Early in my career, I sat on a doctoral committee in a field outside my discipline for the first time. I recall being startled at the dissertation defense when professors in the young man’s department began delivering scorching assessments of his theory, method, cases, and conclusions. As the incendiaries kept flying I grew concerned about his health. He whitened, started sweating visibly, and several times laid his forehead on the table. When it came my turn to speak, I froze and ended up sputtering, “Well, you have answered all my questions!” and fell silent.

But then something incredible happened: The candidate was asked to leave the room, and the committee briskly and unanimously voted in favor of passing his dissertation with minimal revisions. He was ushered back in to the accompaniment of back slaps, clapping, and exclamations of “Welcome, Doctor!”

Turns out that the scene was a norm in the department, a version of some tribal coming-of-age ritual, except the scarring was mental, not physical. Misery and stress were inflicted to test resolve and fortitude. Survival meant passing.

A vast majority of dissertation defenses are much [Read more…]