The Dutch PhD ceremony: pomp and linguistic circumstances


I attended my first-ever PhD defense in the Netherlands at the University of Amsterdam this week. One of the candidates presented in English and the other in Dutch. In a ceremony open to the public attended by friends, family, colleagues and the curious, a master of ceremony (‘pedel’, a woman this time) with a ‘pedelstok’ (big staff with rattling bits on it) led a procession to bring the defense committee (‘opponents’) to their box seats wearing traditional black robes and caps. After an hour of Q&A chaired by the University’s rector with some tough questions the master of ceremony called ‘Hora est!’ (‘Time’s up!’ in Latin) and then the gang retreated for private consultation. It reminded me of church or court (we had to get up often), but it felt like being in an old Dutch painting.

Basically it’s a ceremony where the candidates have to defend some valid points that could surely be addressed in postdoctoral research, but then research is something that is never finished at any academic level.

The one thing that struck me as odd was that the English-speaking candidate was mostly asked if not only asked (if I remember correctly) questions in English to which they answered in English, while the Dutch candidate had to answer many questions in Dutch asked to her in English. In other words, the native Dutch speaker was technically at a disadvantage in their own country. As well, the native English speakers asked questions in English to which they could not really understand the Dutch answer. I find this proof positive of how much the Dutch have to continuously adapt to the use of English at the most important moments of their lives. The Dutch candidate was visibly more nervous as well.

We once wrote about the ceremony from an Australian blogger’s perspective.

Another post by a Chilean claiming that being exposed to public criticism shouldn’t be done at a purely ceremonial event.

And another post says the reception afterwards felt like a wedding reception (I agree), but it did feel like being ‘fired at’:

“Several months before you expect to get your degree you must finish your thesis and send it off for approval of your committee. When you get the “OK,” you are officially done with the analysis and writing! Now you can look forward to becoming your own personal party planner. ”

(Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Effeietsanders, some rights reserved)

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