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At my university (in Germany), a discussion is going on for some months. The issue is that some (professors and PhD students) want to establish a policy that, prior to the oral defense of their PhD thesis, candidates should have access to the (written) assessments of their thesis by the examiners (that is the main supervisor and further professors/experts). Others are against this, and want to keep things as they are – the candidate holds their oral defense without prior knowledge of the assessments.

To clarify: the thesis examiners assess the PhD thesis. Afterwards, the defense is held; it is an event open to the public where the PhD candidate first gives a presentation, presenting their PhD research results. Afterwards, the examiners will ask the PhD candidate critical questions about the thesis and beyond. Based on the thesis itself and the quality of the presentation and questions answered, the grade is then decided by the examiners.

This discussion is going on for quite some time now, and no side seems to be able to convince the other that their take on the PhD defense is the better. I personally don’t see any real downside to making the assessments accessible to the PhD candidate, but then on the other hand I am “only” a PhD student and have no real experience with thesis defenses yet.

My question is: Are there any universities that already have a policy like this in place and if so, is it beneficial for the PhD candidates?

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    At your university, what proportion of students fail their defense? Outside Germany, the approach varies from "no written assessment" to "no oral defense." Jan 14 at 14:31
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    Is the purpose of the defense to grade or peer review? Without a clear definition of what the defense is for, arguing over details is not useful.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 14 at 14:35
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    @JonCuster The exact purpose of a PhD defense in Germany (which could be open to discussion), could be (as far as it is relevant) part of a good answer to this question. I think it would disservice this question for the OP (a PhD student) to impose their interpretation of the purpose of a PhD defense in Germany, as it may preclude properly including the different sides in the debate.
    – mmeent
    Jan 14 at 16:23
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    @mmeent - no doubt, and I am not an expert on Germany. From my experiences in the US and a European country (not Germany), frankly the defense is mostly a ceremony. If the assessments are really poor the advisor should not let the defense occur in the first place.
    – Jon Custer
    Jan 14 at 16:26
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    Short anecdotal evidence. I defended my thesis (CS, Germany) this week and had prior access to the assessments. Four of my coworkers from other fields (Physics, Pol Sci, Geographics, Art History, all different Universities) also knew theirs. For me, this was very helpful to judge which aspects of my work the examiners found most interesting and helped me to prepare some answers for questions I could otherwise probably not have answered.
    – m00am
    Jan 16 at 23:57
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It doesn't suprise me that you are at loggerheads on this, because I see benefits/drawbacks in each position. This is also wrapped up in the revisions that the candidate will make to their thesis in response to referee feedback, so some complicated timing issues arise. As a general observation, allowing the candidate to have access to their referee reports will make the oral defence somewhat like the thesis revisions/response-to-referees that would ordinarily occur. By being put on notice of the (alleged) problems, the candidate can determine their view on this and their proposed actions.

Here are some advantages and disadvantages I can see with the proposal to allow the candidate to see their referee reports prior to oral defence (compared to the case where they go in blind). One's view of which method of assessment is better will largely come down to looking at the trade-off between these advantages and disadvantages.

  • Advantage --- Ability to respond to errors/problems: An obvious advantage of this is that the candidate can prepare a response to questions that will arise from critiques in the examiner's report. There will be certain aspects of the thesis where it is impossible to give a satisfactory extemporaneous response to an examiner comment, but having access to the report means that a reponse in the oral defence is now feasible. ( E.g., if the referee has pointed out an error in the thesis, the candidate now has time to check if the referee is correct, determine what effect this error has, and formulate a plan for revision. Even the first part is not really possible in extemporaneous communication.)

  • Advantage --- Overlap with thesis revisions: Another advantage of this method is that the candidate's preparation for the oral defence will overlap with the revisions to the thesis and response-to-referees. Indeed, probably the best way for the candidate to prepare for the oral defence is to actually begin constructing the revisions and response-to-referees, in order to ensure that their own response to these issues is going to fix the identified problems. The advantage here is that the oral defence then provides a kickstart to the process of revisions, and the candidate is able to "kill two birds with one stone" by working on the revisions and the preparation for oral defence concurrently.

  • Disadvantage --- Narrower scope of review: One of the things you observe in university courses is that students often seek to probe their lecturer to narrow the scope of what will/won't be on the final examination. They do this because they want to narrow the scope of what they need to study, which alleviates the need to study material that is out-of-scope. Good lecturers generally resist this kind of strategy, because they want to ensure that any aspect of the material is potentially assessible, which in turn ensures that student will need to study all parts of the material prior to examination. The advantage of this is that even if a thing does not come up on the exam, there is a good chance that the student learned it well in preparation --- i.e., high quality responses to anticipated questions generally requires mastery of non-anticipated material.

    It seems to me that a similar strategic interaction might occur here, where the issues raised in the referee reports largely determine the scope of the oral defence, alleviating the need for the candidate to undertake a comprehensive preparation. In this latter case, the candidate will probably focus their preparation largely on issues raised in the referee reports --- i.e., high quality responses to anticipated questions generally do not require mastery of non-anticipated material.

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    and, to the extent that the PhD is preparing you for further research; if you are preparing a speech about your research at a conference, the questions people ask are usually not given to you beforehand
    – Joshua Lin
    Jan 16 at 1:36
  • It's interesting that you focus on the thesis revisions - my understanding is that these questions are prepared with respect to the final submitted thesis, and that the original question is about whether to provide the assessments before thesis defence at which the thesis might be accepted or rejected or graded but certainly not altered, the "artifact being defended" i.e. thesis is fixed at that point and any effect of this policy would only affect the presentation and answers to questions in the oral defence itself.
    – Peteris
    Jan 17 at 3:35
  • @Peteris: Yeah, it is a bit ambiguous from the question. It is not clear if the dissertation has already gone through a round of review with referee feedback available or not. Since the question is about befre-vs-after feedback, I've assumed that there is no referee feedback at all at this stage.
    – Ben
    Jan 17 at 4:51
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    I'd add to this - (1) consider, what is the purpose of the defence anyway? As opposed to, say, ordinary peer review. That's the key. Defence isn't just testing the thesis. Its testing the candidate and their suitability too. (If it didn't, they'd submit it, fix queries with their supervisor, and get a PhD automatically when it passes peer review!) After this much work, they should know their field and thesis material really well, and be able to discuss it and related matters with other experts cogently, professionally, convincingly, and competently.
    – Stilez
    Jan 17 at 12:00
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    (2) Knowing this, a candidate has a motive to be master of their field (to that level,as appropriate for a PhD candidate), and to experience discussing and standing by/explaining their work in person "on the spot", not just with time to recheck everything and email back a week later. That's valuable for them too, and focuses them as well. This to my mind is the more useful benefit.
    – Stilez
    Jan 17 at 12:01
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My question is, are there any universities that already have a policy like this in place and if so, is it beneficial for the PhD candidates?

Yes, my university has a policy like that: the candidates receive an assessment of their dissertation and a grade from the reviewers (two), and then have some time to amend it according to the reviewer's remarks. At the defense, the examination board (five members, including the reviewers) decides a final grade (the defense consists in a ca. 45 min presentation from the candidate, followed by 1-2 hours of questions from the board).

Receiving the assessment from the reviewers is indeed beneficial: a purpose of such an assessment is that of allowing the candidate to not only improve the dissertation but also their work at large, to understand what are their weak points that need work.

Does your university want to improve your candidates' skills or not?

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  • Is the benefit observed in the amendment or the defense? Jan 15 at 19:03
  • @AnonymousPhysicist In both, but indeed it depends also on the quality of the reviewer's reports. As it happens with journal papers, some reviewers provide detailed reports, with many remarks, suggestions and considerations on how the work fits in the field. Others are more laconic.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jan 16 at 8:52
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is it beneficial for the PhD candidates?

I don't think anyone really "fails" the defense

This is not specific to your university, but:

Nearly always failing PhD students never attempt a defense. They are gone one or two years into their PhDs. The defense has largely a ceremonial function, so changing around the rules for defenses is not going to be very beneficial.

More details: Academia varies more than you think it does – The Movie

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It is definitively a thing at my University in the Czech Republic. PhD candidates get the assessment about two weeks ahead of the defence, so that they can prepare for whatever questions came up in the assessment. The defence then works the following:

  1. The student gives a presentation about their main thesis results.
  2. The examiners give a short summary of their assessment and present the questions they had.
  3. The student answers to the questions from the assessment.
  4. Surprise questions.
  5. The examiners decide on a grade.
  6. Party.

I'm not sure if this is specific to my university or if this is a common approach.

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I received the reviewer's documents before my defense in France (I do not remember how much time it was, probably two or three weeks before the defense).

I do not really understand what the intent of keeping that confidential would be. To surprise the candidate? This would be childish.

The defense is a ceremony for the candidate. It should be fun and leave good memories.

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  • see academia.stackexchange.com/a/181243 and academia.stackexchange.com/a/181210 and academia.stackexchange.com/a/181215 i guess give them the assessment if and only if the defense is ceremonial? academia.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/4471/… like maybe in other cultures it is not ceremonial?
    – BCLC
    Jan 17 at 15:17
  • @BCLC: you pointed me to my answer (and a few others in the same vein). The last link does not say anything AFAICT about ceremonies. Do you know countries where the PhD defense is a true exam, where x% of students fail? (I would be very curious about that because everywhere I went it was always ceremonial and the result is known - I never saw anyone fail a PhD defense)
    – WoJ
    Jan 17 at 15:24
  • In the UK the thesis defence (which is usually called the viva) is a genuine exam. Most people are given minor corrections, some people are required to resubmit with major corrections and do another viva, occasionally people fail outright. Jan 17 at 16:36
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I think at the stage of PhD defense, the candidate has a brief idea of the quality of the thesis. A well-written thesis is obvious for those in the field (both the candidate and the comittee). I don't think it can give any significant advantages just before the actual defense. Also, in many universities, only a "successful" thesis can be defended. Therefore, there is a brief pass/fail situation before the actual defense.

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It is worth looking at How to survive a PhD viva: 17 top tips and you will realize there is maybe one tip where having a list of assessment beforehand will help -- for the rest it won't and actually it might hurt. Especially note this tip:

There’s a danger of trying to over-prepare. Don’t learn answers off by heart – it removes the spontaneity and is obvious to examiners. If a student has pre-prepared answers they become a bit like politicians, answering questions they weren’t asked rather than the ones they were.

This policy might be detrimental and make preparation overfocused and (try to) make the viva into a university exam where you are expected to be grilled for what you know and what you don't.

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Similarly to @Squirrel, I am based in Czech Republic and all PhD candidates I've know had access to assessment prior to the defense. I even think it is required by law that you get it beforehand (although I can't find the relevant law now, so I might be wrong).

One aspect of the discussion that was IMHO missed in the answer's so far is about the actual goals of the PhD defense. If the candidate is expected to respond to critique they have not seen before the defense, the defense IMHO puts more weight on their ability to improvise and to be resilient to (risk of) public humiliation. I would go as far as say that it gives confident bullshi**ers an edge.

If you give the assessment beforehand, the defense will put more weight on the ability of the candidate to think through the criticism thoroughly and provide careful responses. It also lets you judge the answers of the candidate more critically - if their answer is unsatisfactory, it is most likely because there is an actual problem with the thesis as they couldn't come up with a good answer even when given a lot of time.

Since I think careful response to criticism is usually more important for a scientific career (most notably when writing responses to journal/conference referees) and since I believe good scientists don't necessarily have to be good in improvising, it is probably quite clear which option I find better.

Additionally, I think PhD defense can be stressful enough for many other reasons, so adding an IMHO completely unnecessary element of surprise is especially cruel to people who are having psychological problems at the time of the defense.

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