Jorrit Kamminga, one of our Researching Security Fellows, is sharing with us his experience of defending his PhD thesis in Spain.
Thesis defence procedure in Spain
I defended my PhD thesis at the Department of Constitutional Law and Political Science of the University of Valencia, Spain in April 2014. Being a part-time student, I had combined work and study since I started the PhD programme in 2008. I followed the trajectory of getting the title doctor europeo (now doctor internacional under Spanish law). One of the requirements is having an international tribunal in addition to conducting part of the research at a different university outside of Spain and writing part of the thesis in a language other than Spanish. The international tribunal for my thesis defence was made up of a Spanish, Colombian and Dutch professor. The language was English.
Similar to my home country (the Netherlands), the thesis defence in Spain is a formality. In other words, when the tribunal is planned, you already know that you will pass and that your thesis is good enough to get the title – unless perhaps you have a complete blackout and fail to answer any question. However, different from the Netherlands, there were no additional ceremonial parts to the defence, such as special togas or silly hats.
I prepared myself reading bits and pieces from the thesis, especially those related to methodology and the theoretical model of the thesis. It was not necessary to carefully read the whole thesis again (about 500 pages) but I prepared a bullet point overview of how I was going to present it. Separately, I prepared a long document with (possible) questions and my answers to them. I think the latter helped although I do not recall answering questions exactly as I had prepared them.
On the day
After the introduction by the chair of the tribunal, I had 40 minutes to elaborate on the thesis. This is quite generous (e.g. compared to the Netherlands) and gave me enough time to explain the purpose of the research, revisit the objectives, explain the methodology, give my impressions of the field work, and provide a detailed overview of the (unexpected) results. It helped me to calm down and get into a flow.
After this exposé, the three members of the tribunal (before it was five in Spain) all took about ten to fifteen minutes to comment on my thesis and ask a large number of questions. This happened uninterruptedly and only after all three members had finished I was allowed to respond to their concerns and questions. By that time, I had about six pages of notes written down – some clearer than others.
The chair gave me ten minutes to answer to perhaps about 20 questions of the three professors combined. This was both a challenge and a relief. On the one hand, it is challenging to quickly make a decision as to which questions you will answer (quickly glancing through your notes), and see how you can group certain questions. On the other hand, it obviously gives you the chance to ignore some difficult questions and go for the easier ones. Nevertheless, it proved to be a challenge and given the time constraint, I forgot to answer a number of questions that I had a good answer for.
The rest of the thesis defence process is purely administrative. I had to wait outside for at least half an hour until the tribunal members had come to a joint decision and (more time consuming) had signed all necessary documents. I was then invited back into the room and they congratulated me on having become a doctor. In Spain, PhD students only get a PASS or FAIL (no mark), but after the thesis defence, the university can grant you cum laude if the tribunal members unanimously decide that you have deserved that title.
After defending the thesis
In retrospect, the thesis defence was quite a challenge and a huge adrenaline rush, despite the fact that it is basically a formality. It took me a while to relax afterwards. Drinking some nice Agua de Valencia with the professors on a terrace in the old town certainly helped to realise that after a research trajectory of more than five years, things had come to an end. The fact that there were a lot of family members in the room, in addition to the Dutch and Colombian consuls to Valencia, turned this into a very nice and special event for me.