The very first doctoral graduation ceremony at Université Paris-Saclay took place on 1st July this year at the Palais des Congrès in Versailles. Opposite the famous château and either in ceremonial dress or black tie, more than a thousand people including doctoral candidates, families and professors happily took part in this ceremony, the likes of which are on the increase in France.
Since the founding of Université Paris-Saclay, just over half of successful doctoral candidates wanted to attend the event. Some came from afar (Brazil, Iran, China, etc.) just for the ceremony and sometimes with their families. The atmosphere was both joyous and solemn. A huge moment for all concerned but one which didn’t necessarily come naturally.
To attend or not to attend?
Well before deciding whether to organise one, we in the Doctoral College thought long and hard about what it means to have the opportunity to organise a solemn event based on a near thousand-year-old ritual in a completely new institution without its own traditions, and for candidates who were in the final stages of their thesis when the Université Paris-Saclay was founded, and had already gone their separate ways several months before the ceremony took place.
The “institutional” interest behind the graduation ceremony is obvious for an establishment like Université Paris-Saclay. It’s a unifying moment, and one which allows us to look back over our journey together and inject more of a human touch into a complex institutional project. The graduation ceremony allows us to make a direct connection with graduates, their families and friends, as they are the best ambassadors both for the university and for their degree. This event also has a high visibility and can, if successful, contribute to the promotion of doctoral degrees and our institution.
We must still ensure the first graduates are happy with the concept, as visibility is the name of the game, in success just as in failure. We didn’t commit to organising one until we made sure that such a ceremony met the expectations of a large majority of doctoral graduates and that their expressed enthusiasm for it was real.
The graduation ceremony custom, with gowns, hoods and mortarboards, had been abandoned in France after 1968, but has remained the norm with most of our neighbours and is today making a strong comeback.
One of the main reasons for this is that the doctorate has become hugely internationalised since the 1990s. This is to be celebrated, as an international outlook is one of the requirements of the doctorate and it is increasingly being met. Most doctoral graduates have research experience abroad or are from abroad, just like the experienced researchers who teach and mentor them and for whose recruitment it is now a prerequisite.
Scientific communities have also taken on a truly international dimension. To know this, you only have to compare thesis bibliographies from 30 years ago with those of today. The digital age has opened wide the space for international exchange in research, and this goes way beyond the use of bibliographical databases. Doctoral graduates have taken up these new possibilities for dialogue which have been opened up to them and their perception of the doctorate has improved profoundly, even going as far as its symbols and rituals.
Whether from France or abroad and whether they intend to participate or not, our graduates now expect to have a graduation ceremony.
The doctorate is the degree of excellence
Now, the doctorate has a high degree of difficulty and its requirements are getting tougher. Less than 2% of any age group qualify for a doctorate (11,000 graduates in 1993 in France, 13,500 in 2014 in France, 15,000 in the United Kingdom and 25,000 in Germany).
Committing to the preparation of a thesis requires ambition and a certain self-confidence. It requires committing three years of your life, without guarantee of success, to a complex subject for which nobody has the answer and which has already exercised the minds of top specialists. All this and to actually attain the degree, let’s not forget, there is the requirement to carry out original scientific research not just in your own laboratory but on a global scale.
This path is not littered with roses. Doctoral candidates must manage complex information, construct and adapt a scientific strategy with the help of their thesis tutor and, over three years, be able to overcome numerous difficulties without becoming discouraged. For a period which always seems too short, they must construct and then defend an original and coherent vision which is firmly supported by work carried out and then pass an oral examination before an adjudication panel. They are also expected to publish their work and present it at a conference, and to show the link between science and society (communication to a broad audience, technological transfer, patents, etc.).
The doctoral degree is unique because it is associated with a mutual exchange between the higher education institution and the graduate, for which there is no equivalent anywhere. The graduate will have been taught by the institution, but they will also have contributed a great deal to the institution’s research activities and scientific output. It’s often around doctoral candidates that laboratory research is organised.
The graduation ceremony enables their contribution to be recognised and to thank them publicly, as would any organisation which sees a contributor depart for new horizons who has perfectly fulfilled a difficult mission. It is also an occasion, essential for the quality of the doctorate and its recognition, to publicly express what is required of a doctoral graduate and share the vision of what it is to gain a doctorate within an institution.
A universal and timeless symbol
Some, however, see the cap and gown as old-fashioned, sometimes even as a fancy dress costume. Let’s be open-minded and accept that it affords the doctorate a universal and timeless character. The colours and designs of the gowns have not changed for centuries throughout the world, for women as for men. It’s a beautiful symbol of the breaking down of barriers (which are being raised everywhere else), by those who share a common method for confronting the world’s problems.
Sylvie Pommier, Directrice du collège doctoral, Université Paris-Saclay.