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My wife is defending her thesis soon, and in her department, defenses are open to the public. I will be there along with several of her friends/colleagues. Her mom also wants to come to the defense. In terms of her committee's perception, I could see this being viewed as weird or maybe unprofessional. Then again, it could be harmless, and her mom really wants to come. I also happen to be in the business of trying to keep my mother-in-law happy :)

How would this look from the perspective of her committee? Do parents ever come to defenses? I haven't really heard of this before. I want my wife to have the best chance at passing her defense, but I also don't want to come across as a grouchy husband that appears to be saying, "Your mom can't be here."

This is a Nutritional Sciences department in the United States. It is a somewhat unique situation in that students typically start a dietetic internship a week or so after defending the thesis. The internship takes months to plan for the student since it involves organization with preceptors at multiple locations.

At our university, there are three possible results from a defense: passing, passing with modifications, or failing. Passing with heavy modifications could result in a delay (of a month or more) in starting the internship. This recently happened to another student.

My wife asked me to ask this question here as she wants to focus on getting prepared for the defense. She initially asked for my gut feeling on her mother attending, and I had never heard of this before, nor had she. The defense is coming up very soon ;) and she did not feel comfortable asking her advisor a question like this so late. Also her advisor is not the most responsive to email so she might not even hear in time (I know that this will probably invoke statements that she should get over it or that she should not have picked this advisor, but this is not the point of the question). For the record, I would never tell my wife who she could or could not have at her defense. I'm just trying to be helpful :) It's encouraging to hear from the comments that parent attendance at a defense is fairly common place, so it will probably be no big deal.

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    Regardless of social protocol, this should have absolutely no effect on her chances of passing her defense. In any reasonable situation, if she's having a defense, her chances of passing it are effectively 100%. – Nate Eldredge May 1 '16 at 2:59
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    In the one institution I have been in that has open defenses, it was almost standard for the family to attend. – Bitwise May 1 '16 at 2:59
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    several people in her department have failed to pass a defense this year. That's a rather startling situation. Maybe the department needs to rethink it's defense scheduling practices. – virmaior May 1 '16 at 4:24
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    @haff: I never have. In my experience, the general practice has been that the defense is not scheduled until the advisor is confident that the student is ready and that the rest of the committee will agree. If that is not the case in this department, then either it's an outlier (not to say "possibly dysfunctional") or practices in this field are vastly different from any other that I know of. In which case, the general advice you'll get here may or may not be applicable. – Nate Eldredge May 1 '16 at 5:38
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    The part that really rubs me the wrong way in this question is why this apparently a decision that the husband needs to take (I don't want to be the grouchy husband that says, "Your mom can't be here."). – xLeitix May 1 '16 at 8:49
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Your wife should ask this question to people in her department.

The style and expectations of defenses vary hugely from one place to another. As other answerers mention, it’s pretty normal in the US to have family and friends at the defense. But it’s not absolutely ubiquitous, and I’ve known the expectations to vary even between different departments at a single university. So the best way to be sure is to ask around in the department — ideally, ask some faculty members who’ve been around long enough to see a few defenses — and confirm with them whether it’s usual to have family members there.

(In any case, it certainly shouldn’t affect the committee’s academic assessment of her; at worst, it would be seen as a bit of a social faux pas. But nobody wants to be worrying about social issues during their defense, and it can’t hurt to ask.)

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    I would find insulting the very idea, that I have to ask special permission for family at a public defense. – LLlAMnYP May 1 '16 at 11:18
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    @LLlAMnYP: I don't think it's a question of asking permission. It's a question of asking about local customs. The defense being open to the public, of course the mother will be allowed to attend, but whether it's "normal" in this department is a different question. (I assume that it is, but asking is certainly the best way of finding out. I +1'ed this answer, because it's the only one that recommends simply asking the people who know best.) – Stephan Kolassa May 1 '16 at 11:42
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    Since this is basically the advice to ask about local customs, it is a very good answer. I'll add that in parts of Europe (Vienna, Austria, and Leipzig, Germany; comp.sci), family and friend attendance, and a social gathering with food and drink afterwards are normal. – choener May 1 '16 at 12:00
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    @LLlAMnYP: I don’t mean to single the parents out at all. I’d give this same advice for any uncertainty a candidate has about the expectations of how their defense should go. – PLL May 1 '16 at 17:01
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    @LLlAMnYP: One issue is what the department considers to be the goals of making the defense public. If the goal is to allow the audience to provide moral support and join in the celebration, then it's obviously reasonable for relatives to attend. If instead the goal is to ensure quality control through transparency (by allowing the academic community the chance to watch and ensure standards are met), then inviting non-academic relatives doesn't help meet this goal, and it might make the committee feel uncomfortable if it comes across as "don't humiliate me in front of my proud grandparents". – Anonymous Mathematician May 1 '16 at 17:10
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Open to the public means ... open to the public (presuming they can sit quietly in a room for 2 hours or however long your wife's defense is).

Moreover, (edit though I thought I was clear), it's very common in the US for family including parents and spouses to attend PhD defenses.

My wife and parents came to my defense (philosophy PhD USA). As did a friend of ours who was a foreigner living in America with no connection to philosophy. A philosophy PhD defense at least at my institution is them drilling you with every objection and reason that they think you're wrong for two solid hours.

While I assume a nutrition science PhD has a different format, I hope that neither the committee nor the person defending the dissertation has much time to look around and see who came and to think odd thoughts about the professionalism of the candidate based on who came to their defense.

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    I've seen quite a few family members at thesis defenses- it's not unusual in my expreience. – Brian Borchers May 1 '16 at 3:50
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    Just because it's legal for a person to attend a defense does not mean that it's appropriate. You would never invite your committee's academic enemies though you would have every right to do so at a public defense. Your other points are well-taken though. I now see that it is very common to have family at the defense. You are right in saying that the committee probably won't have time to look around and see who's there, but this defense will occur at a round table, and I have on several occasions seen the committee members introduce themselves to guests, so this doesn't universally apply. – haff May 1 '16 at 18:35
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    +1 for "them drilling you with every objection and reason that they think you're wrong for two solid hours". – Cape Code May 1 '16 at 18:49
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In many parts of Europe and in Turkey (where I'm from), it is very common and normal - expected, even - for one's parents to attend their thesis defense.

The thesis defense is an important life event akin to one's graduation, marriage, etc. Especially when the event is designated as "open the to public," I think it would be weird if the parents did not attend.

My own parents attended my master's thesis defense (in Turkey), and they will surely attend my PhD defense as well. Practically all of my friends with PhDs have had their parents attend their defenses (in Turkey, Europe, and the US). The ones that defended without their parents being present did so because they were studying overseas, and their families could not make the trip.

In many cases the families not only attended, but brough cookies, pastries, etc. as well; as treats for the other guests and the committee. This in particular could be a bit unusual in the US, but it is common in Turkey and (I'm told) in Europe as well.

So, there are cultural differences in how this is handled, but there is definitely no universal norm that says to keep the family out of the thesis defense completely. In some cultures, the norm is for parents to attend.

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    As a portuguese (therefore european), I never saw or heard of parents coming to a thesis defense, and I have seen some. – Edu May 2 '16 at 18:13
  • @Edu thank you for the contribution, I've done some minor wording edits to my answer, based on this. – mbaytas May 5 '16 at 18:02
  • I feel like I should add that I've also never heard of anyone bringing treats to the committee. We are talking about big cultural differences between Turkey (Eastern Europe) and Portugal (Western Europe). Maybe this comment could be improved and more helpful to others with sources for those practices? – Edu May 5 '16 at 18:21
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    In the US, students/family bringing massive treats etc before the defense started to be a very unwelcome tradition in our dept that we finally stopped. The students did not realize how uncomfortable it made the majority of committee members feel (it felt like some unsuccessful or desperate 'bribe' or offering) - I realize that sounds like overkill, but nevertheless, it was very awkward. It would have been totally positive vibe if they kept it 'after' the defense. Related, family members in audience are very welcome - but the best time for chatting and introductions is afterwards. – Carol Jun 13 '16 at 20:43
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I have witnessed parents (up to cousins) attending masters of science, PhD defences and even habilitation theses. I think my mother is still a little angry I did not formally invite her to mine, while my brother did.

What is nice though, is to warn attendees about the protocol, the duration and the formal aspects (avoid pictures and loud jokes).

So if the PhD does not contains confidential parts, I see no issue. A PhD can be full of emotion, it is quite an achievement, and I have never seen jury members complain against a family audience. Moreover, it is sometimes an occasion for them to talk with people of the same age at the celebration:)

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    "avoid pictures" - if this refers to taking pictures, it is again very dependant on the location or university. – O. R. Mapper May 1 '16 at 14:42
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Edit: The question has now been edited to clarify that your wife did specifically ask you for advice on this, so the concerns I expressed in this answer aren't operative in your case. I'm glad to hear it!

I'll leave the answer up since the underlying issues will apply to other situations.


This is none of your business.

Your wife is a professional and she is responsible for her own career. There is no reason that you should try to interpose yourself, even to encourage her towards a path that you feel will help her chances.

One of you has spent many years in this department and seen other students graduate, and one of you has not; your question makes clear that you do not have personal knowledge about this situation. She is an expert in this situation compared to you. So you are proposing to interfere with a situation that you do not understand from a position of ignorance, just because you have an uninformed feeling that this "could be viewed as weird". (At least you had the sense to ask here first, I suppose.)

Even if you did have extensive experience with the conventions of her specific field and knew that this could be an issue, it's not your place to butt in unasked and try to control her professional life. (Your comment that you don't want to be the grouchy husband that appears to be saying 'Your mom can't be here' makes clear that your involvement was not asked for.)

It's admirable that you want to support your wife. You should do so by providing in her private life the support she needs to excel in her professional life; not by inviting yourself to concern yourself with the details of her career development.

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    Though if your wife welcomes your opinions and thoughts (which will probably come in the form of her asking for them), it's good to be open. If you have doubts or questions (in this case something like, "Do many people have family at their thesis defense?"), and your SO welcomes your input, ask them. That's part of a healthy relationship. But unless you know facts, don't express your opinions as such. – Wayne Werner May 1 '16 at 16:49
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    My wife asked me what I thought and then did indeed ask me to ask the question here so that she could focus on preparing for her presentation. The comment about being a grouchy husband was an exaggerative joke (that has been edited to be more clear) that was written with her laughing while looking over my shoulder. I can understand how it could have been taken in an offensive way, so I apologize if anyone was offended. – haff May 1 '16 at 18:07
  • Tom, I appreciate your edit. I agree that spouses/significant others can be controlling of their counterpart's future career path, so I agree that it would be good to leave this response up. – haff May 1 '16 at 18:11
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    @Tom, I see this as a quite inappropriate response. This is not a professional problem - it is a professional and a personal problem. The wife should focus on preparing for the thesis defense, while the husband can take care of other things. And depending on the outcome, there are many situations where the husband making the decision will cause fewer personal problems. haff: As long as you didn't offend your wife, there is no reason to worry that trying to help your wife you might have offended someone else. – gnasher729 May 2 '16 at 20:23
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It is a very subtle question. As you ask you may have already realized the hidden inappropriateness in this situation. That is the exclusion of social roles of your wife at her defensive. She is required to be a pure scholar facing only veritas. It is inappropriate for her to carry other social role, wife, daughter...., simultaneously. Any people in academic would have this subtle feeling but with "open mind", people will believe it's a happy family witnessing the life event of a member.

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