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At my department, a thesis defence committee consists of 3-4 professors (including the advisor(s)), one of whom does not belong to the department (so could be pretty much anyone related to the field). It is common for a grad student to know who his thesis defence committee members are going to be quite ahead of the defence date (usually the student will know before copies of his thesis are sent to the members for review).

In rare cases, the student can even assemble his committee together with his advisor -- this makes sense for example in the case where the student wishes to pursue a certain research direction after graduating, and he would like a potential advisor or reference who is an expert in the subfield to take a part in his evaluation.

However, the general policy of the university (and of some faculty members) is that a student is not supposed to have the information on who is included in the committee until the defence.

While I understand some potential reasons for it, such as avoiding bribery in any form, those precautions seem quite far fetched at a small department where everybody would probably know if any foul play was going on. Also, if it really were an issue, there should have been anonymity in other examination-related situation during one's studies.
From a different perspective, I personally would rather not discover that Euler is on my thesis defence committee when I walk into the examination room (and not because of the startling discovery of the existence of zombies).

What reasons, from your experience, lead to such no-transparency policies?

(I am not facing such a situation, the question arises from a case involving a colleague.)

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    Is the defense just about the thesis or is general knowledge about the field tested as well? – Wrzlprmft Oct 23 '15 at 12:30
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    Wow... that is bizarre to me. In every situation I have known, the student is involved in selecting the defense committee and interacts with them significantly before the defense. Otherwise, how would the committee know the student is ready to defend? – jakebeal Oct 23 '15 at 12:36
  • @Wrzlprmft As far as I know, in practice the defence is just about the thesis, although it is within the rights of the examiners to ask more general questions to test knowledge about the field. – Pandora Oct 23 '15 at 12:41
  • @jakebeal Perhaps our system is different from the one I heard is common in other countries; here it is the advisor's responsibility to determine when the student is ready to defend, and the committee is selected about a month or two before the defence, which is when they read the thesis and approve or reject it. It is very uncommon that the advisor thinks his student is ready but the committee rejects the thesis. – Pandora Oct 23 '15 at 12:44
  • @jakebeal: In every situation I have known, the student is involved in selecting the defense committee and interacts with them significantly before the defense. – Really? In all cases I know, the interaction with the committee (except the supervisor, of course) consisted of a short conversation to find out that the person was topic-wise capable and willing to do the job. — Otherwise, how would the committee know the student is ready to defend? – By reading the thesis? – Wrzlprmft Oct 23 '15 at 12:45
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In some cases, there is an external bureaucratic entity within the university that imposes such rules on departments, along the way insinuating that an "outside examiner" (even if there is none qualified) is necessary to "maintain standards", because (supposedly) otherwise departments might grant crappy PhD's... But, at my university, such secrecy is not required, in fact, nor is prior communication of student with committee prohibited. After all, wouldn't such communication help everything?

Similarly, some faculty suspect or even explicitly accuse other faculty of having low standards, etc.

Oddly, my university gives PhD students exactly one attempt at a "final oral exam" (=thesis defense): if they "fail", they are terminated. That is, there cannot be any "message" to go back and do more work... which seems to me bizarre.

In my opinion, the scenario in which a student presents a thesis as a fait accommpli with a short time-table to do trivial revisions (as opposed to altering the scope, or, heaven forbid, really learning more things to do a better thing...) is a bad thing. That is, interacting with the committee only at the end of a multi-year project strikes me as bizarre and not useful. All the worse if the committee's composition itself is a last-minute surprise, so that nothing positive could have been done.

But, yes, some of my colleagues apparently believe that there are universal absolutes, so that the notion of discussion and negotiation is what is incomprehensible or corrupt. Indeed, as with some coursework, it seems that a large part of the "test" is to figure out what the "test" might be about. I suppose there is a watershed of opinion about whether such a meta-test isn't at a seriously more-expert level than the literal material. Certainly at the PhD level, the meta-questions can easily become so serious that experts don't agree, so it seems unreasonable to me to require novices figure this out on their own.

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This differs from university to university; and from a research group to another research group within the same university; moreover from a supervisor to another within the same research group. On top of all these, a student might be able to change a circumstance a little bit. For example, in my case, one of my advisors was a super random passive human being, where putting him in a room might end up him throwing random comments that would hurt other academics; so, I kindly asked the research group leader to not allow him come to my defence.

Rationale Behind Secrecy and Openness: Both points are valid. The openness minded community believe, Ph.D. was a ride, that would be celebrated at the end of the Ph.D. student's work. So they are all gather the people they want, appreciate the student work (if applicable) and might end up discuss the research topics and their future directions. In other other hand, the secrecy community believe people cheat and and/or abusing the system. So they keep things hush hush, as much as possible before the defence.

When Secrecy is a Strategy: In some extreme cases, where the student created bunch of trouble, by arguing with an academic and/or not doing his/her work for example; some academics use secrecy as an strategy to deal with this issue in most professional manner before things get out of hand (e.g., physical, law suit, etc.). This is to show the student, nothing is personal here, and you need to go back and do more work before getting your Ph.D.

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