DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS: THE STRANGEST GENRE

Doctoral dissertations are the strangest genre because they’re both the record of a process of learning and its final product. PhD candidates are so overwhelmed by the effort made throughout the years that they don’t seem to notice this particularity until, precisely, the time of the ‘viva’ (or ‘defence,’ as we call it in Spain echoing old Inquisitional tribunals…). Once the questions from the examining board pour down on the poor candidate, s/he realises that it would be perfect if only s/he could start again all over, now that the main mistakes are highlighted. But, then, part of the game is that you can’t start all over and correct those mistakes you see in hindsight with all clarity.
This leads to a peculiar situation: if an examining board has enough ill-will against the candidate (or his/her supervisor…) any PhD dissertation can be failed, which seldom happens, if ever, in Spain –quite the opposite. I’m aware that in Britain PhD candidates can be sent back home to reform their dissertations and are allowed to re-submit them a few months later. This is unthinkable here, as it would be an appalling embarrassment for the supervisor. A peculiar idea of honour, then, turns defences into very strange exercises, as a dissertation can be awarded the highest mark regardless of the intensity and even aggressiveness of the criticisms it may receive. No wonder foreign members of examining boards are puzzled by our grading scale (remember the French diva?).
As a member of a few tribunals so far, I do worry about our very typical ‘cum laude’ hyperinflation. I’ve fought hard to keep up standards on examining boards that intended to reward candidates in excess of their merits, as I think that the all-too common automatic ‘cum laude’ diminishes the merits of real ‘cum laudes.’ This, ironically, might make me unwelcome to other examining boards, for I may gain the wrong reputation… We need to understand that if universities allow for a wider range of marks, these should be used, included ‘Aprobado’ (C) and ‘Notable’ (B). I do realise that the supervisor is a key element in the ‘cum laude’ hyperinflation, as his/her colleagues would not want to question their professionalism by awarding one of his/her dissertations a low mark. Yet, it’s funny how we never think this way of plain exams, which the best university teachers can fail with no qualms about his/her own reputation (again, quite the opposite). In the same way, although a doctorate is our own honours program, we need to understand that the impact of falling standards will soon be felt and we’ll have indeed dissertations that only merit a simple ‘pass,’ regardless of the efforts of the supervisor.
Knowing that this blog is, somehow, autobiographical, I’m sure readers will suspect that I’m referring here to a particular dissertation. Well, yes, last Friday I was part of a PhD examining board and, yes, criticism was quite thorough, despite which the candidate got a ‘cum laude’ (A+). I awarded this mark with all my heart for I did see that the candidate, a hard-working person whose academic capacities I know well, understood our criticisms and would make most of them in order to publish a better version of his dissertation. Also because his failings were connected to his ambition to do innovative research in his field, which is, after all, the point of a dissertation. Well done!!
I just hope my own doctoral students do so well and that if they receive a ‘cum laude’ it is justified on the same grounds. I’m ready to help but I’m also ready for the time one of mine might deserve just a ‘pass’ despite my efforts. Sooner or later, it’ll happen to any of us.

2 thoughts on “DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS: THE STRANGEST GENRE

  1. I appreciate the hindsight aspects of the post, being a connoisseur in issues of hindsight. And, you did not take into account the very real possibility that passes and cum laudes might be unfair. There is an ample spectrum of cases in which a middling dissertation will get or fail to get a “cum laude” depending on the state of alliances between the board members and the supervisor. Not to mention different standards at different universitis… there are many PhDs around which would have never made it to the early stages in a more demanding university system, and vice versa for the brilliant failures who might have made it elsewhere. A thesis is a long way, and long ways are fraught with accidents and incidents and happenstances and unique situations.

  2. José Ángel,
    No, I wasn’t thinking of the examining boards, the final marks and so on. It’s rather what you raise at the end: ” a thesis is a long way”. I think that even if I am more cautious in the future, accidents will still happen. And, well, often, and I don’t mean in the case of my student, the only way to know whether you’re capable of completing a PhD dissertation is by starting one. Undergrads often abandon and, well, so do post-grads. The pity is that the tutor’s efforts are then lost.
    Thanks,
    Sara

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