Can we defend our theses defense ?

photo (33)It is the end of the month of June and many academic programs are ending for the year. Those having postgraduate programs are undertaking MSc., MA and PhD theses defenses.  Like many other colleagues in Universities, I had various opportunities and privileges of examining MSC and MA candidates at  our different universities. Every time we examine a candidate, I wonder if we are doing it correctly or if the general procedures, the grading, defending  do justice to the novel endeavors of assuring that our graduates have achieved the required research qualifications during their postgraduate research.

Here are some of  ‘problems’ or flaws in our theses examination procedures that I have been  contemplating about over the years.

1. Excessive vain compliments and appreciations. If you happen to be in one of the defense sessions you will notice that examiners, department heads and audiences spend considerable amount of precious time lavishing one another with complements. A particular scene goes like this- the candidate starts by saying I am thankful to Almighty God, my Adviser, my parents for giving me this chance. I also appreciate the audience for their commitment and dedication to my thesis defense. For God’s sake, no one gives a candidate  a chance. As a candidate you have earned it. The audience is probably there because of a departmental obligation or rarely because they want to learn something and thanking them for their ‘extreme devotion’ and commitment just makes them feel awkward.

The phoniest of the compliments happen when a candidate finishes presenting. For reasons all of us can guess, most candidates have below standard, if not terrible presentation skills. Some spend standing for thirty minutes reading every line of tightly packed 50+ Slides. But, when it is time for the chair person to invite the examiner, or when the examiner starts to provide his or her reflections, or when a member of the audience wants to ask a question, they always start by appreciating, thanking and applauding the candidate for the amazing presentation. Whenever this happens I always feel cheated. I was praying for the presentation to end before I face the ultimate death by powerpoint, but now this guys are telling us how amazed and mesmerized they are by the presentation we just had. Sometimes, I turn around and check if I am actually in the same event as these guys. Now, I do not mean that the chair and examiner or the audience should say to the candidate ‘your presentation was terrible, you sounded like a dummy ‘elementary-schooler’  who was trying to read a foreign language for the first time, and I almost died waiting for your presentation to end’. No, I don’t think we should say that, nor do I think we have brave enough souls among us, to give such a bald and honest comment. Neither am I against our culture of being humble and finding good in everything. What I am saying is that we should not lie. If a presentation, a paper or a work was bad, at least we should not say it was outstanding, unless we mean outstanding in a bad way! and if we want to practice our culture of paying complement In whatever situation, we can appreciate the new, shiny suits, and polished sharp new brand shoes that that candidates wear during their defense. Only if they could care to polish their theses , they way they do their new shoes and suits …

2. Shallow and simplistic comments and inputs from external examiners. I am not trying to generalize here, but more often than not, external examiners dwell too much on minor editorial and typographical mistakes and pay little or no attention to the actual contribution or content of the postgraduate research. Over the years, I have observed examiners debating if a certain form of sampling should be named simple random sampling or systematic sampling, instead of actually debating on whether  a particular type of sampling, procedure or design is appropriate for answering a given research question. I know candidates need to write the right nomenclature , but the level of obsession to a minor issue like naming is beyond me to understand. Similarly, examiners give comments like your abstract does not contain the right number if words, you missed a comma between two key words etc., instead of actually commenting on whether the abstract provides or misses a relevant content.

My guess is that this happens, because examiners, usually, may not be experts in the subject matter of the thesis they are given to examine. This also happens because of limited number of specialists in some specific fields and the logistics difficulty of bringing some professor from the other corner of the country to examine a thesis. Examination coordinators usually choose those who are easily accessible, living nearby and those who are not too busy to be able to come on to a pre-scheduled event.

3. Not addressing disagreements between the adviser and examiners The standards of research, science writing  and communication, among the academic community in Ethiopia are too diverse,  that I usually hear examiners providing suggestions opposite to what has been suggested by the candidate’s adviser.  Sometimes, because of honest mistakes or actually divergent points of views on some issue, the suggestions and views of the adviser and the examiners may vary. Opposing views are good, but I have never seen any adviser or examiners saying ‘no, you are wrong ‘ to one another ‘. It is culturally important for the adviser and examiner (who are usually in the same academic rank or footing)  to save each other faces in front of an audience. Thus they put the blame on the candidate. Perhaps it is because they know they will unfairly blame the candidate that they start  by generously pouring vain compliments!

4. The grading system– the grading system of theses that we use, I believe is usually ridiculous, and unfair at its best What happens is the examiners and the chair agree on a mark given to a theses which ranges from fail to excellent. The problem is not this. Usually, there will be multiple defenses in one event, and regardless of the quality of a work, the grading of the first thesis, which is publicly announced before the start of the next defense, will always have an impact on the grades of the subsequent theses. I remember in one such occasion, a ‘not very brilliant’ thesis was graded excellent. I was examining a thesis after that. Mine happens to be a decently prepared and defended one, I liked it, but have already decided it doesn’t deserve an excellent grade, because I also gave some comments and suggestions which were of substantial nature.  The challenges, however, was that this particular thesis was by far more deserving than the one which was rated excellent before it. It was therefore, impossible for me and other members of the examination committee rate it very good (or any other grade below excellent). As a result we assigned an excellent grade, despite our clear consensus that it missed some important components.

These are just some flaws in the thesis examination procedure that is being followed across many universities in Ethiopia. Do you think these are important problems? Do you know any other problems? Can you suggest how these can be improved?

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African Academic/Researcher

Science and Research by Africans for Africa

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