Tuesday, November 7, 2017

PhD Defenses around the world: a Defense from Russia

Today, I have invited Dr. Alexandra Voronina to explain us how a PhD defense in Russia takes place. Alexandra is 32 and lives in a small town near Saint-Petersburg. She has a PhD in sociology, which she defended in September 2009 at Saint-Petersburg State University. Nowadays she works as an assistant professor at Admiral Makarov State University of Maritime and Inland Shipping at the History, Sociology and Political Science Department. She has two little children. Officially, she is on parental leave now but she has a cash-in-hand job as a tutor helping schoolchildren prepare for their State Uniform Leaving Certificate Examinations. In her free time she is writing a monograph, which she recently submitted to a publisher, and teaching aids. Her plan for the near future is to begin writing her habilitation thesis. She also blogs about social anthropology. You can find her on Instagram.


When I studied for a PhD there were three ways to get the PhD in Russia: a full-time postgraduate course, a part-time doctoral program, or you can do your PhD not as a part of a structured doctoral program (it’s standard in Russia for PhD students to be treated as fairly independent scholars who also teach). As for me, I was a full-time postgraduate student. This course involves 3 years of study (with a strict deadline), a compulsory attendance, and a teaching practice, passing exams, a scholarship and only scientific activities. So I couldn’t work anywhere as an employee, but I could take part in research grants as a postgraduate student. Nowadays as far as I know, the postgraduate course and the rules for the PhD defense have been changed. But I defended my PhD in September 2009, and, of course, I describe my experience!

There is a two-step PhD defense in Russia: a trial viva and a viva. The trial viva is held when you have passed all examinations, two special exams with test questions related to your thesis, published the necessary number of articles and, of course, written your dissertation paper. The head of the department appoints two reviewers for the PhD thesis (internal and external). An internal reviewer is a member of the department. An external reviewer can be a member of a neighboring department or of another university. Approximately one month ahead of the trial viva, the manuscript and extended abstract of the dissertation must be sent to the reviewers. The trial viva takes place at the department. It is not public. It is attended by all members of the department and reviewers. The task of the members of the department is to ask as many questions as possible. Thus they prepare a postgraduate student for the upcoming viva. The task of the reviewers is to evaluate the thesis and give feedback to the postgraduate student on how to improve its quality. In theory, the reviewers can also reject the thesis if they feel it is not strong enough for the viva, but in practice the postgraduate student is allowed to take the trial viva when a supervisor considers that the thesis is ready. Both reviewers approve the thesis, and the student gets a permission to defend the dissertation paper.

When the supervisor agreed with my last corrections, my second-step challenge to reach the viva began. First of all I had to prepare documents for the preliminary examination of the thesis in the dissertational defense board. The dissertational defense board in its turn appointed a committee from among its members for acquaintance with the dissertation paper. The task of the committee is to prepare a conclusion for the dissertational defense board. In case of its positive decision, the committee prepares a draft conclusion on the thesis, after which the dissertational defense board accepts the dissertation paper for the viva, appoints the official opponents, the lead organization (which is the examiner too), and the date of viva, allows to print the extended abstract of the dissertation. I had the positive decision and my next step was to go to the publishing house to print the extended abstract of my dissertation in the amount of 100 copies (to send through the post to all the members of the dissertation defense board) and to print my manuscript in 4 copies (one copy for the library and the others for the three opponents). Do not think that the dissertation defense board includes 100 members. About 20 synopsis of the thesis should be brought to the PhD defense. It’s also considered good style if you present your dissertation extended abstract to each collaborators of your department. In addition, I should receive feedback from different people on my dissertation extended abstract.

Two weeks before the viva, I received the reviews from my opponents. Usually an opponent review is a brief overview of the dissertation research, its conformity or non-compliance with the rules for writing papers of this kind, and indicates the shortcomings of the thesis. The reviews must be transferred to the dissertational defense board by the candidate. When I got opponents’ feedback I began to prepare the answers to the comments of official opponents. My supervisor helped me in it. He also told me about the whole procedure of PhD defense, asked me all sorts of tricky questions about my dissertation research, so I was ready to defend!

The viva is public and lasts 2 hours
. Usually friends and family are invited in addition to colleagues and collaborators. The head of the dissertational defense board opens the viva. Further, the scientist secretary reports that all documents of the candidate are here. After that, the candidate briefly talks about his/her dissertation research and its results. Then, the dissertational defense board members ask any questions about the thesis, to which the candidate must give exhaustive answers. When the questions are finished, the promoter makes a short speech, and then the scientist secretary reads out the conclusion of the organization in which the theses was done, the review of the leading organization and reviews on extended abstract of the dissertation. Further, the candidate answers the comments contained in the reviews and then the official opponents read their feedback and the candidate replies to the comments of the opponents. Finally the thesis is discussed by the members of the dissertational defense board, and the candidate is given the final word to thank everyone who helped him or her. After this, a secret ballot is held. A positive decision on awarding an academic degree is accepted if at least two-thirds of the members of the dissertational defense board voted in favor. After the approval of the protocol on the results of voting, the draft conclusion of the dissertational defense board is discussed. It has to highlight the main points of the thesis and its compliance with the requirements of the highest attestation committee. The conclusion is made by open voting and is declared to the candidate. Then the candidate invites all present to a party.

Although the viva is considered to be held, however, this is not all. Within 30 days from the date of it, the candidate must prepare and send his documents to the highest attestation. And only after this you can say that your viva is really finished.

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