‘I finally had all the hotshots in one room’

Poof! There goes your PhD ceremony

You worked hard for years, and you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get your colleagues, friends, and family together on that special day when you’ll receive your doctoral degree. Then the coronavirus rears its ugly head.
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Door René Hoogschagen

31 March om 10:49 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 22 November 2020
om 16:15 uur.
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By René Hoogschagen

March 31 at 10:49 AM.
Last modified on November 22, 2020
at 16:15 PM.
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René Hoogschagen

Freelance journalist Volledig bio / Full bio.
Ben Wolf. This photo and photo above: Niels Taatgen
Ben Wolf

Ben Wolf saw the writing on the wall when, on March 12, prime minister Mark Rutte banned events consisting of more than a hundred people. His ceremony was planned for the next day.

When he heard the news, he was at a symposium with ninety other people. ‘We finished the symposium.’ But he skipped the drinks afterwards; ‘he wasn’t feeling great.

A hundred people

He’d arranged everything. People were coming. His friends and colleagues were serving as his paranymphs. He had been looking forward to it so much. 

Now he’d have to cancel everything. Just to make sure, he phoned the PhD degree registration office, which told him the ceremony could go on as planned as long as there were fewer than a hundred people in attendance. If need be, they would do it without an audience. A few hours later, the same office decided all ceremonies were cancelled. Starting Monday. 

I didn’t calm down until my defence started

Wolf was in luck, as his ceremony was planned for Friday, the thirteenth.

‘But nothing is quite as mutable as government decisions’, Wolf feared, ‘so I didn’t calm down until I took a seat and my defence started. He laughs. ‘Usually it’s the other way around.’ 

He successfully defended his thesis, on sensors detecting movement in water, and graduated with honours. 


At the reception, he saw the effects of the corona measures. ‘One or two people insisted on shaking my hand, but most others bumped elbows or bowed.’ He also received quite a few messages from people who didn’t want to exceed the maximum and preferred to stay home, promising to make it up to him.

‘I’m fine with people staying home, but I was really happy with the people who showed up’, says Wolf. Closing out the day, he threw a party in the upstairs room at Mr. Mofongo. Even fewer people attended; approximately half of the fifty people who’d been to the reception.

The next day, he read that all PhD ceremonies were cancelled. ‘I realised how close I’d been. I’m really happy I could have mine.’

Gerrit Kramer with his dissertation.
Gerrit Kramer

Gerrit Kramer witnessed the first cases of corona in Brabant, where he works, and knew he wouldn’t be able to have his ceremony. He’s bummed out.

‘It’s mainly because I finally managed to set a date with the colleagues I collaborated so much with. I finally got all the hotshots together in a room. And now the whole thing’s off.’


Together with Jeannette Gelauff, he studied tremors in people with neurological issues. It’s a small field, where everyone knows everyone. All those people were due to attend on April 15, when Kramer and Gelauff would both defend their theses. 

They give you the PhD anyway, unless you committed fraud

The night before the ceremony, the pair was due to go out to dinner with their supervisor and three researchers from the United Kingdom. ‘We were going to do a little networking.’ They’d even paid part of the travel costs for the internationals. 

Kramer’s ceremony was planned for the morning, after which his fifty guests would be treated to lunch. Gelauff would defend her thesis in the afternoon. They’d planned a joint reception for approximately a hundred people and then they’d each have dinner with friends and colleagues. Kramer was set to attend dinner at the beer festival that just so happened to be in town. ‘Those tickets do not come cheap.’

Festive screen

His ceremony has not officially been cancelled yet; it could still be done online. But he doesn’t want that. ‘I read that they were figuring out how to show a festive screen after the online ceremony.’ He imagines they would put up something showing balloons. He laughs loudly at the idea, but that doesn’t mean he’s not sore about the whole thing.

It’s not even about the official part of the ceremony. ‘They give you your PhD anyway, unless you committed fraud or something. It’s not like in other countries, where they really grill you. It’s a really festive ceremony. That’s just a lot of fun, which is why we put so much effort into organising it.’

In the meantime, he’s encountered corona at his work; he is an MD at the Catharina hospital in Eindhoven. ‘I got training last week, in case I have to help out.’ But everyone with other symptoms is avoiding the hospital. ‘Funnily enough, it’s quieter than usual.’

Leonie Gouweleeuw in her lab outfit in 2014.
Leonie Gouweleeuw

‘I knew a few weeks ago that it probably wouldn’t happen’, says Leonie Gouweleeuw. ‘Given everything that’s happening in the world, it’s not the worst thing that could happen to me’, she says. Still.

She started her research into depression and memory issues in people with heart failure in 2013, working with rats and mice at the Linnaeusborg. Her contract ended early in 2017. Her research wasn’t finished yet, but she was pregnant and had a new job lined up. She took a break. In September 2019, after she’d had two kids, she finally handed in her thesis. 

She was set to receive her PhD on April 27. Like so many other PhD candidates, she’d organised a reception, a dinner, and a party in a pub in town.

Wrong date

She sent her thesis to the reading committee and the University library last week, since nothing had been officially cancelled. ‘That now has the wrong date in it’, Gouweleeuw sighs.

I’d like to get it over with, but an official ceremony would be nice

‘They’re looking into doing the ceremony online’, she says. What that would look like, the PhD degree registration office couldn’t tell her, but there would be no guests allowed. ‘It would just be me and the chairperson at the Academy building.’ 

The rest of the corona (we kid you not: that is actually what the PhD committee is called) can ask questions through a video link. ‘Guests could live-stream it.’ TU Delft, where Gouweleeuw now works at a lab manager, has also been doing it like this. 


Would she be okay having her ceremony online? ‘Well’, she muses, ‘on the one hand, I’d like to have it over with. Maybe I’ll organise a dinner or throw a party later. On the other hand, I think I’d love an official ceremony where I can receive my diploma and be supported by my paranymphs.’ 

There is one other option: to delay the ceremony. She’d have to pick a new date when everyone is available or find new members for her corona. ‘I need my supervisor and co-supervisor at the least’, says Gouweleeuw. ‘And my paranymphs, of course.’ She’s already thanked them in her acknowledgements. It’d be close; one of them will be starting a new job in Stockholm on May 1. 

‘If I pick another date, it would be after the summer, in September or October. I don’t want to pick a date in July and have to cancel again with two weeks’ notice.’


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