My Viva at Leiden University

by Kevin Jon Heller

My recent post on PhDs calling themselves “Dr.” led one of my e-friends, Martin Holterman, to remind me that I had promised to post about my dissertation defense — called a “viva” in the Netherlands — at Leiden University last year.  The viva was one of the greatest academic experiences of my life, so I’m happy to rectify my omission.

I’ll begin with a confession: I didn’t take the viva particularly seriously at first.  I knew I wouldn’t fail (any dissertation committee worth its salt will deal with problems long before a student defends); my dissertation was a version of my book on the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, which was under contract with Oxford University Press; and of course I already had a permanent academic position at Melbourne.  So I really just wanted to get the viva over with so I could put the diploma on my office wall.

My casual attitude didn’t last long — only until I began to put on my tuxedo, complete with tails, in the room in which candidates change.  My interlocutors for the viva, kindly known as “the opposition committee,” was changing on the other side of the room.  The solemnity of the occasion finally penetrated my thick skull — this was my rite de passage into an academic tradition that had been taking place in Europe for centuries.

Once I had changed, Leiden’s pedel (registrar) explained the viva process to me and my two paranymphs, Mirjam and Bianca.  The role of the paranymphs is now purely ceremonial; they sit and stand beside you during the viva.  Traditionally, however, they served as the candidate’s protectors, intervening on his behalf if the opposition committee was being unfair or physically abusive (!).  The viva process itself is straightforward: the pedel leads the candidate and paranymphs into the viva room; the opposition committee files in; there is forty minutes of questioning (exactly; more on that below); the committee retire to consider whether to award the PhD; and finally the committee announces the result.

A few minutes later the pedel led us into the viva room.  Here it is — I’m in the middle, flanked by my paranymphs:

The room itself is lovely, but nothing overwhelming.  What makes it special is its history — it was once Grotius’ library, and students have been defending their dissertations in the room for more than 450 years.  I could almost see the ghosts of candidates past as I took my seat in front of the long table and waited for my opposition committee to file in.  Which they did not long thereafter:

The Vice-Chancellor of Leiden is in the middle; to her left (the photo’s right) were my two supervisors, Carsten Stahn and Larissa van den Herik.  The external member of my committee, Claus Kress, is the one about to sit down.  The man on the far right in the photo is Afshin Ellian, an Iranian professor of at Leiden and an outspoken critic of Islam.  He is so controversial that he had a bodyguard with him during my viva (though the bodyguard waited outside the room).  How many PhD candidates can say that?

Once everyone was seated, the Vice-Chancellor began the viva.  Each member of the committee had an opportunity to ask me questions.  To be honest, I barely remember what I was asked, although I recall that the questions demonstrated a profound understanding of my dissertation.  I also remember that Larissa van den Herik asked me an incredibly difficult question that I had no idea how to answer; I was mentally preparing to try to cleverly evade it when the pedel came back into the room, hit his staff on the floor, and said “hora est” — Latin for “it is time.”  That statement immediately ended the viva; the pedel had told me earlier that I was supposed to stop talking even if I was in the middle of a sentence.  Saved by the bell!

At that point, the opposition committee filed out of the room to decide my fate.  About 15 minutes later they returned to announce that I had, in fact, passed my viva.  Carsten gave me my diploma and read a lovely statement about my dissertation and my contributions to international criminal law in general, which I deeply appreciated.  The diploma itself is amazing; you can see how huge it is — complete with a large wax seal — in the photo below, which shows me with Carsten and Larissa:

All in all, my viva — and my PhD in general — was a fantastic experience.  I can’t thank Carsten and Larissa enough for their supervision, and I owe Claus a debt of thanks for his support throughout my career and for making the trip from Cologne to serve on my opposition committee.  I highly recommend anyone who intends to complete a PhD in international criminal law to seriously consider Leiden; it’s not only one of the best faculties in the world for the subject, there is no residence requirement (and no fees), making it a perfect choice for someone like me, who needed a PhD but already had a permanent academic position.

If anyone wants to talk more about graduate study at Leiden, they should feel free to contact me.

http://opiniojuris.org/2012/05/14/my-viva-at-leiden-university/

7 Responses

  1. What a wonderful story! I am currently looking to acquire a PhD position in Leiden myself, so i hope I can in a few years share the same experience with you. Thank you very much for the story and inspiration! 

  2. Actually, I think “viva” is what they call it in Oxbridge. In Dutch it’s simply called “verdediging”, i.e. defence. 

    I have to say, I’m very jealous of the room they let you use. In Enschede, I had to make do with a modern room without all that history. (And without bodyguards…)

    As for the procedure itself, I hesitate to mention this but there is actually something on the line, at least at my university. Under our rules, the jury could only award a cum laude after having heard the defence, and in my case they spent the full maximum time (30 minutes) discussing whether they should before deciding not to. (Hence my hesitation: in no universe is my thesis even remotely as good as yours.) 

  3. Martin,

    Viva is the term used in the UK.  But the people I interacted with at Leiden called it that, as well, including my supervisors.  So I use it.

  4. Viva Las Vegas was actually about how Dr Presley obtained his PhD in Economics. “Got a whole lot of money ready to burn”

  5. A tuxedo doesn’t have tails. That’s what makes it a tuxedo.

  6. IL,

    So what do you call a tuxedo with tails?

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. […] law blogger Kevin Jon Heller got his PhD in Leiden, and he describes the process of defending his thesis in a recent posting: My casual attitude didn’t last long — only until I began to put on my […]