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My initial reaction would be that it would be highly inappropriate to attend someone's defense unless explicitly invited, and you should never ask someone for and invitation to anything. It should be something very private.

However, it referred to as a "Final Public Oral Examination" and the time, date, and location (i.e. Zoom link) is shared by the department and the university. I have been told that some things I would find mean and offensive are actually supportive and kind things to do, so I do not know if my initial reaction is the "correct" one.

I want to be supportive, while not going where I am not wanted/should not go. At the same time, I am not sure if there is just some level of unspoken assumptions/norms that I am unaware of.

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    In my department it was normal and expected for friends to attend the final oral exam. And it was nice to see some friendly faces out in the audience. Go. – Jon Custer May 12 at 15:31
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    Why do you think it would be such an extreme invasion of privacy? – Azor Ahai May 12 at 15:34
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    In my department, there was a general expectation to attend all attended defenses, but we where a small department of ~15 faculty and 20 to 60 students depending upon funding cycles. Also, family and friends regularly attended defenses. It was common for parents to fly in to see defense in my program. – Richard Erickson May 12 at 16:00
  • Are you studying in the same dept. as your friend? – user111388 May 12 at 18:03
  • Yes and no. I am a lab manager for one of the research groups in the department, and he is one of the grad students in the department in another lab group. – BPL May 13 at 17:59
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Traditionally (i.e. several hundred years of tradition) these things are public. Intentionally so. I urge you to go, or at least ask your friend whether they would object - which they should not.

In fact other students in the department should probably also attend, just to get a sense of the sorts of things that get asked.

My own final act as a student was called a Dissertation Defense, not an oral exam, but anyone on the committee could ask any question, even quite off the wall questions. But no one did that. I remember the room as being quite full with lots of professors and even more students. I don't recall whether the rules permitted the public to ask questions, but that is sometimes allowed as well.

The candidate is expected to say sensible things, but not necessarily to provide an answer to every question posed. But think of it more as a sharing of new ideas with the community than a grilling. If grilling was needed it probably already took place in private oral exams covering some aspect of the field of study.

There are a few horror stories about people not getting their degree because of their (lack of) performance at such things. Some of them involve questions by out-of-field committee members that are a feature in some places. But the sorts of questions they are likely to ask are necessarily elementary and it is a real failure to not be able to respond sensibly.

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    Public questions were explicitly solicited at the ones in my department – Azor Ahai May 12 at 15:47
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    But of course, if the friend does not want you to go, respect their wishes! – user111388 May 12 at 18:05
  • At my university, the thesis committee has the right to kick the public audience out of the defense—after all audience questions have been answered—to ask the candidate more pointed / sensitive / potentially embarrassing questions. In 50+ thesis defenses over 20+ years, I think I've seen this right exercised once. (That student still passed.) – JeffE May 13 at 16:10
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They are your friends. What do you think about them? Will they be happy about your support? Or not to be examined in front of friends? In my opinion, you should ask them before (not too strange since at a Zoom meeting, there is no buffet for them to organize). Maybe they didn't ask you because they worry you find it boring? Don't ask questions at the defense if they don't want you to. Afterwards, congratulate them!

That it is public is a red herring. You are not there as a public person but as a friend.

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In many cases not only it is not inappropriate but it is welcome and set in regulations. In Denmark, as an example, Doctorate defences are public in the sence that they can (and are) be attended by any member of the public, university related or not.

In principle I completely agree with dissertations being accessible to anyone. However, to be on the safe side, you might want to first ask for your friend's opinion and then to chech with the Department. If neither objects, just "walk in". It would by no means be a faux pas.

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  • I think since the person in question is a friend, it is more important that they agree than if it is public or not. Some people don't care for strangers in their exams but don't want friends present, for example. – user111388 May 13 at 15:32
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It's normal and shows camaraderie. Some places will ask the audience to leave after the presentation part is over, when the questioning occurs. (Mine did.)

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