Family attendance at thesis defense--really?
August 5, 2013 11:57 AM   Subscribe

At the end of this month my niece will be defending her master's thesis (in psychology, if that makes any difference) Her university is in a city an hour away from the city we, her family, live in. She has asked her parents and us, her aunt and uncle, to attend her thesis defense. It is highly technical and stats based thesis and she is the first to admit we will not understand a word of it. Her reasoning is it is open to the public, and she would like to be "surrounded by smiling faces." Everyone in her classes will be attending--that part I understand. Her roommates will be going. Her boyfriend will be taking a half-day off work to attend--I'm a bit surprised, but okay. But the request for elder family members to "be there for her"--my gut says no.

The guts of her parents also say no. We all feel this is like going on a job interview with her, or bringing your parents along on your driving test. She is hurt and offended, and repeats that it is open to the public, and a friend of hers, X, who defended her thesis last year, "packed the room" with friends and supporters, thus keeping "random people" from asking X antagonistic questions she might have had difficulty answering. In brief, my two related questions:

1) I think the presence of much older people who are obviously relatives will make her look silly and undermine her in the eyes of her examiners. Am I wrong about this?

2) Is this a trend? Is this common? I have never heard of such a thing, ever. Is it or was it ever usual for family members to attend a thesis defense?
posted by uans to Education (69 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
If it's open to the public, it's not at all like a job interview. You should suck it up and go support the kid, if she asked for it. It certainly will not have any affect on the committee asking her questions of whatever difficulty they want. I didn't have anyone for my thesis defense, but that's because it was private. If it means that much to her that she's complaining about it, you need to go.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:00 PM on August 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

I thought open to the public meant, it couldn't be conducted in secret, not that people were invited. My degrees are in the humanities, and I've never heard of a candidate inviting guests. And everyone in class attending? Never heard of that, either.
posted by feste at 12:00 PM on August 5, 2013

Of the ~6 phd thesis defenses I've been to, the break down is usually faculty, fellow grad students, significant other, and a smattering of locals/business folks/community people who are interested in the research. No family, no rah-rah cheering squad, etc.
posted by k5.user at 12:01 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This matters drastically by school and program, of course. Some defenses are formalities and celebrations, some are true final tests.

My PhD was the former, with an hour long talk to a 200-person auditorium, public invited, refreshments and dinner afterwards, and everyone at my program invited their family and friends. (This was at a top tier school in the US, if it matters.) It really sounds like your niece's is like mine, and I really promise she knows better than you do about the culture and norms of her program. If you don't want to go, don't, but I would be hurt if my family an hour away didn't go to my defense.

(Edit to say there was a set of very true academic tests before the defense: quals, proposal, etc, that no, family would not be allowed. But the way my program was set up, family was encouraged and welcomed. They met my advisor for the first time, fellow students, etc.)
posted by neustile at 12:02 PM on August 5, 2013 [29 favorites]

Different departments will have different cultures about this. In my department in the early 2000s, it was common to have family at PhD defenses, and the candidate's research group would show up as well. Where I am now, we often see significant others; parents are less common, but it happens regularly enough so that it doesn't raise any eyebrows. So if it's part of her department's culture, it would make sense that she would ask you.

As for the antagonistic questions, these would most commonly come from the committee. In my experience, the committee will ask whatever antagonistic questions they have in a closed-door session following the formal defense and questions from the public.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:03 PM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I defended my thesis, my parents and family couldn't come even though they were invited, and it made me feel very sad because everyone else around me had family members there to support them as they finished their masters presentations for good. This may be where your niece is coming from, too.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:04 PM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

It was not common at my college, and I think it is silly. The purpose of a thesis defense is for the student to show that they are able to defend themselves as a scholar. It is not a time for family to support the scholar's accomplishments -- that is what graduation is for.

Given the time of year, it is possible that this woman will be finished out of synch with the graduation ceremony which she might have attended. You should find out whether she sees this as a kind of replacement for that event and, if so, consider as a family whether there isn't some other way you can make a big show of support for her after the thesis defense.
posted by gauche at 12:06 PM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

The one PhD defense I attended was for my friend at MIT. Her parents and brother were there and they flew in from Colorado. It was absolutely normal to have friends and family there, I really don't understand what your issue is.
posted by lydhre at 12:06 PM on August 5, 2013 [20 favorites]

At some places the defense exam is largely ceremonial and those open to anyone. My school actually made a big deal about its openness to the public. Your niece will know the score. It is still incredibly nervewracking, and it was great to have my uncomprehending family in the audience. Go and cheer (or clap politely, whatever, but go.).
posted by Tandem Affinity at 12:07 PM on August 5, 2013

This is absolutely normal and the way things are done in many Universities all over the world. I know a number of people who did this exact thing, all from different places, just as I know many who didn't (e.g. my defence was totally private, me, three other people, no presentation, just questions and some random chatter). It can even vary by faculty and program within the same University, there really is no one way of doing this.

Given your niece is the one actually doing her program, why not just believe her when she says she wants you there? Particularly since it's clearly what other people in her program do based on her friend's experience. Ignore your gut, it's wrong. Go, smile and nod, try not to look to glazed, clap when everyone else does, and tell her at the end that she did a good job regardless of how bored you are.
posted by shelleycat at 12:07 PM on August 5, 2013 [27 favorites]

At my university it is perfectly normal for parents to attend thesis defenses. Its a big moment, and I would have been quite sad if my parents didn't feel it was important enough to come. By contrast, I didn't attend graduation, because its a trivial (long, boring) ceremony.
posted by florencetnoa at 12:07 PM on August 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

My parents and siblings were at my thesis defense and it was entirely the norm. In fact, it would've made me look bad to not have family there, because it's tradition to have family there. At least at the PhD level at my school.
posted by htid at 12:07 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

We don't do masters thesis defenses in my program, but I've been to probably twenty PhD thesis defenses since I've been here and every single one had family + friends in attendance. We have a public defense/presentation of the thesis, followed by a closed room private defense with only the committee. The culture will be different in every program, but I would assume that your niece is in tune with the culture of her own program and that family attending is the norm.
posted by pemberkins at 12:07 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was in grad school just over 20 years ago. I have been to many defenses. It was not common for family to attend, but it did happen from time to time. I thought nothing odd about it. There was the "open to the public" part which included the presentation and some questions, and then that was followed by private time between the student and the thesis committee. It was during that private time that harder hitting questions could be asked. So I think it is OK. Why is it OK in your mind for the roommates or the boyfriend to go? Why does the age of the people attending matter?
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 12:07 PM on August 5, 2013

Three of my friends defended their theses (in the sciences) in the last couple months, and all of them invited friends to go without regard for 'is this a topic you care about'. None of them have family within the state but I imagine they would have been invited if they were close by. Trust your niece on appropriateness.
posted by jacalata at 12:08 PM on August 5, 2013

I'm in a genetics/genomics department in the U.S., and it seems incredibly common for parents and family members to attend PhD thesis defenses here. I can't speak to what it is like in Canada, but I bet your niece has a much better idea than you do.

Although I did my PhD in the UK and couldn't invite my parents, I don't think I would have been hurt or offended if they couldn't come. It's hard for me to imagine inviting my aunts and uncles, though, unless they actually worked in a related field.

I must admit I roll my eyes a little about the idea of packing the room to avoid annoying questions. That won't even work.
posted by grouse at 12:08 PM on August 5, 2013

It was not common at my college, and I think it is silly. The purpose of a thesis is for the student to show that they are able to defend themselves as a scholar.

The thesis, yes, not necessarily the defense. There are tons of other checkpoints you go through before the defense itself, and where I'm from, the defense itself was a celebration and a sort of "public release" of the work. I remember meeting a lot of people not in my field at it that had a lot of great insights and questions about it. Your committee would not let you get to the defense without passing their bar. It's not silly at all.
posted by neustile at 12:09 PM on August 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

Just seconding the "trust your niece" suggestion. She is the one in the program. She has probably gone to defenses herself. She should know her department's culture. If she thinks it is OK it is probably OK.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 12:10 PM on August 5, 2013 [7 favorites]

In my Ph.D. program it was totally standard for family & friends to come -- more than once they "attended" via Skype on laptops in the front row. If the niece is asking you to come, she knows it's appropriate for you to be there. It's an hour of being bored and not what is understanding what's going on to support your niece. If you can swing it without it being difficult, go.
posted by brainmouse at 12:10 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This totally depends on the specific university department, not on what is common elsewhere, so anecdotes won't help you. At the universities I've worked or studied, it ranged from private defenses over theoretically public but actually scarcely populated ones to big lecture halls filled with family, their neighbors, and the neighbors' tennis partners. She presumably knows the culture of her department. I suggest you take her at face value. If you want to support her and still be sure to not embarrass anyone, just be there in the audience and sit there quietly.
posted by meijusa at 12:10 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This varies entirely from institution to institution. My Ph.D. defense (in the Humanities) was at a school where these were "public" in the sense that literally anybody at all could wander in if they wished. A whole bunch of my friends--academics and non-academics--came just to be friendly and supportive, and this was completely unremarkable at that university. If your niece is asking family and friends along that strongly implies that this is the norm at her university and unless it's a giant scheduling headache or a financial sacrifice of some kind I can't begin to imagine why you wouldn't go along simply to gratify her. You won't be carrying giant placards saying "we are so-and-so's family" so I can't really see how the examining committee could form any opinions about the candidate from your presence. They won't have a clue whether you're family or simply other academics who have some interest in your niece's thesis.

This is a lot more like attending a public lecture than it is like attending a job interview. Your niece will have a chance to look impressive and knowledgeable in front of her peers and it's understandable that it would be extra meaningful for her to have her family and friends witness this.
posted by yoink at 12:11 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

When I did my presentation at a conference we were encouraged to go to panels done by our classmates for the same reasons. But part of that was because there were some people there who were known for being way too critical of the work. Really, we were going for Bachelor's degrees. It's OK if we miss something, this isn't Master's or PhD work here.

Some people had family there. It didn't really matter.

But what I think it really comes down to are these 2 things:

1: Where is your family in relation to everyone else in the room? If it's a small room with pretty limited seating it's kind of a cop out to block people out who have a "better" reason to be there. If it's talking to a room full of people then there's no reason family shouldn't be there.

2: Is she defending or presenting? For me, it was presenting. Didn't matter who was there, my entire grade was the fact that I did it. My stuff had already been accepted and graded.

Side story time. I had one of the biggest jackasses at my presentation. I did mine on how art vs non-art students described pieces of art, and said something in my presentation about how it was rally hard to control since I was using works from unknown artists in an attempt to not have art kids give me the "correct" answer. And how there was bound to be a bias since I was the only person assessing the answers.

The guy asked me something to the effect of "Isn't there a bias since it's only you assessing the answers, and you picked the pieces they were shown? Wouldn't it have worked better if you had used famous pieces of art, or even unknown pieces from famous artists?"

No Mr. Jackass. It wouldn't have worked better. I acknowledge the bias, and brought it up during the presentation that that was a potential issue. I also already said that I purposely didn't use known art/artists because I didn't want to have art kids give me stuff that they know should be there based on who did the piece.

So in short, trust her that you're allowed to be there. She's seen what the process is before and who's been there, and you most likely haven't.
posted by theichibun at 12:12 PM on August 5, 2013

I'd say about half of the defenses I go to have family, usually the spouse/SO but often parents. Her reasoning about friends and supporters discouraging antagonistic questions is whacko, though. If anything I would think it will encourage hecklers, they'll have a bigger audience.

Where I defended it was traditional to bring food. My then wife came with 200 chocolate truffles. I still got hostile questions.

It's not weird. If someone in my family wanted me to be there I would absolutely attend regardless of the department culture. Public means public.
posted by Wet Spot at 12:14 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is common at my university. Usually significant others will go, less often parents, but it would not be considered strange. The defense is a very stressful public performance--think of it like a recital or a play--and having loved ones in the audience is very comforting. It does not matter if you don't understand the topic, you might not enjoy opera either, but you would go to support your niece if she was a musician, right?
posted by epanalepsis at 12:15 PM on August 5, 2013

Family in attendance is not unheard of in my field (people would occasionally invite their parents up because it was their last chance to visit the town). Going to support her is fine--just observe the local customs with regards to clapping etc. Also common: specific family acknowledgement (sometimes with pictures) in the final slide.

However, her idea that a professor would be shamed into not asking a question because her mom is there is laughable, so much so that it makes me a wonder if your family understands more about the dynamic at play than those of us here do. Is your niece someone who isn't very able to stand up for herself?
posted by tchemgrrl at 12:20 PM on August 5, 2013

Absolutely standard at my top-tier biosciences phd program in the US. People scheduled their defences as much to accommodate their parents travel schedules as their committee members'. In general, we'd try to make the first ten minutes comprehensible to our families before descending into jargon. If its not a huge inconvenience to you and you have a good relationship with her, you should go.
posted by juliapangolin at 12:20 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ph.D. in biomedical sciences here, and like the commenter above, defended at a top tier US school in a large capacity auditorium. I had several friends and family members in the audience from out of state. About 10 or so. Plus friends from various parts of the university. Definitely the norm at my school.
posted by NikitaNikita at 12:21 PM on August 5, 2013

Significant Others attending PhD dissertations was pretty common when I got mine. My SO did come to mine, although it probably bored her to death, since I guarantee she had no idea what 95% of my talk was about.

Bringing "light food" was a tradition as well, with cookies being the norm.

The idea of friends discouraging antagonistic questions is a little suspect; in my experience, especially for a PhD dissertation, the actual defense is somewhat pro forma. Your adviser looks bad if someone defends when they aren't ready, so for most people I know, the quals and the pre-thesis defense (when your committee reads the thesis) were a bigger deal.
posted by kaszeta at 12:24 PM on August 5, 2013

I should add: The real grilling was in private from the thesis committee, afterwards. One way I described the public talk to family and non-researcher friends is that it's sort of like a personalized graduation day. Don't hoot or holler or take pictures during like at a real graduation ceremony though. Just having friendly faces in the audience sitting through my talk, albeit probably with slightly glazed over eyes, was a nice form of support.
posted by NikitaNikita at 12:26 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been to a few defenses in the last year (engineering PhDs, all of them). SOs were usually present in addition to the actual committee and labmates of the candidate. A couple of them had family present, but most of them had families that lived 3+ hours away, so it seems like more of a convenience issue. And, yeah, there will be a point where everyone but the candidate leaves and they get asked questions by themselves, so they can grill the student without seeing everyone's sadface.
posted by Maecenas at 12:28 PM on August 5, 2013

Yes, it's department-dependent. I was lucky enough to have the a crowd of not only my local friends and family, but grandparents who flew in and academics from other schools...

Chiming in with some of the other responses, if this person is defending, she has almost certainly worked hard on a question that she found incredibly important. An open defense means this is the debut of her work in academic "public". This is opening night on something that it sounds like she is very proud of. I would be deeply hurt too if my family didn't want to be a part of that, particularly if everyone else had defended to a packed house.

The phrasing "random people" asking questions also suggests to me that she's not trying to ward off her committee per se, and those are the only people whose opinion matters in terms of passing. Maybe she was trying to find another reason to convince you to come?
posted by synapse at 12:29 PM on August 5, 2013

I went to a friend's PhD defense and her family, her boyfriend's family and a larger number of friends were there. Though not all of us understood the meaning, we liked seeing her do an awesome job talking about what she has spent the last few years doing. I wish I could go to more of my friends' defenses.

And yeah, all us not-committee members went out and got coffee while she was grilled.

Oh! And I made signs!
posted by chiefthe at 12:29 PM on August 5, 2013

Chiming in to say that this is completely normal in my Ph.D. program also.

In my department the "open to the public" part is followed by a closed session with just the committee where the student is grilled in more detail about their research-- that's the "job interview"/"driving test" part, and indeed it would be inappropriate to have family there. But the presentation itself is much more communal.

Usually there is a brief question period after the public presentation during which anyone can ask questions. Sometimes people are worried that someone from the audience will ask a question out of left field that they haven't prepared for (you know what your committee is likely to ask, but can't prepare for Random Student From The Next Department Over) and it will make them look bad. Having lots of friends and family in the audience isn't a very effective way to prevent that, in my experience, but maybe your niece just wants you there for moral support.
posted by fermion at 12:33 PM on August 5, 2013

Response by poster: I feel I should say again this is a Masters degree. Does that make a difference?

However, her idea that a professor would be shamed into not asking a question because her mom is there is laughable, so much so that it makes me a wonder if your family understands more about the dynamic at play than those of us here do. Is your niece someone who isn't very able to stand up for herself?

Yes, very much so. You've touched upon it, I guess. I would give my niece a kidney if she needed it, (the drive is immaterial) but her personality has always been a highly timid and dependent one.
posted by uans at 12:49 PM on August 5, 2013

++normal. A thesis defense -- MA or PhD -- is in most cases only a formality marking a much more in-depth process that has preceded it. It's the academic version of an office party, or something.

No one there will affect the proceedings, and they are highly unlikely to alter her baseline personality, which is independent of the qualifications for her degree.
posted by Dashy at 12:54 PM on August 5, 2013

I'm just throwing this out there, I hope this helps:

The best way to inculcate confidence in a young person is to consistently meet her needs when she has communicated them.

If my requests for support were met with skepticism, and if I were asked to justify why my emotional needs ought to be met by my family, I might be "timid and dependent" too.

If you don't want to go, politely decline but let her know that you are proud of her. Don't tell her she's wrong for asking for support.
posted by Schielisque at 12:58 PM on August 5, 2013 [51 favorites]

No, PhD vs. Master's does not make a difference.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:05 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another vote for "acceptable." I've been to guest lectures of relatives giving a talk that was open to the public at a university even though I wasn't normally interested in the subject matter. But, hey, it would be cool to see my relative give a talk! Thesis defenses are the same-- they are technically no different than if there was some kind of public "speakers' series" on campus that a visiting scholar was giving a talk at.

I, however, am a bit shy and would have rather not have had anyone other than my committee and a few people interested in the research topic show up. But other people feel differently.

While your niece sounds somewhat emotionally needy, you and her parents are not helping matters by openly telling her that her feelings are wrong.
posted by deanc at 1:05 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your two specific questions were:
1) I think the presence of much older people who are obviously relatives will make her look silly and undermine her in the eyes of her examiners. Am I wrong about this?

2) Is this a trend? Is this common? I have never heard of such a thing, ever. Is it or was it ever usual for family members to attend a thesis defense?
I think this thread has provided you with pretty definitive answers to both of them. Yes, you are wrong that your presence will "make her look silly and undermine her in the eyes of her examiners" and yes, it is "usual for family members to attend a thesis defense."
posted by yoink at 1:11 PM on August 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

Schielisque and yoink said better than what I'd typed on preview.

Having her judgment second-guessed must be painful for her, especially when she is the only person involved with actual relevant experience. For her family to continue to insist that they know better, even after she has communicated being hurt and offended, seems to push this otherwise joyous milestone into potentially deeply painful territory for her. I hope you'll apologize to her, go, and make your best effort to enjoy the presentation and celebrate her success.
posted by argonauta at 1:11 PM on August 5, 2013 [15 favorites]

I feel I should say again this is a Masters degree. Does that make a difference?

It makes a difference to me*, because I feel a Master's degree is pretty basic and not a big deal and something you get over with so you can move on to the next thing as quickly as possible (your new job, your Ph.D., etc). But obviously getting a Master's degree and defending it is a big deal to to your niece. If she wants to have her parents and you see her give her thesis talk, you should go unless there is some reason preventing you from going.

In summary: your niece is not violating any academic norms. However, you and her parents are coming across as snubbing her. If she has developed a self-identity as "the ignored one" among her siblings, then you guys are just reinforcing that.

* The process of finishing my first M.S. involved finally getting my advisor and one other committee member to sign it after multiple revisions, dropping it off at the department office, running into one of my TAs who gave me a congratulatory handshake, and then hopping in my car and driving across the country to California. I think I signed my first credit card receipt after that "DeanC, M.S." That was the extent of my celebration. My Ph.D. celebrations were much more extensive.
posted by deanc at 1:14 PM on August 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

I believe there's two parts here:

1. The presentation. This is what her social support group is here for. She's just going to go on and on, and build the confidence needed for the second part.

2. The defense. After the first part, everyone leaves and the faculty grills her a bit.

Why would you not go if family is not only asking you to go, but is also refuting your arguments to not go?

Be a good supportive family and go. She'll remember your presence or absence when you're put in an old people's home.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:17 PM on August 5, 2013

I feel I should say again this is a Masters degree. Does that make a difference?

I don't see why it should. As others have said, your niece has likely attended the defenses of others in her program, and understands both the departmental culture and what her own needs will be when she defends.

In my own graduate program, the audiences at defenses have run the gamut from low double-digits groups of faculty and junior students who were seemingly conscripted into attending to crowds of friends, family members who had traveled from another country, and even an ex-SO who had been with the defender for most of the writing process. It's really a celebration of the person defending, and the fact that your niece has invited you strikes me as sweet. (I wouldn't even think to invite members of my extended family, but that's because I'm not particularly close to any of them.)

It sounds like you just don't want to go, though, so if you don't think that you can attend without feeling resentful about making the round trip to attend a talk you're not likely to understand, then please spare yourself and your niece by declining politely.
posted by Austenite at 1:18 PM on August 5, 2013

I think everyone has communicated everything I've experienced, but I've been to 3-4 defenses for Ph.D. students in my lab. All had at least parents come (even from California to Philly). Some had more extended family.

In my experience, the purpose of a defense is distilling highly technical information in such a way that even the complete layperson will get the gist of it. The details go in the written thesis or dissertation.

Also, the hard questions from the committee come when "the public" has left the room.
posted by supercres at 1:18 PM on August 5, 2013

I think the presence of much older people who are obviously relatives will make her look silly and undermine her in the eyes of her examiners. Am I wrong about this?

I am not a person who has ever been involved in any way with a thesis defense, but I've been at a lot of promotion ceremonies in the military, and I'll say this: There is nothing -- nothing -- that makes a person involved in those things happier than seeing grandparents beaming proudly because their grandchild did something good, no matter how small you think it is. If I had a nickel for every time I bit my tongue rather than saying, "You know, we promote everyone to Specialist eventually...", I'd have a shitload of nickels.

Will it actually keep people from asking hard questions? No, not at all. I laugh at the thought of it. But if it helps her confidence and it won't kill Grandma to go beam a little, then screw it. Take her. Make a family gathering of it. Tell that story about that one time she ate a frog at summer camp (after the defense).
posted by Etrigan at 1:18 PM on August 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

I feel I should say again this is a Masters degree. Does that make a difference?

My Masters defense was in a tiny side office containing not quite enough chairs for my committee and myself to all sit at the same time. (Fortunately one of the committee conjured up a reason to storm out in a huff halfway through so the rest of us could sit down comfortably for the remainder of the defense.) Other schools clearly do things differently.

It seems like you're looking for there to be a standard way this works in all schools. Given the wide variety of responses here the range of "normal" is wide enough that only people familiar with your niece's particular program would be able to give you a useful answer as to whether your attendance would be appropriate or not.
posted by ook at 1:25 PM on August 5, 2013

After re-reading -- I think your niece is perfectly right to be hurt and offended. She's told you & her parents what's appropriate in her program, and asked you to come, and you're not politely declining, you're completely second guessing her, and telling her she's acting incorrectly and inappropriately. If this is a pattern, no wonder she's timid and dependent! Your niece is an adult who knows what she wants and has asked for it. If you don't want to go, don't, but don't tell her that her request -- the one about which she knows many, many times more than you -- is wrong, because that just makes you a jerk.
posted by brainmouse at 1:26 PM on August 5, 2013 [21 favorites]

You'd give her a kidney but you won't attend her defense? I don't know; this is weird.

You've got to listen to your niece here. She knows what she's talking about. However, were I her, I would no longer want y'all at my defense. The whole point of her inviting you is to get support - I don't really see how she's getting that from you or her parents in these interactions.
posted by k8lin at 1:31 PM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you are able to attend, please do. It would mean a lot to your niece, clearly, and is an entirely appropriate thing for you to do.

When I defended my MA thesis over a decade ago (at a Canadian university), it was open to the public; many of my friends, and my SO, attended in support. My family was 1000 km away or else they would have attended too. It was a big deal to me, as it was the culmination of a lot of hard work and stress. My SO and friends' presence helped me feel less anxious, and I have very positive memories of the day.

This is still very normal practice. I was recently at an MA thesis and the room was packed with friends and family. My friend was his thesis supervisor, and she herself had encouraged her student to invite his friends and family.

[also: re the query about Master's degrees: Speaking to American friends who are academics, I have noticed a possible difference in Canadian and American perception of Master's degrees. My understanding is that in the US they are often NOT the terminal degree unless it is a professional degree, i.e. many if not most people completing an academic Master's in the US are doing so as a step to the PhD. But in Canada, it is not uncommon to get an academic Master's degree as a terminal degree.]
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:32 PM on August 5, 2013

US institution, engineering: I had a non-thesis M.Sc, followed by Ph.D. Two labmates I basically moved in tandem with both had thesis-option M.Sc., followed by Ph.D. They both had family members/friends attend both defenses. I had my mother fly from two continents away, and also had friends attending, for my PhD defense. At this point I'm just repeating what everyone else said, but: Yes, it's utterly normal if she (who knows her department) thinks it's normal; it might even be a good idea to bring cookies; I've seen some very intricate M.Sc. theses so I can't even assume it's "not a big deal"; and it is stressful either way and she could use your support if she would like it.

It is very likely there will be a closed portion, after the presentation and open questions, where you all will be chased into the corridor. For my defense, what followed in that period was essentially a 30-minute discussion on what _else_ we could publish from the material there, so it wasn't very stressful. But that's because I had a good advisor who wouldn't have dreamed of letting anyone defend without being completely ready.

(The preceding proposal examinations were the closed, more formal ones, where the department guidelines specified "don't bring food for the committee." For even those, the attendance of labmates were encouraged, though. The other big formal thing that will follow is everyone reading and signing off on the thesis, and obviously that happens one-on-one with the committee members.)
posted by seyirci at 1:37 PM on August 5, 2013

She's asked for your support by attending, and is hurt and offended that you won't. This is a milestone for her, the culmination of at least a year's hard work, and she wants you there to share it. To me this is a no-brainer, of course you should go if at all possible.
posted by goo at 1:45 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

My family couldn't come to my thesis defense so I brought my laptop and they watched it over skype. Since it was open to the public, I invited everyone: my students, my classmates, my co-workers, all the department faculty, my in-laws, etc. The public portion is a presentation of research, not a secret ceremony.
posted by thewestinggame at 2:39 PM on August 5, 2013

In my experience it's normal for it just to be you and the examiners, but not abnormal to have a few colleagues (other grad students and faculty) show up. It's less frequent to have friends and family, but I know people who have done it, and nobody rolled their eyes. If they sit along the walls rather than at the seminar table (or whatever) with the examiners, the examiners won't pay attention to them, much less think she's silly for inviting them.

It's not like a job interview; if she's being allowed to defend she's almost certainly already passed.
posted by Beardman at 2:42 PM on August 5, 2013

uans: "I feel I should say again this is a Masters degree. Does that make a difference?"

Shouldn't matter at all. If they want it to be private they won't let people into the room. She's been in the program and knows the culture.
posted by theichibun at 2:43 PM on August 5, 2013

I've seen relatives show up for terminal master's defenses, but not for master's defenses where the master's degree was something that happened as part of the process of getting a Ph.D.

At one department I am familiar with, family showing up to a doctoral defense was rather unusual. Other Ph.D. students would show up, to get a sense of how defenses went, especially how certain professors comported themselves, and to provide support, but in general a doctoral defense was treated like a lecture or seminar in terms of audience. The university graduation ceremony in which one got hooded by one's advisor was treated as the celebratory occasion when family and relatives would be present.

If you and her parents are more familiar with university cultures such as I described above, I wouldn't consider it a sign of being unsupportive for feeling like it wouldn't be right to attend. But as others point out, perhaps it is normal in her department for family to attend. Now, if attending will involve re-arranging work schedules and such on your part, I would express my regrets and send her a nice card with a supportive message.
posted by needled at 2:58 PM on August 5, 2013

I'm not on my phone and can compose a longer reply.

In my department family sometimes, but not always, attend PhD defenses. We don't have a masters defense. Family have occasionally Skyped in when they can't travel. It's not required but - gee I sure want my family there! It's a big, big deal. I want to show them that I have mastered a difficult topic and that I am capable and proud of my work. They're not going to stop my committee from asking tough questions (nothing will stop a committee from this! It's their job!) and I suspect your niece used this as a reason not because she means it, but because she really wants you there and was coming up with all the reasons she could think of that might persuade y'all to attend.

Also, I wonder about what you said about her timid personality. Perhaps she sees this event as a way to show you and her parents that she has grown into a successful, intelligent, and confident young woman. From the way that you talk about her boyfriend and friends attending the defense I get the impression that you see her as a young girl who doesn't know how to be a mature adult. What you are failing to recognize is that she is an adult, she is almost finished with a difficult graduate degree program, and that she knows what is and is not inappropriate in this context. I would gently encourage you to stop thinking of her as a young, shy girl and start thinking of her as a confident, mature woman.

She probably just wants you to be proud of her, because I bet she's proud of herself. She should be! Congratulations for your family - this is a big deal!
posted by k8lin at 2:58 PM on August 5, 2013 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I wasn't going to chime in, but since you still seemed uncertain in your update despite all the input agreeing that it is probably fine:

It is perfectly normal for family to attend defenses, both masters and PhD in every graduate department I am familiar with (engineering, USA). I have been on the spot at two defenses and served on a couple committees.
posted by pseudonick at 3:01 PM on August 5, 2013

Your gut is absolutely wrong here.

Public defenses are almost never an actual test of anything anywhere. If the defense is public then it is an opportunity for your niece to present her research to the public and be celebrated as a valuable addition to the academic community having already demonstrated to her committee that she has earned a masters. In the extraordinarily rare kinds of situations where a 'real' defense with even the vaguest possibility of failure is also public, that would be something that would be made extremely clear to your niece who would then be very much responsible for her own feelings about your presence, which would then not effect the result at all. Period. Academia does not work that way.

If you don't want to be there to celebrate and support your niece and her achievement here thats on you, but she is not trying to use you to manipulate her committee or anything weird like that. Regardless of what you do, y'all should still apologize to your niece for not trusting her absolutely correct perceptions and making something of an ass of yourselves.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:04 PM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Based on the departments I'm familiar with, it is completely normal for friends and family to come to the defense -- in my case, my parents skyped in to my PhD defense because they were out of the country. The defense in these departments is not at all like a job interview or a driving test. It is closer to a performance or a celebration.

I think the presence or absence of parents is not at all likely to affect the toughness of the questions she gets (that part seems a little superstitious to me), but it would certainly give your niece some moral support.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:11 PM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

"1) I think the presence of much older people who are obviously relatives will make her look silly and undermine her in the eyes of her examiners. Am I wrong about this?"
Yes, absolutely and completely. All you will be doing is showing that this student that her professors have invested so much time into growing into a more mature academic also has other people who love her and feel just as proud of her awesome achievement.
"2) Is this a trend? Is this common? I have never heard of such a thing, ever. Is it or was it ever usual for family members to attend a thesis defense?"
Public defenses used to be less common in North America, but are now a more or less standard import from European academia. Defenses that only have a private component, like my own masters defense, really suck as it really is like silently slinking away from your department and academic family. Graduation really isn't an appropriate kind of ritual for what a graduate degree means, and many can't attend it anyway these days - being suddenly a long ways away at one's next job.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:15 PM on August 5, 2013

I defended last year in a physical sci/eng field. for us the advisor should not let you defend if it's not clear you'll pass -- "your day in the sun" is what mine called it. I have seen parents/siblings at some but not most defenses; no big deal. it can be interesting for those close enough to the new PhD to observe the advisor/committee members that they've been hearing complaints about for 5+ years, even if they don't get the subject matter. older relatives....yeah no, unless maybe they are fellow academics of some stripe.
posted by ecsh at 3:22 PM on August 5, 2013

As others have said, family come sometimes (not always, so neither attendance nor non-attendance is particulalry strange). While a friendly face can be supportive, that's generally the entire extent of their involvement: family and any other audience members who aren't actually professionals in the relevant field (including, quite often, the external member(s) of the committee) are expected to keep quiet and be appreciative but not a claque (they applaud at the end, at least in math, because that's what you do at the end of a talk, but that's not abnormal). If someone wanted to plant softball questions in their support group, that'd be inappropriate, but just having moral support there? Very common.
posted by jackbishop at 3:32 PM on August 5, 2013

Hi! I've long perused metafilter and just joined to answer this question.

I received my MS in 2007 and just had my PhD defense this past year. I had family and friends at both and it is entirely normal in the programs I've been in. While I didn't expect anyone to travel far to come to my MS (a plane trip for any family member of mine), my mother still insisted on coming and flew down last minute and I was so happy she did! Not only did it make me happy, but having department members saying nice things about me to her really made her day (she still talks about it). It was 100% the norm.

Ditto my PhD defense. All my immediate family (3 siblings, mom, dad, stepfather, spouse) showed up for that and that's usual (also usual in my program for MS students as well). This was a week after Hurricane Sandy and my father had worked the past 72 hours (power company...he did seem to be falling asleep a tad!), no one could get gas, it snowed, but not for a second did I expect them not to show up. While I would have totally understood if people couldn't make it, it meant a lot to me that they were all there. No one thought it unprofessional in the slightest, and people in my program seemed to think it's a little weird when family that lives nearby don't come to these events. The attitude is something like, "You raised this kid, who's done something great, and you don't want to bask in their glory and take some credit for helping them get this far?" :)

While I was being grilled by my committee after the public seminar, my family and other students in my lab went back to my office and partied (pizza, champagne, etc.). After I was proclaimed fit by the committee, we all came down to my office and proceeded to socialize, drink, eat, etc. I'll point out that all my committee members are people that I socialize with on a very regular basis and get along with very well, so that aspect might be slightly unusual, but is not abnormal at all in my field, in my experience. The whole thing is really a celebration! It's nothing like a job interview in my experience, there's usually snacks for everyone (cookies, bagels and cream cheese, coffee, etc.) and a pretty relaxed atmosphere (at least for those attending). Lots of times when it's over, everyone goes out to eat, including parents, friends, and faculty.

If your niece wants you there, I can't imagine a reason to not go!
posted by PinkPoodle at 3:35 PM on August 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Also, just to make one other point, in both my MS and PhD programs, pretty much no one attends the graduation ceremonies, so this is the only chance to really celebrate the accomplishment. I'm sure this varies a lot though by institution.
posted by PinkPoodle at 3:37 PM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for their responses. Certainly we will apologize and attend (if permitted!)--in my own defense, I will say that for us the major confusion was generational. This never happened in "our day" --my husband has a MA and a PhD and none of his family attended the defense--the graduation ceremony was another matter, of course. We were surprised to hear that even the defense has become a family event. I also have to say, yes I am a jerk, but such heavy emphasis was put on preventing "randoms" from walking in and asking antagonistic questions that we lost our way.
posted by uans at 3:42 PM on August 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

My (biomedical) lab discussed this when Masters and PhD defense seminars became open admission. They may be public but really... everyone knows everyone and people who are not from the workplace or related industry will stick out. People do not just walk by a university or hospital, see a defense seminar announcement, and drop on by.

Overall opinons from labs in my area were the following: Immediate family and SigO are always welcome at the work reception right after the (hopefully successful!) defense. More distant relatives who work/are fellow students at the university are always welcome at the work reception. Family & SigO in a related occupation or affiliated with the university are welcome at the seminar. If not in a related occupation, family should not attend and SigO can wait in appropriate lobby / waiting area down the hall.

By the time you're old enough to finish grad school, general consensus is having your SigO or family sweating it out down the hall or waiting in the cafeteria for a text/call shows they have confidence in you and appropriate boundaries, not that they don't care. If anything it shows you care enough to be restrained instead of overly involved. A successful defense is a huge personal accomplishment, but it is also a formal (in terms of policies and procedures being followed) event held in a workplace where your niece needs to be viewed as professional.
posted by variella at 7:46 PM on August 5, 2013

I went to my husband's defense as did all of his friends from his program and some other friends who lived nearby. If he'd had family in town I'm sure they would have come too. I was in charge of procuring vast quantities of bagels and coffee for attendees. The part where he was asked questions about his thesis and talk happened in private after the public talk.
posted by town of cats at 10:35 PM on August 5, 2013

1) Yes. 2) Yes.

Your niece is an adult who (just to mark how far into adulthood she is) has had 5 or 6 years of college. Assume she knows what she's doing here; her school, in naming her a Master's candidate, already does.
posted by zippy at 11:21 PM on August 5, 2013

uans, I think it may be that the defense has taken over the role of graduation for most people, since it is much more personal and the celebration afterwards is filled by people like your advisors, peers, etc as opposed to a parade of random deans. I know a lot of PhD students who didn't even go to their own graduation, let alone bring their parents.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:54 AM on August 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

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