What It Was Like


Several friends have inquired into what it looks like to defend a PhD dissertation. Here is some reflection from my experience last Thursday.

The defense combines the formality of an inquisition, the solemnity of a funeral, and the suspense of an Olympic floor exercise. Among the active participants (in the British system, at least), it includes the Chairman, your doctoral supervisor (who is required to remain silent) and your two examiners. On the table before you is a copy of your dissertation.

The Chairman (who greeted me ahead of time and inquired into whether I had “brought my boxing gloves”) explained the ground rules to the assembly, explaining how your answers over the next 60-90 minutes will determine whether you pass the defense.

The two examiners then proceed to ask a few relatively easy questions (e.g. “please summarize the argument of your thesis”). Eventually, one of them says, “on p. 52 FN 365, you describe “condign” merit; don’t you actually mean to say “congruent” merit. And he is right, so you concede the point. One of them then asks you to turn to another footnote. “It sounds like you’re saying Vermigli differs from Thomas Aquinas on the function of habitus. How do you explain that in light of Vermigli’s Thomism?” And so it goes.

After an hour is reached, the Chairman offers a time report. This can go either way… into another half hour of questions, or swiftly toward the conclusion. In my case it was the latter. There was one final question, and then it was finished.

Still largely expressionless, the Chairman then excuses you from the room in order for the examiners to confer. You promptly exit with your doctoral supervisor and together walk downstairs to the student dining room where you wait.

With your mind racing at top speed, you attempt to settle down. You think of the answers that could have been better, a couple of which you verbalize to your supervisor. He assures you that there is no reason to worry about such minor points. After a few minutes, the Chairman emerges, inviting you to return to the examination room.

You feel slightly awkward as you reenter the room to take your seat. After a pregnant pause, the Chairman states that he had the “happy job of announcing the good news.” “Did he say ‘happy,’ you think.” It begins to feel like the moment when Olympic gymnasts behold their desired score displayed on the board after a protracted delay. The ethos of the room immediately changes. Your examiners smile (for the first time) and say, “Congratulations, Dr. Castaldo.” You then enjoy a time of lighthearted conversation, as though you’ve been chums the whole time.

Driving home, you think of the many ways God has poured his grace upon you, the people whom he has used in the process, and the mercy that has enabled you to reach the end. You are humbled and led to worship, giving thanks to the Father of lights from whom every good gift descends.

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