It’s common practice for graduate students to bring food to their dissertation defenses. But even though it’s common, doesn’t it seem a little, well, odd?

According to an article by Geoffrey Mock in Duke Today:

Kara Slade remembers one frightening moment from her qualifying examination before three mechanical engineering faculty members. She had brought a box of Pepperidge Farm “Distinctive Assortment” cookies.

“About halfway through my exam, I was in the middle of working through a derivation at the board when a voice came floating over my shoulder: ‘Hey, we’re out of cookies,’” Slade said. “That was the point when I truly prayed for the ground to open up and swallow me. It was surreal. For the next hour and a half I was convinced that I would fail because I didn’t bring enough cookies. Of course, now I realize how delusional that was, but at the time I had that thought.”

Because the defense is the final step before students earn their degrees, the idea of bringing food to the event, which the people who will actually decide on the PhD will eat, seems a little like a bribe.

But not really, according to the piece.

On two to three occasions during their graduate school career, a student faces formal questions from department faculty members in a public event to test their knowledge of the field and their research. By the time of the final defense the student is almost completely assured of graduation, so the cookies and brownies are intended not to sway the committee but, instead, to help everyone get through a grueling event.

Of course, the idea of a tenured professor being swayed to grant a terminal degree by a cookie, even if home-made and elaborate, is kind of ridiculous.

A bottle of scotch? Well, that would be a little too much, though it would probably help with that grueling event a little more effectively.

The Mock article includes a sidebar with a recipe for peanutty oatmeal cookies. Check it out here.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer