October 13, 2013, by Stephen Mumford
A few years ago I was ‘first opponent’ at a PhD defence in Norway. The procedure of the viva voce exam was very different from the UK. The candidate was to give a public lecture and then I and another opponent had to engage him in a protracted debate, all in front of a sizeable audience of family, friends, academics and anyone who wanted to come in off the streets. Following the award of the degree we moved on to a celebration banquet at which a toastmaster guided us through countless speeches, music and song, and a warm glow of love and togetherness gradually united the whole room. It seemed like a wedding reception, I remarked to my neighbour. No, I was assured. It is far more important than that. This is once in a lifetime. Anyone can get married but this is a real achievement – one the biggest of all – and should be recognised appropriately.
This week I have been thinking of the PhD again. I was guest at a special degree ceremony exclusively for the conferment of doctoral degrees at which the title of each PhD was displayed, the names of the supervisors were read out and again there were speeches and music. It made me very keen to find ways we might celebrate the PhD more in my own faculty back home.
The PhD is the highest degree that a university may award. Viewed pragmatically, it is a simple professional qualification that has become the standard route for those considering an academic career. Symbolically, however, it is so much more. It marks the transition from student to independent scholar. It is a rite of passage. In the past, some viewed it as their life’s work and would spend years developing their magnum opus. It is not quite that anymore but it is still arguably the most significant piece of work an academic may produce, even one who goes on to write several successful books.
It is during the PhD that one learns the key skills of being a researcher. One must discover a topic in which new work is required, explain its importance, formulate one’s own hypothesis and demonstrate that it has been adequately tested – usually successfully. One has to discover one’s own list of essential readings and show that no one else has drawn exactly the same conclusions on the same problem. In almost all cases, it is with the PhD that a candidate for the first time generates new knowledge. My experience is that work on the PhD becomes all-consuming for the student. Many personal sacrifices are involved.
I have often told friends that I have never worked as hard in my life as the final year of my PhD. But my viva was held in an anonymous room with just me, my two examiners, and afterwards I took the bus home, had a cup of tea, and quietly watched TV. I don’t think I realised the importance of the occasion. Without that degree, none of the opportunities that came my way since would have been open to me. It was a day that changed my life. I see now that the successful PhD is the biggest cause for celebration and I need to make sure henceforth that each new PhD awarded in my faculty is recognised accordingly. To anyone currently struggling to complete their PhD, I wish good luck, every encouragement and assurance that the effort and sacrifice really is worth it.
My colleague at Nottingham Pat Thomson works on academic writing and has a blog, Patter, that often addresses PhD thesis writing.