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PhDs: the case for the Defence

Viva vs defence

Whenever I’ve heard friends and colleagues talk about the European or American system of PhD Defence, they’ve often seemed to suggest that it’s close to a process of cruel and unusual punishment. The candidate (or Respondent) has to face an Opponent, who grills them on the thesis, usually in front of a panel of examiners who can also ask questions, and a public audience who can join in as well.  It may take a whole morning, in contrast  to the British viva voce system which is a chat between examiners and candidate in private that rarely lasts more than  a couple of hours.

Having now done both, I can report that the differences between the two systems are not as I imagined them to be. One of my fellow torturers in Sweden said he thought the British system was far more brutal as people often fail, whereas in the European system it’s very unusual for a candidate to fall at this final hurdle. He or she will have already have acquired the necessary credits, and the work will have been scrutinised by several authorities and already be published (and even on sale at the Defence). The Defence then becomes more a celebration of the work – a dialogue between Opponent and Respondent. In fact, Opponent isn’t really the right word (there’s probably something in Socrates that would give a less loaded idea). It’s still a big deal though, and celebratory parties are booked in advance on the assumption that there will indeed be something to celebrate.

The British system seems rather mean in comparison. My memories of examining are very mixed: I never encountered a student that wasn’t fully in command of their topic, which was more than could be said for some of my fellow examiners. You could always tell if one of the examiners hadn’t read the thesis properly by the length of their minor corrections list. On one occasion the internal examiner hadn’t even noticed that several footnotes were missing and he clearly had only a very superficial knowledge of the work. You couldn’t get away with  that in a public defence – which is as much a test of the examiner as the candidate. And in most British universities they only grudgingly award the degree – it’s almost always subject to minor corrections at best  (whereas in the European system all that stuff”s sorted in advance).  And in the case of major corrections  I’ve even known examiners change the rules and require students to make corrections that went directly contrary to the research findings and methodology, having completely failed to understand the research itself. Again, that would be impossible in a public Defence.

Both systems have their weaknesses of course,  and I can’t really comment on the deficiencies of the European system after only one experience (which was a remarkably successful event). But my  Scandinavian opposite numbers were very happy with their system, reckoning that it was fair to the candidate and a proper climax to the student’s research. I only had that feeling about fifty percent of the time with the English system. The one obvious weakness in the Scandinavian system is that by publishing the thesis in advance you tend to get a rather long list of adenda, and it misses the opportunity to reflect something of the ‘Defence’ itself. These are proper typeset publications, incidentally, not the rather home-made-looking creations that are UK PhD theses.


Performance as Research

I’ve always had a problem with the idea of performance as research. They don’t seem at all the same thing to me. One of the consequences of the octopus-like reach of education everywhere in the West has been the ‘academicisation’ of  performance – ie taking a subjective, creative activity and making it part of the ‘objective’ and disciplined academic curriculum. It’s fair enough for performance to be incorporated into the system somehow as that’s how most of us experience music, but it sits every uncomfortably with conventional academic forms of measurement. No one goes to a concert with  a list of ‘performance criteria’ in their head, and it’s not easy to estimate the research quotient in  performance of Schubert songs or Messiah. Was that a 63% Müllerlied or a 65? And what’s the difference? Doctoral studies are particularly at risk from the subjective/objective compromise, and most UK universities have some sort of system whereby a performance (or performances) is somehow justified by a research element. This is really performance and research, and very rarely performance as research. The creative act isn’t considered sufficiently ‘academic’ in itself – and in any case, how would you be able to measure it? Universities might become like art colleges (which produced some of the greatest and least academic musicians of the late 20th century, of course).


The PhD for which I was the Opponent at the University of Gothenburg was a genuine example of performance as research. It was an artwork in itself, with the necessary academic apparatus ingeniously incorporated into it in the form of dialogues with the sources and multiple layers of commentary. It took the form of a written document and a film, and the Defence was the ideal forum in which the complex concepts that formed the intellectual underpinning of the work could be examined. Not only was the dialogue between Opponent and Respondent a kind of performance in itself, but the questions of the examining board were also enlightening and supportive of the whole project. Most surprising (for me) were the questions from the audience. I found myself wondering where on earth you’d find such a high powered,  interested and informed audience back home. That’s without even beginning to imagine the whole thing happening in a foreign language.


So…if you’re a student thinking about doing a performance PhD in the UK, think about going to Europe. Think too about an environment where you meet fellow scholars and performers from all over the world who will open your eyes to things you’ve never thought of. And think about fees: in most EU countries there aren’t any…


The Academy of Music & Drama at the University of Gothenburg brings together a huge range of disciplines from music and theatre to photography and film, and their idea of the creative process and its relationship to academic study is a very sophisticated one. Elisabeth Belgrano’s thesis and film can be seen here.




2 Responses to “PhDs: the case for the Defence”

  1. Ivan Moody says:

    Just a note to say that “Europe” is not uniform… you won’t get the same experience in Spain, say, that you will in Sweden – and I’m also thinking here of your comments on defending a Ph,D.

    There are certainly broader possibilities in Europe taken as a whole, however.

    And, now that I’ve started, what about composition as research?

  2. John Potter says:

    Agreed – I’m afraid I have very limited experience but friends talk with undisguised horror about their experiences in some countries (not the ones you mention!). ‘Composition as research’ is rather similar to the performance problem: governments and by extension universities can only think generically – so research is what universities do therefore if you want a PhD it has to be research of some sort, examined according to criteria that apply across the board from Biology to Beethoven. It would be mucn more straight forward if they recognised composition and performance as separate disciplines in their own right, rather than try to make musical activities answerable to generic criteria

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