filosofie doktor = PhD (with a side note about spikning (nailing) a dissertation)

Cover of the newly minted Dr. Grech-Madin's dissertation, drawn by her.  

Yesterday, Charlotte Grech-Madin defended her PhD at Uppsala University's Peace & Conflict Research Department. Her subject? The Water Taboo: Restraining the Weaponisation of Water in International Conflict. A few weeks ago, she asked me and a few others to read various chapters and help her prepare for her defense. Her dissertation is fascinating: while using water has long been a weapon of war over the last 3,000 years (think sieges, breaking a dam and flooding someone out, poisoning a water supply), water has generally not been used as a weapon of war in the last 70 years. 

Along with really interesting research is the PhD process itself. In some ways, it's similar to the U.S., and in other ways, it's quite different. 

Similarity: the student picks a topic and writes either one really large monograph or piece of work, or 4 papers of publishable quality (the paper option is only available in some fields). PhDs are usually 4 years in Sweden.

Similarity: a PhD is really a job. Difference: Swedish PhD students are eligible for parental leave and all the other benefits of being a Swedish employee. Here's a story about being a PhD in Sweden, listing students being eligible for student discounts on the metro, holiday days, sick days, parental leave, health benefits (for example to join a gym), and union membership. 

Uppsala University is on the semester system, but with a very different schedule. A term or semester is 20 weeks long. The term starts in early September and ended on 19 January (minus the full 2 week break during the holidays). The first week of the "spring" semester started last week on 20 January and runs through 7 June. 

I don't know if PhD students take classes, but if they do, they are taught serially: you might take one class for 5 weeks, then take your next class. In talking with a colleague, you can take them in parallel, but that would be a challenge. I guest taught in a mediation & negotiation skills course in December; their class schedule was all over: a field trip to Stockholm to visit with mediators for a full day; a different day might have 2 hours of lecture; the day I taught was a 7 hour workshop (lots of role playing time- no one wants a 7 hour lecture!). Seems like many classes are co-taught (with different instructors showing up on different days), so it's not quite clear to me how there is a cohesive narrative for the class without careful collaboration. 

Anyway, back to the PhD side of things. Still not sure about the beginning of the process, but I think it involves picking an adviser and defining a topic. Have no idea if there is a set of comprehensive exams: do you know enough to pursue this topic, or when the committee is composed. Student then does research, writes, meets with committee as needed.

The end of the process is what I've just seen. I think these are the steps that I've pieced together:
  • Dissertation or papers deemed acceptable by the adviser, committee
  • Somewhere along the way, a grading committee (different from the oversight committee) is convened, and an outside "opponent" invited
  • A different internal university committee greenlights project as good enough to go forward (this includes someone from the department, someone from the university, and someone from outside the university).
  • At least three weeks before defense, the PhD candidate's dissertation is printed (10 hard copies) and they must "spikning" their dissertation- literally nail it to the wall (more on this below), along with an "elektronisk spikning" (electronically posting their dissertation). A list of currently posted dissertations at Uppsala is online. 
  • The student prepares for their defense. As I mentioned above, Charlotte pulled a number of us together, asked us to read a chapter or two each, then we worked with her on potential questions or issues that might come up (she provided snacks).
A note on "spikning" a dissertation. This dates back a long time (1600s, earlier? Not sure when). Think Luther nailing his treatise to the door of the church. People literally nail their thesis to a post, or in our case, a wooden board in the lunch/fika room. I haven't yet taken a picture, so the picture below is a random one from twitter. I'd seen the dissertations nailed to the wall but hadn't figured out why or if I could read them... the point is that a dissertation is posted in a public place so anyone can in fact read them. Still haven't gained the courage to take one down- the nails are thick!

The defense itself was quite elaborate. 
  • Well in advance, announcements about the defense date & time were sent by Charlotte, by her committee chair and adviser, by the department itself. 
  • The room reserved for the defense was big- it easily could have had 150 people in it. I would say there were 80 people in the audience (all dressed up- mostly people dress casually in the department, but not on defense day where there were a lot more suit coats in view). 
  • The defense process was introduced by a "chair" of the event (pictured to the left below), who outlined the process. 
  • The opponent, in this case Aaron Wolf from Oregon State, then provided an overview of Charlotte's dissertation for maybe 15-20 minutes. She sat there and listened. His first question to her was whether he'd missed anything. It has to be really strange to sit and listen to someone else present your work... I was taking notes as I have been asked to serve as the "opponent" on someone's master's thesis this spring.
  • Aaron then asked Charlotte a series of questions. They had a good and lively discussion. It helped that Aaron started off noting that he thought her work was really good.... a good way to start for sure
  • After they finished their conversation, the three grading committee members each asked her a couple of questions. The event chair then asked the audience if they had any questions- one person raised a couple of things. All told, the public event lasted from 10:15 to about 12:15. 
  • Following the public event, her committee chair, committee members, grading committee members, and opponent left to discuss her grade (this was publicly announced to all-- stressful!). Charlotte greeted people in a receiving line- probably helpful as a way to be distracted. 
  • I was eating lunch when the cluster of people finished discussing whether she passed- they came out of the room (near the lunch room in the department) and literally posted a piece of paper to the wall announcing that she passed (her options were pass or fail). She was nowhere to be seen, so someone texted her to come. If I were in her shoes, I'd prefer to be the first to know, not random people eating lunch... but that's just me. 
Later that afternoon, we'd all received invitations to a "high fika"- a high tea. This looked more like a wedding invite than anything else. An elaborate spread indeed, along with about 100 people in a room for treats, toasts, and more... the fika was provided by Charlotte (with help by her friends). Apparently an elaborate dinner is also an option (provided by the person defending their dissertation). So prepare your defense, defend your dissertation, and plan an elaborate party! I suppose you don't do this level of planning unless you know you are going to pass... 


Toasts for Charlotte, including by her adviser (Ashok Swain, with whom I'm working as well) 

Charlotte, along with others defending their dissertations, will graduate in the spring... looks like an elaborate ceremony then too (complete with cannons being shot off, 10 minutes of bells, laurel wreaths and more). More on that later in the spring!