I had the privilege this week of serving on the PhD committee for one of my collaborator’s students, who is also a friend of mine. I have served on a few PhD committees back in the U.S., and went through the process myself when I got my doctorate in astronomy.
How PhDs are awarded differs from university to university and country to country. Within a country, the differences are few. From country to country, the differences can be large. For instance, I understand that in Belgium the student gets to bring along advocates for the work and can direct all questions to them and need not answer any at all personally.
In Brazil, the process is similar to what I’ve experienced in the United States. I wrote about defending a PhD thesis elsewhere.
There was one big surprise. After the hour-long presentation of the thesis, normally the public is excused and the “grilling” (sort of an oral exam given by the committee about the thesis topic to ensure the PhD candidate knows their stuff) then commences. Well, in Brazil that part is public, too. It was a surprise to me! Seems like it might be more stressful, but I can see pros and cons to this approach. In any event, we went for another 2.5+ hours, almost 4 hours in total, and most of the public attendees trickled away as the clock ticked on.
It didn’t take so long because of problems, but simply because many scientists like to hear themselves talk. I try to keep this in mind, and that the exam is about the student and not me. Luckily 2-3 of my questions were asked before I got my turn at the end, so I was able to keep my contribution in check.
Oh, the presentation and the questioning was all in Portuguese, so recognizing that my questions had already been addressed was great for me. I followed a lot, especially the talk since I knew the topic and could see pictures and read words on the powerpoint presentation. I had to ask my questions in English. Just not enough of a technical vocabulary. Everyone at the the PhD level in Brazil is expected to speak English, and do, so this was fine.
Oh, one final fun thing. The topic of the PhD involved black holes. In Portuguese a black hole is “buraco negro.” Here is the awful way I remember how to say that. I just think of Barack Obama, as “buraco” is pronounced similarly to “Barack O.” and then I need to remember that negro is pronounced differently than in English (with the “neg” in “negative”). If Obama were white, I would probably have a more difficult time remembering this term.