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9:15pm on Thursday, 30th August, 2012:
Today was spent at Aalborg University Copenhagen (which is to say the Copenhagen campus of Aalborg University) assessing the PhD thesis for which I was invited here.
Different countries have different traditions for PhDs. In Holland, for example, the assessment committee pretty well has to pass the candidate because the only reason the committee has been called is because previous, internal committees have already weeded out the fail candidates. In Denmark there is a pre-defence stage in which students are told to go and rewrite their thesis (and about half of them do have to do this) before the committee accepts that it's worth defending. However, the committee can still reject the PhD if they feel it was not defended well. Unlike in the UK, though, the assessors can't pass with qualification (such as "you have 3 months to remove chapter 4 and rewrite chapter 6 so it accounts for the work of so-and-so"). In Denmark, it's a binary, take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
The particular, written thesis we were examing was in a format that is becoming more common nowadays, in which the candidate puts together a batch of papers they have had published and ties them together as a narrative argument. I'm not a fan of this approach, as I believe that a thesis should be a document that makes a consistent and coherent case stand-alone; it's hard to say "resubmit this without this awful anti-games rant and with a stronger literature review" if the rant is in one of the papers and the literature review is in another one. However, in a system such as the Danish one, it does make more sense because you can't tell the student to make changes anyway.
Going into the defence (that is, where student presents their argument, we attack it and the student defends is), I was of the impression that the candidate had probably done enough to merit a PhD (not perhaps by the standards of the better UK universities, but by the standards of the lesser ones) yet he still had the possibility of blowing it. If he had not been able to sustain an assault on his work, I would have been prepared to vote against his being awarded the PhD. It would have taken one of the other two examiners to agree with me for that to have resulted in a fail, but nevertheless the threat was there.
As it happened, though, the candidate vigorously defended his work against some quite aggressive questioning; it was clear he was very much on top of his subject and had given it much more thought than was apparent in the papers-oriented written version of his thesis. I was very pleased at the end to be able to revise my appraisal: he would have got a PhD pretty well anywhere with that depth of knowledge of his subject area. As a result, I can say he thoroughly deserved his PhD entirely on merit; what's more, because of the hard time we gave him with the questions, he knows he deserved it, too.
So, assuming that the various deans and university governing bodies rubber-stamp our decision (and it would take something like evidence that we'd been bribed by the candidate for them not to do it), Aalborg University Copenhagen will have to update its web site to reflect the change in name of their medialogy lecturer to Dr Henrik Schønau Fog.
It's always good to be able to say that.
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