Marten Staal has been paranymph 15 times

Research analyst Marten Staal knows being asked to be paranymph fifteen times is something else. In fact, he was asked again last week.

‘Most of the beadles know me by name by now’, Staal says, laughing. And he knows them. That means he doesn’t really need to practise the ceremony, which beadles do with every graduating PhD candidate. He knows the drill: enter the faculty room, change into a dress suit, rehearse, reassure the PhD candidate, decide who’s the first paranymph, follow the beadle, bow to the left, bow to the right, and hope the candidate doesn’t pass any questions on to you.

The latter nearly happened once, says Staal, who works at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, during his first time serving as paranymph. Theo Elzinga, the PhD candidate who would later become one of his professors, had said: ‘If they ask me anything on chapter seven, I’m passing it on to you.’ Staal was the primary author on that particular chapter. This is in fact allowed, he thinks, although he doesn’t know if it actually ever happened.

So when Elzenga indeed got a question on that chapter… ‘I was scared shitless’, says Staal, laughing. But Elzenga answered the question himself.

Staal’s first time as paranymph (left).


Staal considers being paranymph an honour. He’s often been asked because he collaborated on the research. ‘I have a good relationship with most of them.’ He keeps in touch with some of the PhDs. 

One of them, number fourteen, even said Staal and his wife were her Dutch parents. ‘We sort of took her in’, he explains. ‘She’d had an accident with her bike.’ They had such a great friendship that two years before she was due to graduate, she already asked the couple if they would be her paranymphs. ‘We said yes immediately, of course.’ That ceremony was a special one, he says.

The way he sees it, he’s approachable. He’s open to people’s personal problems. ‘I can tell when people are struggling and ask them about it. If they want to talk, I’m always there for them. I know from experience that talking can help.’ He calls himself a pater familias.


He takes on that same fatherly role in the room where he and PhD candidates get dressed and wait for the ceremony to start. He knows they’re all nervous. Sometimes they’re healthy nerves, but not always. 

He tries to reassure them. ‘I always tell them there’s only one expert in their field: themselves. Other than that, they only have to say a single word to graduate. They can only make a fool of themselves scientifically speaking.’

He’s only refused a request to be paranymph once. ‘They asked me five days beforehand.’ But when he heard the reason they’d asked him so late, he acquiesced anyway: someone had fallen ill.

Dress suit

In spite of his many turns as paranymph, he still doesn’t have his own dress suit. The first few times, he simply borrowed one. ‘It had these thick wool trousers. They were itchy.’ After that, he started renting them at 89 euros a pop. Sometimes the PhD candidate pays, sometimes Staal does. Sometimes they share the costs: ‘I know what their financial situation is like.’ 

He did take a photo of his measurements for the rental place, though. That way he won’t have to keep filling out the form. But he’s not planning on buying one any time soon. ‘Every time I’m asked again I think: this could be the last one.’


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