Thursday, 5 October 2006


A little while ago two PhD students at work graduated from their respective Dutch universities. I had had a small hand in helping both of them with their theses -- mostly editing (thanks be to Brett), English and some thoughts on layout. I attended the graduation ceremonies of both and they are somewhat different to my own in Australia.

Firstly, the generic Australian version. Usually the protocol is to write the thesis, submit it to the univeristy who -- with the preparation of you and your supervisor who have invited them -- send it off to the examiners. There are rules about who can and cannot do this but in general it is three or four people who know enough about your work (hopefully) to say if it's rubbish or not. They prepare a report on the work and then recommend one of a few possible outcomes[1] This then goes to the University who generally follow through on the advice they have received and a bit later on you (optionally and usually a few months) head to the official graduation ceremony where you, along with a few hundred others (mostly undergraduates), are presented with your scroll of paper. At some universities they read out the thesis title of the graduand before handing over the parchment and other places -- like my own at ANU -- they just print it in the program.

The differences with the Dutch system include, for starters, it takes more the form of a formal thesis defence. The candidate having previously published and submitted his thesis to the examining committee, then comes before them in a formal ceremony and is grilled for a designated -- and strictly controlled -- time period. Work colleagues, friends and family typically attend the ceremony. To support the grillee -- though pretty much only in a moral sense -- two assistants are asked and they are known as the paranimfs. I don't think there is an strictly equivalent word in English. Anyway, I was recently invited to be a paranimf. This pretty much involved wearing a dark suit, walking in the processions, standing in the right place at the right time and sitting still during the Process-O-Grilling. I thought it might also entail coming quickly to one's feet and calling 'Objection!' or stopping the candidate running from the room but I appear to have been mistaken. Overall the ceremony went well.

At the end of the Grill Fest the examining committee retires for its deliberations and upon return (usually) grant the degree on the spot. Usually then the candidate's "promotor" (the academic who officially is putting him forward as a candidate) says a few words about the candidate (now Doctor) and their efforts. The ceremony is concluded and friends, family and colleagues adjourn to a reception room to partake in drinks, hors d'Ĺ“uvre, congratulations and possibly even some gift giving. Then it's all over bar the posing.

The Man of the Moment with family members and flanked by his two Paranimfs.

[1] Generally and broadly they are: conferral of degree with no changes, conferral of degree with minor changes, rewrite and resubmission of thesis and denial of degree.