Thesis Defense Panelist: Group Thinking And Biasness In Thesis Appraisals

Published: 05th October 2010
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As a former graduate student, the author himself have defended his thesis before a thesis defense panel and also have observed numerous thesis defenses. As a counseling psychology graduate his observations of the whole process of thesis defense panel have culminated with the impetus to write this article. The objective of this article is the call for restoration of a more objective, broad-minded, student-supportive thesis defense panel that is more professional and less subjective and picky.

Problems in Thesis Appraisals

Graduate and Post-Graduate students who have to defend their thesis or dissertation face many problems with their Thesis or dissertation defense panels. Problems from conflict of interests, favoritism, personality discriminations, panelist ignorance, panelist ego and many other problems are heaped upon the defense students. When a faculty is instructor-centered, the shift of power is in favor with the panelist who is mostly made of instructors. And this power is many times abused by ego-centric and power-manic personalities who lose their sense of what is the actual role of being a defense panelist. Some instructors think that they are in the defense panels as witch hunters. Others think they are Einstein-type personalities who need to show the cleverness. Yet others think they are the kings in their areas specialization and therefore any thesis that does not fit their pre-determined criteria must be shot down. But sadly, there are the fair, objective and balanced instructors and deans who many times are overwhelmed by a dominating colleague(s) who silence them into group thinking.

Group thinking and Biasness in Thesis Appraisals

Group thinking occurs in these panels because panel members want to reach consensus and are focused on cohesiveness as a panel even at the expense of objectivity, critical, and analytical appraisals. In the pursuit for consensus and cohesiveness individual panel members lose their creativity, uniqueness and independent thinking. Motives like the avoidance of being seen as foolish, embarrassment, and avoidance of conflict with other panel members and last of all to remain in the safety and comfort-zone of consensus thinking drives these panelists into group thinking mode.

When the above motives are present in individual panel members, it is easy psychologically for one or two members of the defense panel to dominate the panel at anytime in their favor. This is done by academically tearing the thesis being presented to shreds which in the process seeks to intimidate the student and also the other panel members. Since all points are seemingly covered by the dominating instructor(s), the rest of the panel members would quickly fall into obedient, agreeable mode and in short become group thinkers. To look more respectable, the panel members who are dominated will make remarks like:

"Ah yes! so and so appraisal was also what I was thinking, I agree with the critique. Others would go into a freeze mode of agreeable silence.

The results of this kind of defense panel behaviors usually are:

1. Re-defense or resubmission not because it is needed but to please the dominating instructor.

2. The thinking culture that the dominating instructor is always right, nothing but right.

3. When news of this defense thinking culture gets around, potential thesis defense students immediately want to take the dominating instructor (s) as advisor to be safe when their turn comes to defend the thesis.

4. It can also be noticed that the advisees of the dominating instructor most of the time will pass their defenses with more compliments and less questions.

5. So the results is a dominating instructor who is overloaded with advisees who have been driven by fear of failure, who are then used as a benchmark to prove the dominating instructor's academic and defense prowess.

6. But lastly, the greatest academic danger is that due to the culture of group thinking, the dominating instructor is never challenged, question or checked in any manner leading to a virtual autocratic academic despot(s) whose power can even be more than the dean of a faculty.

God help the faculty, faculty members and students when this academic despot is fully recognized and established he/she is virtually the king and god in the defense panel. As mentioned in point 6, even when there are mistakes or errors, it will get swept away and hidden under an academic carpet because academic power (when not checked) corrupts and absolute academic power corrupts absolutely.

Ask yourselves these questions:

1. Is there a dominating panel member (s)?

2. Is there too many re-defenses and resubmission?

3. Are panel members always in agreeable mode with a particular instructor?

4. Are students going about in fear in relation to the defenses?

5. Are advisees of a particular instructor only not facing defense problems?

6. Is an instructor never questioned, or challenged academically?

If even the answers to these six questions are positive by half, the faculty has "Group Thinking and Biasness in Thesis Appraisals." The question now is what will you if you are an instructor or dean in these defense panels going to do about it. Keep silent (passive consent), silence all who question (active consent), pretend it doesn't exist (avoidance coping) or promote the dominating instructor (outright conspiracy). What you do would reflect upon you, the faculty and the university. In any power abuse misuse or abuse, the individuals involved will seemingly get-away as long as they are in power. So the culture becomes, it is right as long as I don't' get caught. But what happens when the individuals are no more in power, and new power holder decides to reexamine the past defense records. A Pandora box of academic scandals!

But one thing is clear; there is no place for academic biasness especially in thesis or dissertation defense panel. An academically and professionally proficient person will always make the right decision for the benefit of the entire student body, faculty members and the university and not just for the reputation of one biased instructor (s).

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