A guide to the "snake fight" portion of your Ph.D. thesis defense

Pictured: Laocoon, who had some serious problems with his methodology.

I'll bet you didn't know that, in order to earn a Ph.D. from a major American university, you must first defeat a snake in combat. Don't feel too bad. They almost never mention this until you've already begun your graduate studies. Luckily, Luke Burns has a handy FAQ over at McSweeny's that will make sure you pass both your oral thesis defense and your mandatory snake fight with flying colors.

Q: Do I have to kill the snake?
A: University guidelines state that you have to “defeat” the snake. There are many ways to accomplish this. Lots of students choose to wrestle the snake. Some construct decoys and elaborate traps to confuse and then ensnare the snake. One student brought a flute and played a song to lull the snake to sleep. Then he threw the snake out a window.

Q: Does everyone fight the same snake?
A: No. You will fight one of the many snakes that are kept on campus by the facilities department.

Q: Are the snakes big?
A: We have lots of different snakes. The quality of your work determines which snake you will fight. The better your thesis is, the smaller the snake will be.

For god's sake, read the full FAQ. You do not want to arrive at your snake fight unprepared.

Via Andrew Thaler

Image: Groupe de Laocoon, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from hailemichaelfiseha's photostream


  1. I’m working on my Masters (at age 54); all I have to do is catch a mosquito in flight.

    1. This must be why Masters degrees are more common than bachelor’s degrees in Finland. Have you seen the size of Finnish mosquitoes?

          1.  Huh. My alma mater did that, but then when you graduated they gave you both degrees at once. I didn’t know there were schools that do it the way you describe. Cool.

  2. So when you start taunting the snake and it clamps onto your hand you shouldn’t have your friend cut its head off, right?

  3. Do you know when the test is taking place, it’s not like a pop quiz, right? 

    I’d take a mouse with me, feed it to the snake and grab it while it’s still in mid swallow. We both win,  It gets a meal and I get a pass. 

  4. Meanwhile in Australia…I wish!
    In primary school we had to kill the snakes on the playground before class was let out for recess.
    I  fought a red belly black snake only two weeks ago. It was far easier than finishing this chapter arguing that Saul Kripke is wrong.

  5. if the snake is a rigid designator he might have a chance in some possible world. however, in world @ the snake is dead. i fed him to a kookaburra and no counterfactual will bring him back. 

  6. Here in New Zealand we don’t have any substantial snakes, so we fight a native animal instead. Since we only have native birds and two types of bat we fight the Kiwi (bird, not fruit).  That pointy bastard never stood a chance at my PhD defence.

      1.  i choose to continue to believe despite any facts to the contrary.

        note unrelated: do you know of any good PhD programs in the US focusing on new approaches to poetry in digital media.

  7. But… umm… I don’t like to use Python that much, can I use LUA?

    (Oh, who am I kidding. Unless I win the lottery and decide to quit my job and go back to finish my degree, I’m not going to need to fight any snakes.)

  8. It would be a “dissertation” if working towards a PhD.
    “Thesis” is generally the requirement for a Masters degree.

    1. True, “dissertation” refers to the document one is required to produce to obtain a PhD. But “thesis” can also refer to the same document. “PhD thesis” is a fairly common collocation (note: the phrase “PhD dissertation” sounds odd to me though.)

    2. It varies. Jorge Cham, who produces PhD Comics, uses “thesis” almost exclusively; I suspect that was the preferred locution at Stanford, where he did his grad studies. (Either that or he just doesn’t want to keep fitting “dissertation” into the word balloons.) Also in the U.K.; “dissertation” is indeed the dominant term in the U.S. though.

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