PhD defence online, but with a ceremony

The beadle developed an alternative ceremony to cushion the lack of decorum during online PhD defences.
Photo Guy Ackermans

A public PhD defence in the Aula is characterised by decorum: the beadle in full ceremonial attire, the professors in their robes, a room full of expectant family and colleagues. The final hora est followed by the celebrations. It has been this way for hundreds of years. But many doctoral candidates missed out on all of this during the corona crisis. They defended their dissertation from behind a laptop somewhere.

Small Auditorium

The degree ceremony was also online. Or rather: the mock ceremony, because the actual diploma still needed to be collected in person in Wageningen. Signed by all the relevant parties. How can this event still be marked as something special, beadle Renata Michel wondered? The answer was quickly found. ‘We turn it into a mini-ceremony in the Small Auditorium.’

Beadles Renata Michel and Lily Kroon

In this small room, hundreds of young doctoral graduates, supervisors and co-supervisors have since signed degrees. Sometimes alone, but together if possible. But they are always recorded on camera by Renata Michel or her colleague Lily Kroon in full attire. As a gift to the young graduates, to provide them with a fitting memory of their modest online PhD defence.


The signing sessions follow a fixed protocol. Michel: ‘We start with the formal pictures of the signing of the degree, in front of the stained-glass window. Then we take a few freestyle pictures in front of the other wall. We ask them to do something fun such as give a thumbs-up, cheer or jump.’ All of this under the scrutinising gaze of all of WUR’s former rectors whose portraits adorn the wall.

Often, the involved parties came separately. Kroon: ‘We would always take a picture of the supervisor or co-supervisor holding the diploma, to make it seem as if they were handing it to the young doctor, who was absent. We were often asked whether we could add the candidate in photoshop. No, we can’t.’

It sometimes took up to thirty emails for an appointment

Lily Kroon, beadle

The sessions were a lot of work. Just getting all the signatures on the degree in times of corona was quite a challenge. Michel: ‘We send the documents across the globe by courier. Or, we wait until they can come to the Netherlands. Sometimes, we have months-old degrees stored here.’

Organising work

The organisation kept Kroon more than busy. ‘Sometimes, a single appointment required thirty emails. We always aim to have all the degrees processed by the end of the week. We were sometimes unable to manage that. This week, a young lady who graduated on 13 April came in to sign her degree. But we are on a roll.’

The online defences will continue until the start of July, followed by the summer break. The beadles hope that after the summer, the ceremonies will be held live in the Aula once again. Michel: ‘Having your PhD defence behind a laptop is not at all dynamic. Everyone really misses the ceremony that is part of the graduation.’

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