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In colleges and universities in the United States, in order to receive a PhD you must write a dissertation, a significant work of original research. Typically, the last stage in the dissertation process is the "defense". It is a meeting at which a committee of professors who are supposed to have read your work ask you questions about it and try to determine whether or not you genuinely deserve to receive the degree. The defense, like many other formal trappings of U.S. academia, derives from medieval practices that are hard to integrate with modern lifestyles.

Not all U.S. universities require a defense - Berkeley is a famous example that doesn't. But most do, and it is the moment of paramount fear in many people's educations. Once you have passed the defense in the U.S. system, bureaucratic mills will grind and you will be awarded the highest regular academic degree you can get. But first you must jump this last hurdle, and it is here that the professors may settle old scores with you, or use you as a pawn to settle scores with their colleagues, or just play mind games with you for the ignoble pleasure of it. It is not unusual for professors to show up at your defense having scarcely read your work, and to ask totally ignorant questions that you must try to answer intelligibly and without giving offense. Some professors come armed to try to throw you off with deliberately argumentative questions or misconstruals. Many graduate students sit in on others' defenses to get a feel for how things are likely to go and to learn the quirks of the faculty. It's a good idea, if your program allows it.


I want to tell the story of my own defense, both to warn and to encourage prospective graduate students. Do read through to the end - don't let yourself be shaken by dismay! It turned out happily, and instructively, in the end. The lesson is one that I feel cannot be denied, although many readers will disagree with me.

At my university, it was an unwritten rule that no one would be authorized to sit for the defense unless s/he was expected to pass. Why cause the student unnecessary grief? If you weren't ready, your advisor would stall you and push you to keep improving your work.

I was ready. I had assembled enough faculty members to form a dissertation committee, but I decided to extend an invitation to one other professor, mainly as a courtesy because he and I had had some personal conflicts. By inviting him to join the committee I hoped I would demonstrate my respect for him. He was an erratic and moody character, and we graduate students all knew he rarely came to defenses prepared, and often behaved badly. But in the weeks before my defense he seemed to be in a cordial and calm mood.

Well, you can already anticipate what I did not. At the defense, Professor X was in a vindictive mood from the beginning. He asked a few vaguely argumentative questions, but I had prepared myself for many possibilities and parried him pretty well. Then he asked something that I couldn't understand at all, and I asked him to rephrase it. He repeated it word for word, and it still made no sense to me. I looked at my advisor, who had known this fellow since his teenage days, some thirty-odd years before. My advisor shrugged faintly. He had no idea what the question meant. I said I wasn't sure I understood what X was driving at, but if he meant such-and-such, I thought had already answered that question. Things got rapidly more tense. Before long he flipped shut my dissertation, and said, "You're trying to make me look bad." He refused to ask any more questions. The other faculty tried to cajole him, but he was stony silent. The defense continued, however, and finally the moment was reached when I was asked to leave the room so the committee could deliberate.

I waited outside a long time, with my friends and my wife, who had sat in as visitors. When the committee finally called me back, my advisor somberly announced that I was expected to completely rewrite two chapters and resubmit them. I went home, and spoke by phone to my advisor, who said that Professor X had absolutely refused to sign and insisted on personally overseeing my revisions. He was not a specialist in my field, and it was clear to everyone that he was making my life hard for personal reasons. At the same time, none of the other people on the committee was willing to confront him, since in the end I would leave the University and they would have to keep working with him for many years. I suppose the final verdict was actually more lenient than it might have been, exactly because of quiet efforts by the other faculty. But it was a terrible blow even so. A year and a half later I happened to meet with another professor on the committee, who had now become Dean, and he said he had never in his life witnessed such a horrible defense.

Are you considering graduate school? Before you throw up your hands in despair, read the rest of the story. In the end, I escaped from Prof. X's predations. My advisor said he felt my writing could stand as it was and needed no changes. He and I found a loophole in the Department's rules that allowed my case to bypass the defense committee and pass directly up to the University with only my advisor's signature on the dissertation. So I made a very few perfunctory changes to the first chapter, and received my degree on time. A few days later, at the tail end of the summer semester, I moved to another state to take up my first job.

My advisor's ancient relationship with Prof. X was sorely strained for at least a year, although things eventually eased between them. And Prof. X is now very cordial toward me. He sends me articles he thinks will be of interest, and we mail each other drafts and offprints of essays we have written and comment on each other's work. He is a thoughtful and careful reader. The horrors of several years ago are rarely mentioned, but we have both apologized, or nearly so, for our respective parts in the past bad feelings between us.


What's the end of this story? What's the moral? If you are looking for simple justice you will not find it here. Professor X was wrong, but there is no sense in asking for punishment or vengeance. In the academic world, admission to the highest ranks depends on passing arbitrary and often unfair requirements, some of which may always remain unwritten. For Professor X, as I think for many others in academia to a much less extreme extent, you must earn respect in a wholly individual way, and it will not come to you if you stand on the rules alone. You may find yourself challenged in precisely the ways that most closely match your personality - perhaps the ways that most violate your sense of how things should be. I have heard far worse stories from other graduate students - stories of the theft of original research, bribes and sexual favors demanded, and other outrageous things that you can imagine for yourself. How do I justify them? I do not justify them; I merely ask you to consider a different part of the subject.

Of course, our dealings with others should always be fair, and wrongs should be redressed. That is a moral principle, and not limited to the University. But fairness, that strange Holy Grail of American society, is not necessarily a determining part of the academic tradition. You don't get admitted to the ranks merely by passing a predetermined set of standards. There are predetermined standards, of course, and you must pass them. But there is more. Academia is about tradition as well as about paying time and money to get a degree. Being confronted by unfairness and perhaps even by unredressable wrongs - and nonetheless doing what is necessary to get through and to cultivate yourself - these are another part of what academia is about. The lesson I would like you to take from my story is that you must find some way to get through; you must never give up, you must not expect to rely on external rules, and above all you must never abandon the prime goal of cultivating yourself in spite of all adversity.

So if you have chosen this path, then steel yourself and learn to shrug off gratuitous insult. You must believe in yourself in spite of other people's challenges, and you must question yourself in spite of other people's adulation. These have been great lessons of life from ancient times onward, in all the cultures I have ever examined. Why would they change for you?

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