Comments on Le cérémonial de la thèse (bis)

Ruxor (2015-12-14T23:38:03Z)

@jonas: Thanks for the detailed description (for other readers who didn't follow, it concerns Hungary), it is indeed fairly similar to what we have in France. I'll have to write something someday about the use of English vs. French in post-secondary education in France, and the debate it causes, but for now let me just say that in the cases I saw, the thesis defence was in French, but often with slides in English, and the written thesis is often part English part French (typically in English but with a long introduction in French).

jonas (2015-12-13T22:09:48Z)

Let me describe the thesis defence ceremonies here. There are many similarities and a few differences from what you describe.

I've only been to defences in mathematics or informatics, so the following will apply to only that. I often go to such defences because they are great social events to meet colleagues, even those that I rarely meet otherwise. I have no idea how defences in other areas work.

Before the PhD defence, the thesis of the candidate is published electronically, so that in theory anyone has the chance to read it in advance and react to it. Two referees are chosen, one of whom is generally from outside the university on which the PhD is done. The referees send their report and questions to the candidate in advance a few weeks before the defence, and the candidate answers in writing before the defence. Apart from the thesis, the candidate must prepare a so-called thesis booklet, which is a summary of parts of the thesis in about five pages. This contains lots of technical details, generally emphasizing the same parts of the thesis as the presentation will, and thus serves to make the presentation easier to follow by showing the necessary definitions and formulas, and giving references. Around a dozen printed copies of the booklet is distributed among the audience of the defence.

The actual PhD defence ceremony is similar to what you describe. It is generally held in a campus building on a workday afternoon, and is advertised several weeks in advance. The committee has about six members, including the two referees, and is sitting in the front row looking at the same direction as the rest of the audience. The audience usually has between thirty and sixty people, most of them colleages, but relatives of the candidate are generally also present. This is a somewhat formal event, where the candidate and most of the commitee wears a suit and tie, and the rest of the audience wears somewhat more formal clothes than for usual lectures.

The defence starts by the chairman introducing the committee, and reading the resumé of the candidate. The candidate then holds her presentation about her thesis, facing the committee and the audience. She typically uses slides projected with a projector from a computer. This is not a requirement though, any other method for a normal mathematics lecture works: traditional overhead projector, chalkboard or dry-erase board, or even a combination of computer projector with chalkboard or dry-erase board. The presentation has a strict time limit of around 35 minutes (I'm not sure of the exact duration). Because of this, the presentation can't cover all details of the thesis, and sometimes skips an entire chapter of it to be able to explain more of the other chapters. The candidate also tells about her co-authors and typically says thanks to them during the presentation. Although the thesis and slides are almost always in English, the spoken presentation and spoken referee reports are often in Hungarian, unless the speaker prefers to speak in English, or someone in the committee doesn't understand Hungarian well enough.

The presentation is followed by the two referees reading their reports and questions. How this works is quite variable: some referees read all of their long report word by word, in a monotonous mumbling voice, including the list of minor errors they found, with page numbers and other details that are completely meaningless to the audience. The report generally repeats the summary of each chapter of the thesis in the referee's words, in the style of many of the more useless reviews in AMS MathSciNet, and some referees insist on reading this out loud as well. This is almost certainly redundant, because both the thesis and the referee's presentation give the same information. Some referees, however, give only the interesting details of their report, telling what they believe is the strength of the thesis, what areas should be improved, and the importance of the results. The referees speak only, they don't use the blackboard or projector. The reports are often written and read in Hungarian. Occasionally, one referee is absent, in which case a committee member reads his report instead. The referees always ask questions, and the quality of these questions vary, just like you said.

After the referee reports, the candidate gets the floor again, and answers the referee's questions. Since she has got those questions in writing in advance, she can prepare a presentation for this part and often uses additional projected slides. This section is not time limited, so a candidate can use it to give additional material that doesn't fit in the first presentation, as long as she makes it seem like she's answering the questions. The referees then react, occasionally by asking further questions, and finally formally indicate that they accept the answers to the questions. After this, the secretary calls other people in the audience to ask questions and comments, which the candidate then answers. There are usually very few or no such questions, although just like you said, the consulant of the candidate often says thanks to his student.

After this, the committee holds a secret discussion, during which the rest of the audience and the candidate leaves the room. Although the direct reason why it's the audience who leaves, rather than the committee, is that this way only one room has to be reserved, this seems a great custom to me, because this way the audience can mingle and you can chat with any of them easily, not only to those seated around you. The duration of the secret discussion varies a lot, usually between ten and thirty minutes. After the discussion, everyone is invited back in and usually asked to stand. The secretary or leader reads the decision the committee have agreed on, which contains a several minute long reasoning, and numeric votes which are read anonymously. The final decision is practically always favorable. The chairman and the commitee congratulates the candidate.

The rest of the defence is a less formal social event. The candidate says a few words of thanks, and invites the audience to stay and eat from the free buffet. Cold meals such as bread with toppings and biscuits are almost always provided, and wine or champange and non-alcoholic drinks are served as well. The audience leave their seats and chat with each other. Typically everyone eventually talks with the candidate, at least to congratulate her. The event closes gradually, because people leave at different times, some staying there for an hour or more.

For the evening of the defence, the candidate often organizes a celebratory event in a pub. This is an informal event, with usually around twenty people only, containing only people who know the candidate more closely, and does not include family. People, including the candidate, leave between the defence and the celebration, and often change to less formal clothes. This event often includes heavy drinking and pub food, which is why the change of clothes is necessary.

All the above details talk about PhD defences. MsC defences are very different: they are shorter and much less interesting, have few guests, multiple of them are held together on the same day, and on some universities, they are held together with the oral final exam for the same MsC candidates. On the other side of the scale, the defence for a candidate of science degree has very similar procedure to a PhD defence, only it's somewhat more formal and has a more aristocratic feeling. Since the degree is given by the Academy of Sciences, not a university, such a defence is generally held in the beautiful building of the Academy at Roosevelt tér.

cargo du mystère (2015-12-09T18:01:46Z)

As-tu l'impression qu'en lettres la part du directeur de thèse est plus faible qu'en maths?
Intuitivement je penserais que oui (sans aucun élément objectif à l'appui de cette croyance), vu la plus grande maturité des impétrants.
Je ne sais plus de quel mathématicien est la wisecrack "Je veux bien écrire sa thèse, mais j'aimerais qu'il la comprenne"

Héhéhé (2015-12-07T00:21:03Z)

J'ai déjà vu la distinction entre maths et maths appliquées, ca doit dépendre des écoles doctorales ?

D'ailleurs toutes les soutenances que j'ai vu en maths appliquées étaient sur transparents et non sur tableau noir (comme pour les conférences de maths appli en fait).

Subbak (2015-12-06T23:02:08Z)

Déjà, félicitations à la docteure, je serais bien venu mais je suis un peu loin et je reviens déjà pour les vacances de Noël.

Ensuite, pour apporter ma petite remarque sur le fait que ça dépend des pays : manifestement ici (en Allemagne), les soutenances de thèse ne sont pas vraiment publiques. De fait, tout le monde peut venir, mais il serait vraiment bizarre pour quelqu'un qui ne bosse pas avec le thésard et dans le même domaine d'y assister. D'après ce que j'ai compris, les questions sont aussi assez pointues, et c'est le directeur de thèse qui a tendance a poser les plus vicieuses.

DH (2015-12-06T15:28:35Z)

Zut, on s'est ratés de peu, je ne suis venu qu'à la fin du pot…

Fred le marin (2015-12-06T11:50:27Z)

"La critique est aisée mais l’art est difficile."

> en mathématiques, cependant, on préfère encore le tableau noir
Cela m'apparaît fondamentalement assez provocateur et très "Old School" !
Pensez donc : à l'heure des écrans géants et des pointeurs laser (vert, au hasard).
Au delà du respect (nécessaire) du protocole cérémoniel, l'essentiel ici est sans doute de nature conceptuelle (et donc invisible).
En fait, l'on aborde là des choses que la chair seule ne peut (bien-sûr) pas révéler…
(un ange, résolument iconoclaste et ésotérique, passe dans l'espace-temps [mais uniquement pour les "happy few" ?])

B (2015-12-06T11:27:36Z)

Dans mon expérience, la séance de questions de la soutenance est très sensiblement plus longue en biologie ou géologie qu'en maths ou en info. J'ai déjà assisté à des séances de questions qui duraient plus de 2h30… C'est d'ailleurs un peu longuet !

naej (2015-12-06T10:10:19Z)

Concernant la liste des disciplines de doctorat, je peux apporter un élément de réponse : ce sont les écoles doctorales de chaque université qui définissent des intitulés. En fait, le fonctionnement est proche de celui des autres diplômes universitaires. Après tout, chaque université présente des programmes de master faits maison, avec des intitulés ad hoc, tout en respectant les contraintes subtiles d'un cadrage national; il en va de même pour les doctorats.

Par exemple, l'université de province dans laquelle j'ai soutenu ma thèse classait toutes les thèses de maths sous l'intitulé "Mathématiques et leurs applications", alors que celle où j'ai soutenu mon HDR proposait deux intitulés (devine lesquels !)

Régis (2015-12-06T09:13:13Z)

Tel que tu étais parti, j'ai craint qu'il n'y eût pas de pot de thèse…

Aux Pays-Bas (2015-12-06T02:29:53Z)

Aux Pays-Bas, en effet, quand le temps est écoulé, quelqu'un (un appariteur ?) dit en latin « Hora est », et tout s'arrête.

Par ailleurs, chaque membre du jury ne peut poser qu'une question, qui, du coup, doit être très travaillée et précise.

Je sais tout cela par une collègue qui avait très peur qu'un autre des membres du jury passe avant elle et pose LA question qu'elle comptait poser… (La solution, évidemment, c'est d'avoir deux questions en réserve, j'imagine.)


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