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I am a new assistant professor. My department is very weird — a combination of very different fields. An associate professor sent out invitations for her students' dissertation defense to all the faculties in my department. Should I attend them?

She is not in my research field and none of the topics are related with my research, so I ignored them. However, one of my friends (who is at a different university) says that I should attend them to show my interest. So I am unsure.

Any thoughts and advice will be truly appreciated.

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  • 1
    Is your friend part of the department? May 19 '21 at 21:24
  • 13
    How many PhD's does the department produce in a year? The answer may be different in a department that graduates 50 PhD's per year than in a department that graduates only one or two per year (or less) May 20 '21 at 2:05
  • 6
    This strongly depends on local culture. Ask your chair or supervisor. May 20 '21 at 4:41
  • 9
    It might help a little if you clarify how broadly you're using the word "field" - does "very different fields" mean, say, particle physics and astronomy, or does it mean biochemistry and semiconductors/materials science, or is it statistics and 12th century Lithuanian poetry?
    – Chris H
    May 20 '21 at 5:57
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    Seems like it would help to understand how they are run before you put your first student on the hot seat. Go to at least a few.
    – Jon Custer
    May 20 '21 at 13:56
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It's normal to advertise PhD defenses broadly in some systems; in many cases defenses are open to the public (at least in part; detailed questioning by the committee is often separate), but as in just about everything in Academia this varies by university/field/country.

It's not expected that everyone that receives such a notice/invitation should attend, but there may be some benefits for you in doing so: you see how defenses are carried out in the department, you learn what your colleagues are up to, you participate in the community of your department.

There are also advantages for the student. I'm in an interdisciplinary field myself, and while I don't understand all the details of research for people in areas further from mine, it is expected that a thesis defense cater to both a broad and narrow audience. Someone who can fit in the same department should be able to get something out of it, even if it isn't narrowly in their research field. PhD students in my program were even required to have one outside person from the department on their thesis committee (not outside the university, as is common in some other areas, but outside their field of interest) to help encourage that breadth of target audience.

I doubt everyone in your department attends every thesis defense in the department, but one good way to find out is to just show up for one. Hopefully you'll learn something new, and maybe you'll have an opportunity to ask a useful "outsider" question. I think it's extremely unlikely you will suffer any direct harm from not attending (that is, I doubt anyone will see it as rude or keep a written tally of who doesn't attend defenses), but you might miss out on opportunity.

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    Another factor: showing up is an easy way to demonstrate support for department's PhD student cohort (all you need to do is sit in a chair and remain minimally conscious for an hour or two). This is the sort of thing that can make a difference to the way people perceive you. You don't need to attend every single defence - just try and be there more often than not.
    – avid
    May 19 '21 at 22:29
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    @avid Agreed; that's the sort of thing I meant to capture in "participate in the community" but spelling it out the way you did is more clear. Of course selfishly this doesn't just show support for the students but also shows support of the students for their advisors, aka department colleagues.
    – Bryan Krause
    May 19 '21 at 23:15
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    Often (at least in Europe) it is not allowed to ask questions. It is a presentation without questions and the question part in not public with the committee.
    – usr1234567
    May 20 '21 at 9:26
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    In Sweden I'm sure the public was allowed to ask questions (after the committee). Just check how it's done, if the public is asked if they have questions and if you have anything sensible to ask, do it then. May 20 '21 at 10:02
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    @avid +1 for "minimally conscious" XD May 20 '21 at 17:14
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Generally there are different customs at different places, and it is never wrong to follow those in such situations. Where I used to work, the principles were roughly these:

A. E-mails are sent to all staff members, so this is not an invitation but rather information that the defense will take place.

B. You should come to the defense (if you can, of course, that is, you have time and such) if (one yes is enough):

  1. you are interested in the work of this particular PhD student;
  2. you are specifically asked (in person) by at least one other staff member to come to the defense (can be in the form of "are you going to this defense?");
  3. the PhD student asks you to come (this never happens, but...);
  4. you (actively) collaborate with the supervisor (promoter) of the PhD student.

I am not saying that this is a perfect system, but it worked quite well and was never made public explicitly (as a PhD Defense Attendance Code or something similar), so I suppose it has more in it than just a set of arbitrary rules.

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  • Point number 3, at least in my experience it happens quite frequently. Also get quite a bunch of personal invites to master's thesises too, but i often dont have time to go.
    – joojaa
    May 21 '21 at 8:11
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  1. If there are only few defenses per years, you should consider attending. Every one is a big deal.
  2. Whether the field is different or not does not really have an effect in the beginning. If it is close to your interests, you can learn something and maybe it will scientifically useful. If it is far from your interests, you can get an idea of what those people do, which seems valuable, as you are in the same department. Maybe it is even interesting. Note that the value of getting familiar with the exotic goes down after you have attended to a few seminars or PhD defenses and the field is no longer quite as exotic for you. Then it becomes more a matter of interest.
  3. For the social expectations, consult your mentor or colleagues. These vary enormously from country to country, and vary even from university to university in smaller countries, not to speak of the larger ones. In a comment John Coleman added that it also varies from department to department.
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  • "and vary even from university to university [and not just in smaller countries] ..." you could add "and vary even from department to department" May 20 '21 at 13:41
  • @JohnColeman I added it, but I don't know if it is true, so I attributed it to you.
    – Tommi
    May 20 '21 at 17:19
  • Yeah, atleast this is my experience also, everybody who does not have a pressing engagement goes to the defence. But then im in the same culture as you. There was usually a free print of the PHD thesis available for everyone. More than on ocasion I have learned something really valuable from the defence and later skim reading teh thesis even more. Often totally unrelated to my own field.
    – joojaa
    May 21 '21 at 8:04
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I'm with Bryan. At UT Austin, my department (Aerospace Engineering) had public defenses, and for popular students, lots of people came to support the student. I went to several in my last couple of years just to see how they were run. The non-committee members and the examinee were thrown out of the room after the student's presentation so that the committee could grill them. Then the student was thrown out into the hall to await their decision or they were immediately congratulated and the signature page was signed. Hard-core friends waited in the hall for the results and to be further support.

If you go in advance of the time of the talk, you might get a chance to ask a fellow faculty member if they are public events (except for the grilling), and then you'll get the opportunity to watch how your new school conducts these events. I would want to see a couple of them before I had to be on a committee or lead one. At the same time, you'll get to meet a few of your new colleagues from across the department that work on different things.

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