Summer Defenses

How do you feel about summer PhD defenses?

This spring, it seems I have been inundated with requests to be on mid-summer PhD defense committees, usually for students for whom I was already involved as part of the defense prospectus committee (our committees don’t have ongoing involvement with students, unless there’s an existing technical collaboration).

On the one hand, I really do want to help the students and try to say yes whenever I can: the student got a job, they want to move on, and we should help them to do that. On the other hand,  getting a job and defending a PhD are not exactly unforeseen catastrophes: the student typically writes the dissertation and interviews for jobs (or at least should, as that’s what I request of my students) over several months preceding the defense. At least at this school, there’s no reason not to defend during the semester and then postpone the filing of the final form of the dissertation by a few months, if the student wants to keep the student status until they need to leave midsummer for a job. For international students, getting the F1-OPT paperwork requires several months of lead time anyway, so filing for F1-OPT is a good time to schedule your final defense. It used to be possible to defend and deposit a dissertation, then be as a short-term part-time postdoc until the job situation is finalized, but since the mandatory low-level pay for postdocs has now been raised to nearly $50k with no part-time options, these short-term postdocs as a courtesy to students are no longer financially feasible.

Just this morning, I had to decline another request for a summer defense. The student wanted to schedule it during a week when I don’t have childcare, and only three weeks into the future. I could scramble, but I said no. I have the right to not be perpetually available for during the summer, especially for non-research activities (remember: in the US, there is no summer pay by the university; any pay comes from research grants), plus this lack of planning by the student and advisor really ticked me off.

What say you, blogosphere? How do you feel about summer PhD defenses? 

17 comments

  1. I don’t mind summer defenses any more so than defenses during the academic year, and in fact I kind of prefer them, because during the summer I’m less likely to be pulled in additional different attention-span-hitting directions by teaching and service than I am during the main semesters.
    I’d especially much rather be part of a defense during the summer than during the end of the spring semester, when the sh*t is hitting the fan from every possible aspect of teaching and service (the inevitable “OMG our committee hasn’t finished its assigned charge for the year, we must have frequent and intense meetings amidst all the other end-of-year chaos to get it done”) . My brain is already inevitably on the verge of exploding at the end of semesters, so adding thesis/dissertation defenses in that already-chaotic time usually just makes it worse.
    During the summer, for me and many others the focus is generally more on research than teaching and administration, and I can concentrate on the science itself little better. It also allows things to happen on a more leisurely, less frantic, more well-thought-out pace so the defense and the dissertation can be of better quality- and I, as a committee member, can better give focused attention to any comments and edits and have the time to really think about the student’s work and ask more well-thought-out questions during the defense and to the student and their advisor in the run-up to it. It’s less rushed, and my time and mental capacity is less filled with other (undergrad teaching and service) issues, thus usually everything (the defense process, and the dissertation itself) winds up being of better quality.
    At my institution, there is an inevitable rush to get theses/dissertations defended before the end of the semester, so the last few weeks of the semester (especially in spring, end of the academic year) is jam-packed with defense after defense, it’s crazy, and easier to have mistakes or glitches happen. I have often suggested to students that they move their defense into the summer if at all possible. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t.
    In terms of scheduling, it makes no difference of the time of year, summer or otherwise: if I’m not available due to conflicts (with other tasks, or being out of town), sorry, I won’t be available to be at a dissertation defense then. To paraphrase you, “I have the right not to be perpetually available, anytime- during the academic year as well as the summer.” Either find a time that works with me, or get someone else to be on your committee.

  2. I also prefer summer defenses. They seem easier to schedule then trying to squeeze it in between classes and committee meetings, etc. They make sure I am in the office during a time when I occasionally have trouble getting here in a timely fashion. That said, this is my last summer that my child has childcare readily available as she will start kindergarten in the fall. My opinions will inevitably change once I’m scrambling to find summer care, I am sure.

  3. I do not prefer summer defenses. The summer is my time and my research money paying my salary. I will only agree if the dates in no way inconvenience me and the student gives me plenty of time ahead for scheduling. Otherwise, wait until the semester starts and we’ll do it then.

  4. I’ve only been on one defense committee so far — it was during the semester, but it was only a 2-hour drive away and on a Friday, so the logistics were pretty easy. Summer defenses are attractive to me as a PUI professor, since it requires a lot of advance planning for me to miss classes during the semester — the culture of the university is such that students expect me to lead all but one or two of my classes during the semester, and we don’t have PhD students to fill in for us when we are gone (although we do have masters students and sometimes postdocs). I find that I can easily miss 2-3 classes during the semester by judicious scheduling of exams and “special” classes like a trip to the library or a guest lecture by one of my colleagues, but more than that is really hard, and I need to know way in advance (like, before my syllabus is written for the semester). I’d rather save those dates for conferences and colloquia, and do defenses during the more laid-back summer. But then, my kids are at a university daycare that only closes for major national holidays and the week between Christmas and New Year’s.

  5. I am actually quite sympathetic. First I’m on contract with the university through grants and my students often work through the summer (are on fellowship for the PURPOSE of working through the summer) so I am usually supervising lab related things at least some of the time.
    Also from the student’s perspective…. With the vagaries of subject recruitment being what they are, finishing at inconvenient times is “normal”. I think forcing a student to wait/decline a job because their data collection didn’t perfectly line up is tricky. That said, I also think that summer defenses require attention to the convenience of the faculty — so I think it’s not unreasonable to say I’m on vacation (my kids are on vacation) these weeks or I’m traveling for these weeks and am only available from X to Y. And I think it’s unsurprising that you will finish in the summer – so asking in April for summer defense date, no problem. Asking in June week 1 for a defense June week 3 – no way.

  6. I’m not actually paid by the university in the summer, therefore I am resentful of doing ANY work that is not my own research. i.e. My department doesn’t typically allow summer defenses. Yay for that.

    I did just get a request to read a chapter. Which I’ll do. At a very leisurely pace.

  7. Both my defenses were during the summer. I was particularly glad my committee was flexible because it was bad enough dealing with my own classes/finals on top of trying to schedule a defense. I do sympathize, though, regarding how it can interfere with a schedule.

  8. I don’t mind summer defenses. I find it easier to get the time to read the thesis over the summer. In my department, defenses are scheduled 2ish months ahead of time, so it isn’t like the date is last minute. It doesn’t make much sense to make a student wait 3-4 months when they are done but the calendar says June, July, or August, especially if they have something lined up, or if the PI will have to pay them for the extra months.

  9. I don’t mind summer defenses—I prefer them to ones in quarters when I’m teaching 11 hours a week, grading 25 hours a week, and spending the rest of my time on various committees and do-it-yesterday administrative BS (as I’m doing this quarter).

    I do request getting thesis drafts 30 days before a defense, though. I’m willing to discuss possible days well in advance, but I need time to read a thesis—particularly since most of them are so badly written that I want to throw them through the window every 15 minutes.

    I don’t like the way so many defenses and admission to candidacy exams pile up in the last week of the summer, though.

  10. I think there are almost two issues here:
    1. summer defences & lack of summer salary
    2. lack of warning/preparedness

    If a student said in, say Feb, that they were going to need to defend in summer because of excellent reasons, would that be an issue?
    Or alternatively, if a student in Feb said they needed to defend in two weeks?

  11. ivy, sure: during the academic year, I believe it’s my duty to make myself as available as possible to graduating students who need me to serve on their committees. Lack of warning/preparedness is a bit of an irritation, but I’d say I try my best to accommodate the student, because during the academic year part of my job is to be at the graduating students’ disposal (similar to how if I serve on the committee, I need to keep serving even if it’s dysfunctional and not getting much done). In contrast, in the summer, I don’t have the duty to serve on defense committees; in fact, the student (or their advisor) is requesting a big favor of me by asking me to serve in the summer. I am more likely to accept if the student has shown that they have been thinking ahead and weighed all the other options and polled faculty well in advance, so this summer defense is clearly necessary; when the is scrambling to defend and only thought to ask me 2 weeks in advance, that compounds asking a big favor with potentially majorly inconveniencing those of whom you ask the favor, because schedules are much, much different in the summer along several axes (e.g., travel, childcare) than during the academic year.

  12. We have a number of faculty who are known to be completely unavailable during the summer, so I think that fact makes students realize that summer is different (I didn’t realize that summer was different for faculty when I was a grad student). So, I haven’t had any summer defenses yet. But, I personally wouldn’t be opposed to one for the reasons other comments have mentioned – it would be nice to have some mental space to read and think about the dissertation…it’s better for the student to have a more engaged committee.
    Trying to schedule a defense 3 weeks out is unreasonable regardless of the season. I’m not sure what is reasonable in my mind… >6 weeks at least.

  13. One possible reason for a summer defense rather than an end of April/May defense – NIH postdoc grants (F32s & K99s) count eligibility from the date that your committee signs the paper saying you have completed all the requirements, which is usually the defense day. Thus, by defending in June or July, you preserve eligibility to apply for postdoc grants for the summer submission date. I doubt most people are thinking of this, but it’s something a friend just ran into who defended in May.

  14. In theory, I have no problems with summer defenses when I know they are coming. Which, in theory, if the student has been keeping their committee apprised should not be that hard. What I really really hate is:

    1. When I end up with 5-7 students who need to meet some milestone in the Summer (I’m including defenses, defending proposals, MA theses, whatever) and they all want to meet in the same 3 week period.

    2. That summer is when most colleagues in my department are likely to take a) vacation in b) a large chunk of time. This is not news to students because it happens every single year. Yet somehow students are surprised when they want to schedule their defense but Prof A is off for all of July and Prof B is off for all of August. Related, I get really pissy when people expect me to come in on my vacation to attend a defense and I no longer allow myself to get pressured into this.

    So I guess I’m okay with some summer defenses if I’ve been warned. No warning is extra obnoxious in the summer, even if I am sympathetic to grad student woes. Personally, I do my best to keep my own students from summer defenses because they tend to be a scheduling nightmare.

  15. Clarification: I don’t hate that we all take long vacations in the summer. I love it. I hate that students are shocked every year when everyone goes on vacation in the summer.

  16. When I was a grad student, summer defenses were the norm. The professors wanted to get as much work as they could out of their students before they started their postdocs or other jobs in the fall. I ended up having less than two weeks off between the thesis deposit and the first day of my postdoc. It was certainly not by choice or lack of planning on my part.

    I suppose the professors in my department couldn’t complain about sitting on summer defense committees when they also needed people on their own students’ committee. They did it to themselves.

  17. As a PhD student, it was understood that I’d take my preliminary exam, have my committee meetings, and eventually defend in the summer. I think a lot of that is based on when grants end, which means I’m doing a ton of experiments the months before August… & then doing the “admin” portion of my PhD at the end of summer.

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