The aftermath of a successful PhD thesis defense: a bit of paperwork for the committee, smiling friends and family, and…a rubber chicken? For the benefit of newcomers to Brown CS, we’d like to share some highlights of an unusual and beloved tradition.
“The rubber chicken,” Professor Eugene Charniak explains, “is the department’s token that a person has successfully defended their PhD thesis. The conferring of the rubber chicken (which is thrown at, not handed to, the successful candidate) goes back to 1985 or so when, after a particularly bad invited talk, one graduate student commented to another that someone should have shut the speaker up by throwing a chicken or some such at him. It turned out that the person suggesting this was due to defend his PhD thesis a few weeks later, and several of the graduate students thought that during the defense they would throw a chicken, or at least a rubber chicken, at him. They chickened out (so to speak) and threw it only after the talk, but a tradition had started.”
To date, the earliest verified rubber chicken belongs to Mark Post PhD '85.
A Tradition Evolves
Over time, the tradition has evolved to include customizing and/or accessorizing the chicken to resemble the new PhD’s style of dress, hobbies, or even their thesis advisor! Eugene notes that it has even spread to universities such as Purdue and Northeastern thanks to one of his former students, Professor Mary P. Harper. He also shares a story:
“Another of my former students, Sharon Caraballo, engaged in some fowl play (I’m sorry, I am not strong enough to resist). Sharon took her chicken to a taxidermist and had it stuffed and mounted! It is now proudly displayed on a wooden plaque above her desk at her office at Georgetown. She explained that the wooden plaque is actually one for fish, since the rubber chicken is too small for anything else. She also told me that when she took it to the taxidermist she gave it to him with a straight face, no explanation. I can only try to imagine what the guy was thinking. However, she was accompanied by her husband when she went to pick it up, and her husband took pity on the fellow and told him what was going on. The taxidermist said he had probably gotten more comments on it than anything else he had ever done.”
To date, the earliest verified, customized rubber chicken belongs to Glencora Borradaile PhD '07.
The Chicken Gallery
Below are a few chickens that our alums have asked us to share with the world. If you have a photo or story that you want included below, we’d love to hear from you! Please click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communication Outreach Specialist Jesse C. Polhemus.
Steven Gomez and his chicken
Matteo Riondato and his chicken
Foteini Baldimtsi's chicken
Michael Littman and his chicken
David Eisenstat and his chicken
Micha Elsner and his chicken
Jie Mao and his chicken