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Sunday, May 28, 2006

Doctorates in Portugal

Last month João Vaconcelos Costa and I didn’t manage to our blog translation, but we are now back on the case. I was interested in this article by Miguel Araújo (a guest on JVC's blog) because I have never given much thought to the different ways you defend your thesis in different countries. I’ll be defending mine in Portugal. I already find it interesting that I gave the name of an international seminal writer in my area who would like to sit on my Board - but I was told this was only possible if there was no-one in Portugal working in this area. Does that mean I must aspire to the Portuguese academic community and not the international one?

So this is my translation:

Doctorates in Portugal
Miguel Araújo

The discussion of a doctoral thesis has two objectives. The first is an academic evaluation of the work. The second is a public presentation of the results. In Portugal (as in Spain, France and other countries traditionally Roman) the defense of doctoral theses mixes both these components. The result is that neither one nor the other actually gets done.

The defense of theses are protocoled sessions where an excessive number of evaluators – one of whom, astonishingly – is the supervisor – puts forward half a dozen questions of no consequence. Rarely does a thesis fail and the key question is if the thesis deserves a “distinction and laudem”. As there are no objective criteria to classify the thesis the laudem is arbitrary, undermining its value and mostly indicating the sympathy and strength of relationship between the supervisor and members of the jury. So the defense of a thesis becomes a sad, formal ceremony devoid of content. Even more serious, they promote the practice of a “gentlemen’s agreement” which is fine in politics but not so good in Science.

In the United Kingdom the procedure is the opposite. The public presentation of the results is relegated to academic meetings and congresses for which the defense of the thesis is a discussion behind a closed door, with two evaluators where the supervisor can’t participate. The discussions are hard and without the formalities of protocol (I say from my own experience). In these discussions recommendations are often made to change the thesis, which could be one-offs (when all goes well) or more substantial ones (when things don’t go so well). To avoid being arbitrary the result of the evaluation is to pass or not to pass. The concept of “distinction and laudem” doesn’t exist.

The British system has the advantage of requiring work from fewer evaluators. It’s an advantage as it reduces the pressure on the market of evaluators. On the other hand you don’t invite evaluators just to make up the numbers. Those who are there have something to say. Getting rid of the “show” component reduces the unnecessary pressure on the candidate and encourages a more conducive atmosphere for a substantial evaluation of a thesis; an evaluation with consequences as it’s not common for a thesis to pass without alterations. The sad side of the defense of theses in the United Kingdom is the loneliness of the act. Countries with a Latin tradition like the show and the defense of the thesis is an important day in the life of a candidate.

To be sure of the seriousness of the evaluation and to give it some sense of show there is a third way: the Finnish one. In Finland the evaluation and the public presentation are separate events. The evaluation is done in writing. That is, you send your doctoral thesis to three evaluators. They have to read it and make the necessary suggestions. The candidate then has a certain time period to incorporate the evaluators’ suggestions. The editing work is reviewed by the president of the jury who could decide to resend the thesis to the evaluators. Once the final version of your thesis is accepted you can organize your public presentation. This presentation is started by a speech given by the doctoral candidate, followed by a debate with a world specialist of the theme. Their role is not to evaluate the thesis but to facilitate a public discussion about the thesis. The specialist’s role is to make the candidate shine. Never to humiliate.

Separating the process of evaluation from the show guarantees that each of these acts is productive and gratifying. It also reduces the costs of the ceremony, as there are only the travel and accommodation costs of an external academic. The evaluators are in written contact. With this process you also ensure the quality of the evaluators, as the criteria of geographic proximity doesn’t always coincide with the criteria of academic relevance of the evaluators.

A change in the system of the defense of theses is important to ensure the credibility of the act. Securing the credibility of the act would be contributing to the health of the Portuguese academic world and with it the quality of people doctoring in this country.

(Published inAMBIO)

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