How to survive the "snake-fight" portion of your Ph.D. defense

Illustration for article titled How to survive the "snake-fight" portion of your Ph.D. defense

Most people think that Indiana Jones' fear of snakes stemmed from a traumatic childhood experience. Wrong. In truth, his ophidiophobia came about after failing repeatedly to defend his Ph.D. thesis. Jones may have known his archaeology backwards and forwards, but all his hours of academic research did basically nothing to prepare him for one of the most important facets of his viva voce: the snake-fighting challenge.


Don't make the same mistake Indy did — make sure you're prepared by reviewing this helpful list of frequently asked questions regarding your upcoming scrap with a serpent, courtesy of McSweeny's Luke Burns. Some choice nuggets of wisdom await you, including:

Q: Why do I have to do this?
A: Snake fighting is one of the great traditions of higher education. It may seem somewhat antiquated and silly, like the robes we wear at graduation, but fighting a snake is an important part of the history and culture of every reputable university. Almost everyone with an advanced degree has gone through this process. Notable figures such as John Foster Dulles, Philip Roth, and Doris Kearns Goodwin (to name but a few) have all had to defeat at least one snake in single combat.

Q: Does my thesis adviser pick the snake?
A: No. Your adviser just tells the guy who picks the snakes how good your thesis was.

Q: What does it mean if I get a small snake that is also very strong?
A: Snake-picking is not an exact science. The size of the snake is the main factor. The snake may be very strong, or it may be very weak. It may be of Asian, African, or South American origin. It may constrict its victims and then swallow them whole, or it may use venom to blind and/or paralyze its prey. You shouldn't read too much into these other characteristics. Although if you get a poisonous snake, it often means that there was a problem with the formatting of your bibliography.

Q: When and where do I fight the snake? Does the school have some kind of pit or arena for snake fights?
A: You fight the snake in the room you have reserved for your defense. The fight generally starts after you have finished answering questions about your thesis. However, the snake will be lurking in the room the whole time and it can strike at any point. If the snake attacks prematurely it's obviously better to defeat it and get back to the rest of your defense as quickly as possible.

[Luke Burns via BoingBoing]


Chip Overclock®

Having spent fifteen years in academia, I'm just sayin', this article is spot on. I didn't do a dissertation, but I did have to defend my master's thesis. I totally blew a question from my _advisor_, for gosh sake, one he probably thought was trivially easy. Even more bizarre, I convinced the other members of my panel that I was right and my advisor was wrong. He and I still keep in touch, a quarter of a century later. He'll never let me forget that.

Hence my advice: if someone tries to toss a snake at you, you just toss it right back.

(Also: learning how to keep your cool and bullshit in front of an audience is a useful skill to have and one that has served me well.)