fixed”,
  3. “the thesis can be defended publicly; we only ask for minor corrections which can be made by the candidate directly and checked only by the promoter”.

I felt relieved when the third option was chosen by my jury. I basically didn’t really have the choice if I wanted to make it on time for my post doc fellowship. Once the authorization of organizing the public defense is granted, the candidate knows that the PhD will be granted. Yet the party is not over! So I sat back at my desk to make the last (small but numerous) corrections, I sent the final text to printing, I prepared a long presentation, and I invited all my family and friends to the public defense.

The public defense - as you may guess from the name - is public. Usually family and friends come over and obviously all colleagues from the laboratory too. The jury is dressed in gown and hat. The final book has to be printed and available to all. The candidate makes a presentation of 45 minutes. Then the jury members will ask questions again each for 10 to 15 minutes. Usually the questions asked at that point are more general, more open, or pointing towards the prospects of the work. Fair enough! All tiny scientific and technical details had been discussed one month earlier. Nevertheless the session typically lasts two hours and – believe me – it usually gets boring for the layman!

At the end of my presentation I wanted to finish by a slide saying thank you. But I also had prepared three slides to thank my family, friends and promoter. Taken by my enthusiasm I just went along with my presentation forgetting about the questions. So basically I was already thanking everybody for their support during my PhD, even though I was still supposed to answer questions for about one hour! I realized it too late. Luckily the president of the jury made a humorous transition towards the questions. After one hour of discussion, the jury left the room to deliberate and came back 15 minutes later holding a diploma. Well I could see it and touch it for a few seconds only, just enough to sign it. Then it went back with the secretary of the jury to follow the process of getting the Rector's signature (I received it back only a few months later). My promoter made a short speech. And then I invited everybody for a drink and some snacks. In the evening my colleagues and close family were invited at the restaurant. And the evening was completed by a “decent party”!

Today, I am myself a PI. I have been a jury for several PhD now. And my first PhD student just defended her thesis last month! (Applause!) I have to say here that the specificity of the two-step PhD defense in Belgium is something I really like. During the private defense everything can be said. As a jury member you can freely point at things that are wrong or demand modifications. As a candidate you truly have an interaction, for three hours at least, with true experts in the field. In this way, you have the chance to confront your work with the expertise of others, not only your promoter. And to improve your final manuscript, the one you will be so proud of. If you like you can compare this with the reviewing process in publishing. Imagine you could discuss live with the reviewers instead of getting just cold reviewing report in your mailbox. Very valuable!

What do you think? Please comment!

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