Home > Professional activities > It’s not your all-American Ph.D. in the Netherlands

It’s not your all-American Ph.D. in the Netherlands

A couple of weeks ago I attended a Ph.D. defense in the Netherlands–very different from the way it’s done in the U.S. It was for Jan-Willem Streefkerk, who spent his sabbatical time with me at Virginia Tech working on notification systems for police officers. When I agreed, I envisioned Skyping in, listening to his talk, engaging in a discussion with J.-W. and my fellow committee members, and offering a judgement.

The reality was very different, with four things sticking out. I was required to be there in person, which I squeezed between the CHI conference the week before and the start of my NSF REU program the next week. It was a two-day affair, with faculty talks on the first day and the defense on the second day. The defense was extremely formal, with lots of ceremony. And the dissertation project was a mix of academic and industry concerns; it was a joint effort between the university and the defense contractor TNO.

The faculty talks–really a half-day mini-symposium–were very helpful and enlightening. Four members of the committee presented for 45 mins each with lots of time for questions. Others on J.W.’s committee included Geerit van der Veer (president of SIGCHI) and Mark Nerrinx (researcher at TNO), both of whom discussed research relevant to mine. There was a reception afterwards, with lots of talk about research claims, patterns, knowledge capture and reuse, and notifications.

The defense was rich in ceremony. I was told to wear a black suit and grey tie–but neither my pinpoint dark grey suit jacket nor my blue/grey tie cut it on the morning of the defense. The officiant of the event (aptly called “the Beadle”) provided me with appropriate clothes. J.W. presented only to his (40!) friends and family in attendance; the committee was in a back room going over the ceremonial steps. The committee (many in regalia) marched in behind the Beadle, and all rose until we took our seats. There was a brief opening, then we asked questions in order from furthest away (me!) to closest (J.W.’s advisor). There were 8 of us on the committee, the Q&A was slated for only an hour, so we each got only 8-10 minutes each. There was no dialog between committee members, only a formal question-answer exchange (again steeped in presentation lingo and lots of thanks for interesting questions) between the committee member and J.W. After an hour, the Beadle re-entered the room with a giant staff, pounded it on the ground (in mid-sentence by J.W., who stopped), the committee stood up, and we left to debate J.W.’s fate. After a brief discussion, we re-entered the room (again very ceremoniously), gave J.W. the good news that he passed, and his advisor gave a brief speech (in Dutch–I only understood the phrases “Scott McCrickard”, “Fulbright”, and “Virginia Tech”). Then after parading out again, we took an official picture and the partying began. There was an official ceremony in which everyone in attendance shook J.W.’s hand and wished him well We then went to a lunch, with more speeches by J.W. and his father (again in Dutch, with a brief portion in English for my benefit). I had to leave for my flight then, but rumor has it that the partying moved from venue to venue, ending well after midnight.

As I noted on Facebook, I felt short, fat, and slow in the Netherlands. They are a tall people, and they are in great shape as they walk and bike everywhere. But one thing that really slowed me down was that their credit cards all have chips in them, and they won’t take ones that only have a stripe. I found that out when purchasing train tickets–after waiting in line at a machine and not getting my card to work, then waiting in line at the ticket window and having my card rejected. I then got to wait in another line to exchange money, then it was back to the ticket line again.

But in all an interesting time–lots of good food (fish and milk at most meals), lots of highly professional workers (contrasted by my arrival back at the ATL airport), and a good exchange of interesting ideas. And now I’m prepared for when I’m invited back to serve on another committee!

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