One of the many tasks of being a researcher is being a member of PhD thesis committees. It is already the second time this year that I am part of a committee to evaluate a PhD thesis. This means reading the thesis carefully and judging if it is scientifically good enough to be defended, and then at the actual defense, asking relevant questions.
It takes time to carefully read through a PhD thesis, and if the thesis is not directly related to my research, it takes even more time to understand the subject. But each time I learn something new and am able to expand my horizon.
The latest challenge has been reading through a PhD thesis in archaeology/paleoecology written mostly in French. All these new words that exist in French now, words I had never heard of and which must have surfaced during the past twenty years. Words for software, hardware, and modelling, for example, and many more related to technology that did not exist when I last spoke French fluently. But now I am slightly updated on this new vocabulary, although I would still not be able to write or speak as fluently as I did 25 years ago.
PhD thesis defences are pretty different in different countries and the defense at the Université de Rennes, which I attended recently as a member of the committee was slightly different from those in Sweden. The committee consisted of two external reviewers, who had to submit a report prior to the defences, of the two supervisors, and of three members, who had expertise within the three main methods/approaches used by the student. Similar to Swedish defences, the student first gave an overview on his work. Then the supervisors spoke for about 10-15 minutes each, placing the student’s work in a wider context and explaining the challenges of the work and the way these were solved. Next came the two reviewers and their questions, and finally the questions of the three experts. After more than three hours of questions and answers, the committee met to discuss the grade, and then finally the whole procedure was over!
The largest differences to a Swedish defense is, that the supervisors can also ask questions, that they participate in the discussion after the formal presentation, and that colleagues, who have links to the supervisors, can be members of the committee. We seem to be much more strict when it comes to defining conflict of interest, as the opponent and the members of our PhD committees cannot have published or collaborated officially with the supervisor and/or the PhD student during the past 6 or 8 years.