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One weird trick for improving the outcome of your PhD defense.

Feed your committee.

At the very least, make sure your committee is fed. A hungry committee is a grumpy committee. A grumpy committee is just a little bit less likely to let you pass your defense. Sure, you can prep, polish your thesis to perfection, run through a half-dozen practice defenses. You can even invest in some serious snake-fighting lessons. But all of those solutions are practical, pragmatic, and belie a commitment to success that suggests a work ethic, expertise, and discipline. All of which you need, but don’t ignore the obvious, easy stuff, either.

Wait, Andrew, you’re serious?

If you’ve learned anything from reading this blog for the last 9 years, it’s that I am always serious. Humor is anathema to me. Let’s talk about the science.

In a 2011 paper, Danziger and friends looked at extraneous factors in judicial decisions. In short, they looked at how often judges granted parole to inmates as a function of when the decision was made. Parole judges often hear dozens of cases in a day with few breaks. What Danziger and friends found was that, immediately after a judge had eaten, favorable parole outcomes were much more frequent and that, as parolees got further and further from mealtime, their chance of getting out plummeted. Those whose hearings fell right before a meal break had a 0% chance of parole. The pattern was clear: never appear before a hungry judge.

Proportion of rulings in favor of the prisoners by ordinal position. Circled points indicate the first decision in each of the three decision sessions; tick marks on x axis denote every third case; dotted line denotes food break. Because unequal session lengths resulted in a low number of cases for some of the later ordinal positions, the graph is based on the first 95% of the data from each session. Danziger and friends, 2011.


Well, not quite.

In a response letter, Weinshall-Margela and Shapard argued that there were numerous overlooked factors in the initial study that also contributed to the observed results. The order of cases is non-random, lawyers lead with their best cases, defendants with representation did better than defendants representing themselves, deferred cases weren’t the same as rejected case. In short, the original study failed to look at numerous factors which also influence a judge’s decision and have nothing to do with a stale ham sandwich soaking through a brown paper bag in the judge’s briefcase.

Of course, Danziger and friends couldn’t let this challenge stand. They responded with their own follow-up analysis, in which they re-ran their models with other potential factors included and demonstrated the same phenomenon.

In summary, our new analyses continue to indicate that, in addition to legally relevant variables, parole decisions are influenced by legally irrelevant factors. We are grateful for Shapard and Weinshall-Margel’s letter because it prompted us to enrich our analysis and subject our interpretation of its results to an even more stringent empirical test.

Danziger and friends, 2011.

And so the wisdom of the hungry judge remained, for a time.

In 2016, Andreas Glöckner published The irrational hungry judge effect revisited: Simulations reveal that the magnitude of the effect is overestimated, in which they demonstrated that, well, the magnitude of the effect is overestimated. The same effect can be replicated simply by making the prior assumption that a judge is rational and has minimal control over the order of cases. These new simulations suggest that, far from a judge consumed by rage over a growling belly, a pinch of rational time management yields similar patterns of positive and negative parole outcomes. Hangry judges aren’t sending innocent people back to prison (at least, not due to hanger). In an accessibly written blog post on Nautilus, Daniel Lakens takes another critical look at the Impossibly Hungry Judge and suggests that, lacking any significant support, it’s really a just-so story emerging from an interesting correlation without poor causative support.

Your committee isn’t going to fail you before breakfast.

I mean, they might, but not for lack of breakfast.

Wait a minute, Andrew, I though you’d actually have some practical advice about your PhD defense?

Science is imperfect, interpretation doubly so. If you really want to ensure a strong thesis defense, don’t miss the forest for the trees. It’s easy to get locked into a single, compelling hypothesis that, in addition to explaining the observations, tells a great story with an easy, relatable punchline. Knowing the limits of your data not only gives you a great answer to the most important committee question: “What’s next?” but forces you to tease out all the reasons your interpretation could be wrong.

If you really want to crush your thesis defense, don’t just come in with answers, come in with a hundred more questions.

You should also check out Kersey Sturdivant’s latest book: Getting into Graduate School in the Sciences: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students.

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