Archive for the ‘Locals’ Category

Last Friday the 30th was Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day), the Dutch national day. It is celebrated every year in honor of the queen’s birthday… well, actually the queen’s mother’s birthday. One the first acts of the current queen, Beatrix, when she was crowned was to declare that Koninginnedag would remain on April 30th to honor her mother. But really I think it was strategic– you’re more likely to have nice weather at the end of April than in the middle of January, on Beatrix’s birthday.

The centerpiece of the Koninginnedag experience is the Vrijmarkt, a nationwide garage sale. On this one day of the year, you don’t need a permit to sell things, so people flock to the streets to sell their old junk. I find this to be totally weird– to celebrate the queen by trying to get rid of old children’s toys, clothing and vhs tapes. But people are crazy about it– heading out days ahead of time with chalk and tape to mark off their space on the sidewalks. And those vying for primo real estate even camp out the night before to be certain that no one steals their spot.  And great effort is made to get the kids out there selling so they can get some extra pocket money– centrally located parks and streets in Amsterdam are set aside for the kids. Our downstairs neighbor’s daughter made 90 Euro selling cake! Now that’s some serious pocket money!

Apart from the Vrijmarkt, the day is just one big street party. Everyone dons some orange and hits the streets for shopping, eating, drinking(, smoking), and general merriment. This year Wouter and I, along with his brother, sister-in-law and another good friend, hit the canals on a party boat with a group of about 60. This thing was massive, built to hold 100, complete with many kegs of beer, crates of wine, small snacks, a DJ and two toilets (OMG, thank goodness!). We toured the main canals of Amsterdam, blasting dance music and generally making a spectacle of ourselves. I cannot imagine a better way to spend Queen’s Day!

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Flickr Koninginnedag 2010 photoset.


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Last Friday was the PhD defense of a Dutch friend Frank. He is former university-mate of Wouter’s brother and sister-in-law and, along with Wouter, they have been a tight knit group ever since. He finished his PhD thesis in Innovation Studies several months ago, but to make things extra special, he scheduled his defense for his birthday.

From Doctorandus to Doctor

It may be hard to believe but the Dutch PhD Promotion ceremony actually makes me consider starting my degree again in the Netherlands. The ceremony is incredibly formal, fairly succinct and the party that follows approaches the level of a wedding reception. The scale and grandeur of the event is a fitting marker of the accomplishment of completing a doctoral degree. The brevity is a nice testimony to the fact that you’ve been working your butt off for years so Pip-Pip! Bring on the degree! And, from my perspective, it’s a whole lot of fun! Well, maybe not for those few minutes the PhD candidate must face down the squad of academics firing questions at you. (Although Frank seemed to have a good time.)

So… how does it all work?

Several months before you expect to get your degree you must finish your thesis and send it off for approval of your committee. When you get the “OK,” you are officially done with the analysis and writing! Now you can look forward to becoming your own personal party planner. First you have to book the room and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get a slot some time in the next 6 months. At Utrecht University, where Frank did his degree, there is one room. It is beautifully wood-paneled and covered with fancy paintings of all of the PhD’s who came before you (all men). At the head of the room is a portrait of Beatrix, Queen regnant of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Indeed, Her Royal Highness watches over each and every PhD conferral. Posh.

Where Arieke will be promoted to PhD!(4)The Queen!

The next order of business is to begin consulting with a printer. Every PhD thesis is printed as a book. And these aren’t those big, ugly, black leather-bound tomes of old. These are normal books, with professionally designed covers and layouts, complete with ISBN numbers. Perhaps no one would ever order one of these puppies from Amazon.com, but it’s nice to know that when you’re done with your PhD you’ll have a professionally published book of your very own, along with copies to hand out as “required reading” to your friends, family and future graduate and undergraduate students.

Toasting to Frank's latest masterpiece!

As the day approaches, you send out invitations (and books), brush up on the chapters (some of which you probably finished 6-24 months ago… doh) and rent your tuxedo! That’s right! For the gents, tuxedos. For the ladies, formal dress somewhere in between conference attire and ball gown. To be more specific, the man’s costume is a “smoking,” which, according to Wikipedia involves a notched lapel and is “accepted by some as a legitimate … less formal alternative [to a shawl collar or peak lapel, although,] despite some precedent, it is disdained by purists for its lounge suit derivation.” You had no idea, did you?

I don´t think the Paranimfen are taking this seriously.

The event itself takes place over exactly 45 minutes– no more, no less. First the audience (your friends, family and colleagues) fills the room. Then they are instructed to stand as the representative of the university, your committee members and your discussants (faculty from other universities around the country and abroad, who will ask you questions) enter the room. They are clad in full on academic dress– togas/robes, silly hats, ruffled neck thingies (a la Ruth Bader Ginsburg). And last in you come with your backup– two friends or colleagues called Paranimfen, also dressed in tuxes or gowns. The purpose of these two people is mostly ceremonial, but officially if you are asked a question you’re unsure of or cannot answer, you can confer with your paranimfen (a la “phone a friend”). I am told that back in the olden days, these PhD promotions sometimes came to blows, so the paranimfen had your back if a fight should break out between you and your discussants.

Frank flanked by his Paranimfen

After bowing to the panel, you take your place at a podium and the paranimfen are seated. And without any formalities, the discussants launch in with questions (moderated by the representative of the university). This might seem a bit blunt or abrupt, especially given the setting and costume, but they’ve only got 45 minutes to lay into you so the academics are really chomping at the bit at this point! And so it goes, back and forth, a bit like a tennis match, until three-quarters of an hour are up and then an official time keeper busts in (also in full-on academic/Renaissance Faire garb), slams a big stick into the floor and announces that time is up.

At the podium, at the ready!

The audience stands, the panel files out to deliberate your fate in the other room. Again, given the time constraints, this usually only takes 5-8 minutes. But I’ve heard from my sources that the panel typically does debate about whether the candidate’s responses are sufficient to merit a PhD. I’m not sure if anyone fails outright (one would hope that your trusted advisor wouldn’t let you get this far if you weren’t going to pass), but I guess it’s not a given that there will be a unanimous decision. Meanwhile you and your paranimfen pose for staged pictures.

Frank's adoring fans.

The panel returns, again the audience stands and now you and your trusty paranimfen present yourselves in front of the university representative. At this point, any chance of suspense is quashed by the dead giveaway of success/failure– whether or not your advisor is carrying a red diploma holder. There is some formal talk and then your advisor hands over the diploma and everyone claps. Now to placate friends and family who have no clue what your dissertation was about (do you think they even cracked the cover of that book you sent them? Ha!), your advisor give a Laudatio, alternately praising your work and teasing you for any number of foibles attributable to graduate student– showing up late for work, turning stuff in late, drinking too much at department events, falling asleep in lectures, etc.


And then times up, everybody break! There is much hugging and hand shaking and everyone proceeds to the reception. Now here’s where things start to look like a wedding. There’s a receiving line. Champagne. Wine, beer and juice. Mini deep fried tasty things served on platters by young men in tuxedos. Then it’s on to dinner for the nearest and dearest (and committee members), where toasts are made and gifts are given to paranimfen and academic advisors (akin to bridesmaids and groomsmen, I suppose). Later everyone who didn’t make the short list for dinner shows up and there is more drinking, toasting and singing of silly songs (again alternately praising your work and poking fun). As folks get more raucous, the elder generations and important professional contacts begin to exit (hopefully). And finally, many hours later, you find yourself at some dank dance club, singing along to Lady GaGa and/or the Village People at the top of your lungs. Hopefully by now you’ve changed out of your tuxedo or ball gown, but if not you’ve probably gotten a lot of free drinks.

The receiving line.

Well, if you’re still reading, hopefully you now understand my deep seeded jealousy of the Dutch PhD conferral process. It’s not too late! You too can jump ship and start again over here. I just recently saw an advertisement for a doctoral student position called “PhD Student Predictive Markers.” (One gene to predict that you’ll be a PhD student FOR LIFE.)

"My my, what excellent work I´ve done here!"Gefeliciteerd Frank!

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