Daphna’s Double Defense

By Edo Steinberg

Daphna, ABD-plus

Last month, Daphna Yeshua-Katz did something that has never been done before in our department, as far as people can remember. She defended her qualifying exam and her dissertation proposal on the same day. Daphna is modest and says that other programs do this all the time.

“I think it’s quite exceptional,” Betsi Grabe, Daphna’s advisor says. “I do know of other institutions where it’s done, but I don’t know that anyone within the confines of our structure has actually done it.”

“There is risk involved,” Betsi says. “You’re getting your committee together to defend your qualifying exams. At the tail end of that dangles the proposal. You might appear presumptuous to think you can continue on to proposal defense, which is the next step. We were very careful in making it clear to the committee members that there is no presumption, that we meet to have Daphna’s qualifying exam defense, and should the committee then decide to pass her, then we will proceed to discuss her proposal and decide if we give a green light on that. If Daphna were to fail the qualifying exams, we would have a conversation with her anyway, but it would be more of a conversation than a dissertation proposal defense.”

After the qualifying exam defense, Daphna was sent out of the room so the committee could decide whether to pass her. “Daphna offered to put the tea water on, so she walked all the way to the faculty lounge, and shortly after she arrived there I was already in the hallway calling her back with good news.”

Both Daphna and Betsi, who were interviewed separately, think the combination of the two defenses allows for greater focus and efficiency in both the qualifying exam and proposal. “When you do it this way, your quals are much more directed towards your dissertation,” Daphna says. “Then, you sit and write about your dissertation in your own voice for the four days of the exams.”

Daphna recommends it to other Ph.D. students, as long as they are able to withstand the pressure of preparing for both at the same time. “It’s also very important that your chair supports you in this process,” she says. “Not all chairs would agree to do it. I was lucky that Betsi not only agreed, but encouraged me to do this. I am also fortunate to have a good circle of support in my life that is crucial to endure the pressure.”

Betsi would also recommend it, as long as you’re focused and know what your proposal is going to be even before you answer your first written qualifying exam question. Daphna’s proposal was sent to the committee members before she took the exam, so by the time of the defense, they had more than a month to look it over.

Betsi equates a double defense with a marathon. She used to think that with the right training, anyone could run the ultimate long-distance race, but after observing one up close, she changed her mind. “A marathon isn’t in everybody,” she says. “It’s like Walt said to me, ‘you can’t fake a marathon.’ You can’t fake your way through it. Likewise, you can’t fake your way through the qualifying exam and proposal defenses. It might not be in everybody, and doing them both on the same day might not be the right way to do it for everyone.”

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