Judge a book by its what?!


You often hear that every PhD experience is different. It is true at the personal level and the way different research ventures operate. But PhD programs also have structural differences across universities and countries. The duration of the program, whether you’re considered a student or an employee, if there’s mandatory coursework, all such factors can differ vastly depending on the academic system and prevailing culture.

Far more ingrained are the ceremonial elements of PhD defence – outlandish gowns, caps and regalia, sceptres and swords, and bowing, bowing, and bowing – that form a key part of that final step that many look forward to for years.

In the Dutch system, my favourite peculiarities are the front covers that the graduating doctoral candidate creates for the theses and the set of propositions that occasionally accompany them. Neither of those are universal norms.

In most of the world, the thesis is meant to be a sombre folder with university-mandated lettering on the front, wildly exuding the sobriety of its contents even without having to flip a page. Instead, here I remember visiting a research group at the University of Amsterdam in my first year and seeing a whole wall displaying recent dissertations, each as unique in its appearance as in its research topic.

The thesis cover allows, or sometimes forces, the author to go beyond data, graphs, and schematics in communicating with the audience. After several years of deep-diving into something highly specific, it gives the opportunity to think broader for once, almost helping the candidate reconnect with society. It also imposes a certain appreciation for aesthetics, something engineering disciplines may often scoff at and yet the one thing that can get most of the public hooked. Naturally, the skillset differs vastly across candidates (somehow the TU/e hasn’t managed to come up with a PROOF course on illustrations) but it’s always commendable when colleagues pick up a tutorial to draw up their artist’s impression of the thesis in the last stretch of the PhD.

Similarly, the propositions, usually a set of ten, are statements accompanying the thesis that express the candidate’s opinion not just on their research, but on science as a whole or a commentary on society. Often hot-takes, they allow the candidate to use the platform of their defence ceremony to discuss and defend views far beyond the substance of their thesis, be it quantum mechanics, football, the state of scientific publishing, climate change, or politics, giving yet another glimpse into the person at the lectern.

Together, these elements, the cover and the propositions, render a unique final touch to the thin booklet that in itself is not merely a dataset or a design but more of a personal account.

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