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A Dutch graduation

It used to be that a doctor was a doctor, meaning, a physician. Now we meet, more and more, all kinds of doctors, meaning, people with doctoral degrees. Besides the MD or doctor of medicine, there’s the DDM or doctor of dental medicine and DVM or Doctor of Veterinary Medicine; in a surge of nationalism at UP, it was proposed that these two doctoral degrees be officially titled Doktor ng Kangipinan and Doktor ng Kahayupan, respectively.

Did you know, too, that many of our younger lawyers now graduate not with an LlB (Bachelor of Laws) but with a JD or Juris Doctor, a doctor of laws. So in title-crazy Philippines, does that mean they could be called “Doctor Attorney”?

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The MD, DDM, DVM and JD are examples of the alphabet soup of professional degrees, a few more examples being DBA (Doctor of Business Administration), DPH (Doctor of Public Health), DD (Doctor of Divinity), among many more.

PhD

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Different from these professional degrees is the PhD, which means a Doctor of Philosophy, but which can be in any of hundreds of fields from anthropology to zoology. These PhD degrees are usually for people who intend to work in a university, for teaching and research.

Universities in different countries have the most diverse systems of, and requirements for, doctoral degrees. I got my PhD in the Netherlands and just returned from another Dutch “graduation” of a Filipino student many of you know; so I thought I should write about a system that is so very different from the others.

Many, if not most, universities in the world, including the Philippines, use an “American” system where you get a PhD through many years of taking courses, then a comprehensive examination which, if you pass, means you’re ready to do research for a thesis or dissertation. The dissertation can take years to write, and has to be defended before a panel of examiners who either pass you outright (rarely), or require revisions and a possible redefense, or fail you. If you pass, you join others in a mass commencement exercise where you officially become a PhD.

The Europeans use more of a “PhD by research” system, which we are now beginning to explore in UP. In this system, you cannot start a PhD unless you can find a supervisor who is willing to take you in. This follows the old European concept of universities, where someone would apprentice himself (and, rarely, herself) to a well-known mentor. Once accepted by a supervisor, you have eight months in the Netherlands to finish a research proposal. Some coursework is encouraged but is generally optional because you’re supposed to be knowledgeable enough to go straight into research.

After your proposal is approved, you start your research and work toward producing four scientific journal articles, or a dissertation. The system can be much more rigorous than the American system: You have to be disciplined in analyzing your findings from all angles and arguing your points through clear writing.

Once the supervisor or supervisors agree that your manuscript or articles are ready for defense, a panel of examiners will be formed. The Dutch are very international in their orientation—my panel included someone who was flown in all the way from the University of Arizona. This time around, I was flown in from the Philippines because I was the student’s co-supervisor.

Learned opponents

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Now comes the unique part in the Dutch system, which is closer to the older European university traditions. The defense, called a “promotie” or promotion, is a public event held in a church converted into an “aula” or ceremony room. Let me describe this latest one I attended.

The PhD candidate read out a summary of his thesis, without his supervisors or examiners. Instead he had two “paranymphs” or assistants by his side.

After the reading came the tense part: The supervisor and co-supervisor, together with the examiners, all dressed in dark robes, marched into the aula, taking our places in front and transforming the aula into something like a courtroom, with a jury. Each examiner asked questions and the candidate would respond, addressing each of them as “very learned opponent.” (In my time, I had to do this in Dutch, which was a mouthful: “hoogeleerde opponent.”) The “interrogation” went on for 40 minutes and then a “pedel” (beadle), also dressed in robes and holding a staff like a bishop, walked down the aisle to declare: “Hora est.” (It is time.)

It was time, indeed, for the examiners to withdraw into a room and determine the fate of the candidate. A huge diploma, with Latin text and with the university seal in red wax, was waiting on the table. After some discussion, the examiners agreed that the defense was successful, and we all signed the diploma. The pedel then led us back into the chapel where there are more scripted lines to follow, including a “Laudatio” or a commendation (actually “praise”). Finally, the main supervisor stood up to say that in behalf of the Rector Magnificus, she was certifying that the student now had all the privileges and responsibilities of a PhD.

There you have it, a ceremony involving just one graduate, but with far more pomp (and anxieties) than our usual commencement exercises.

In my Laudatus, I recalled how, some seven years ago, this student, who was about to get his MD from UP’s College of Medicine, approached me and asked what medical anthropology was all about. I remember how intrigued I was, too, in the 1980s when a Dutch PhD student named Anita Hardon arrived in the Philippines to do research on how people used medicines in Marikina. I helped her with the research and after she got her PhD, she began to push me to do my PhD, which I did also in Amsterdam, in medical anthropology, with Dr. Sjaak van der Geest and her as co-supervisors.

Back to the young medical student. I had just gotten approval to start a master’s program in medical anthropology, to be offered in the UP College of Medicine. So this fresh medical graduate was able to sign up immediately. He finished in two years, the first to get an MS in medical anthropology from UP. Even before his graduation ceremony, Anita and I had him starting work on a PhD in Amsterdam.

This young physician had chosen medical anthropology over a psychiatric residency, a choice that I described, in my Laudatus, as a crossing of the Rubicon, an expression which means the point of no return. He was not leaving medicine but was entering a highly specialized field that seeks to humanize medicine, making our health system more sensitive to society and culture.

I had been reluctant to make the long trip to Amsterdam but I figured it was, well, hora est, after 20 years, to renew ties. At that “graduation” was Sjaak; he had mentored Anita and me and, through us, a new generation of medical anthropologists, including—drum roll please—Dr. (MD) Dr. (PhD) Gideon Lasco. You read right; that’s the Gideon Lasco who also writes an Inquirer column.

[email protected]

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