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The usually prescribed dress suit could stay in the closet; a suit with tie was sufficient for the digital ceremony. What's it like to defend your thesis online? We speak with Tjebbe Gerverdinck, the first online PhD candidate within the Amsterdam Law School. He recently obtained his PhD on the research project 'Property Law and taxation'.

Online PhD ceremony


The corona crisis is a given, Tjebbe says. He is happy that his thesis defence ceremony could continue this way. Delay was not an option, because the PhD defence ceremonies agenda was completely full: 'The alternative would have been that I would have had to wait a very long time. I am glad that modern technology has made this possible.'

Prepared and supervised

The first online PhD defences of the UvA did not have an audience. In the meantime, an open YouTube channel is being used on which everyone can watch. The public link was shared within the tax world shortly before the ceremony. But Tjebbe does not know exactly who was watching or how many people were online. 'I saw the members of the committee, the promoter and co-supervisor, the chairman and the beadle. The Zoom host could see that at some point 36 people were watching.' He wasn't afraid of failing technology: 'I sat down at my employer's office, but I could have gone to university. It was one of the two, because of the stable internet environment.'

Tjebbe thought it was fine. He was well informed in advance about what was going to happen. That's no different than a physical defence in the auditorium. But then, of course, there will also be a prep session, with a real practice session'. The participants in the Zoom ceremony are prepared in advance. If something goes wrong, they can let it know via the chat function. Behind the scenes, the Zoom supervisor solves any problems. But if something had happened to me, the ceremony would have come to a standstill. You can't hide that,' says Tjebbe.

My doctoral thesis is the result of five years of research, which fits a formal atmosphere.

Formal atmosphere

Tjebbe tells how the atmosphere was during the online ceremony. 'You call in half an hour in advance. Then the atmosphere is informal and everyone makes jokes. Next the committee retreats into pre-consultation. When they come back, the tone changes. Suddenly it's formal.' And that's the way it's supposed to be, he thinks. 'You want to be taken seriously. I've prepared extremely well. This is the result of five years of research and a formal atmosphere fits in with that.'

Would he have prepared differently if it had taken place in the Aula or Agnietenkapel? Not according to Tjebbe. 'It's not just a cosy Zoom conversation. It's really formal, but I can imagine you're more nervous in front of a group of people in the Aula or Agnietenkapel.' He sees the fact that an online thesis defence is less exciting than a public defense as the only advantage of online promotion.  'Surely you're vulnerable for a company. Now you see exactly who's there.'

What happens when the ceremony is over?

What happens when the online ceremony is completed? Tjebbe says: 'Once the final formalities have been completed, no one knows what to do. There is no more protocol. How do you deal with the end of the ceremony? In the auditorium, all the professors get up and walk away. Now it fell silent. Maybe the chair should say something like: it's over, but stay put, or feel free to shut down. It's the first time for everyone.' Tjebbe celebrated his promotion with a lunch for a very small group. He says that later in the year the UvA will organize a ceremony for all online PhD candidates. 'I think that ceremony is the right time to organise something myself.'

He does not expect that after this corona crisis online promotion will remain possible, because it misses so many egards. Many PhD candidates find it a pity that the  thesis defence currently takes place online. It is a ceremony to give the doctoral candidate his moment,' says Tjebbe. But it is also a networking moment for the audience, because people from all over the country are coming. It's a social event. I've received dozens of reactions from people who were sorry that they couldn't be there. Fortunately, I can still share my personal link with interested parties.'

Thesis Property Law and Taxation

Tjebbe Gerverdinck obtained his doctorate on 9 June 2020 from Peter Wattel, professor of European Tax Law with the research 'Property Law and Taxation'. This subject has received a lot of attention within Dutch legal practice in recent years. Taxpayers in the Netherlands are dissatisfied with formal tax legislation, but these are measures taken by the States General that cannot be encroached upon on the basis of the Constitution. Taxpayers can only invoke international treaties, such as the ECHR. In the field of taxation, the right of ownership included in the First Protocol to that convention is particularly relevant. According to Tjebbe, what was still lacking was an overarching study in which all possible aspects of property law were examined. Among other things, he examined where the boundary lies between permitted taxation and unauthorised arbitrary confiscation.