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This question Can a non-committee-member ask questions while watching a friend's PhD defense? has been closed for depending on individual factors. While there is no question in my mind, and in fact my answer says, it depends on the department, I think this is an inappropriate use of the close reason. Unlike many of the questions closed for individual factors, this one seems useful to other people and is not really about the minutia of departmental policies, but really a fundamental question about how academia varies.

Should this question be reopened?

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Questions closed for this reason mainly come in two categories:

  • The answer depends on a lot of individual factors. This is the typical “Decide my life for me” question.
  • The answer depends completely on a single factor.

The question in question would fall into the second category and I don’t see how it differs relevantly from other questions in this category. To take an arbitrary example for comparison:

Do I have to take a seminar course?

  • There is little more to answer than: “It depends.” Answering questions with this gets annoying very quickly.

  • The close reason answers the question as good as we can.

  • The question is slightly helpful to others in the same situation, telling them whom they need to ask.

  • If somebody oblivious of academia’s inhomogeneity answers this question from personal experience, it’s misleading.

  • There is a plethora of similar, but not-exactly-duplicate questions that suffer from the same problem (e.g., you can ask one about every detail of the graduation ceremony).

  • The asker is probably not aware that academia differs in this aspect.

If there is a big difference anywhere, it’s in the last point, as in your example question, the asker cannot to be blamed for being naïve. But then, we (and other SE sites) do from time to time close questions where the asker cannot be reasonably aware of the problem, for example too-broad questions where an outsider cannot reasonably expect that there are entire books covering the topic. This is one of those cases, where I would advocate upvoting the question despite voting to close it – which also ensures that the question does not get automatically deleted and thus remains visible to future visitors.

Sidenote: The situation of many not-exactly-duplicate questions suggests canonical Q&As at first glance, but do we really want canonical questions where the answer is little more than “it depends”? Also, the number of such questions may be very high, considering the number of bullet points to Academia varies more than you think it does (and that’s not an exhaustive list).

  • I like your categories. I guess I see the first category as not having an answer, but the second category seems to have an answer that covers the extremes of the system and their pros and cons. A subtle rewording of many of the questions in the second category would, in my opinion, make them on topic. That said, making people jump through hoops when we know what they want seems silly. I think I need to dig a little to understand how many questions of the second category we get. – StrongBad Sep 6 '17 at 20:32
  • What subtle rewording do you have in mind? – Wrzlprmft Sep 6 '17 at 21:51
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    "Is it typical for a non-committee-member to ask questions while watching a friend's PhD defense?" To me, these are the same question, but wording it this way seems less likely to get a close-for-individual-factors vote; we have lots of questions that have this wording or something like it. (not sure if @StrongBad was thinking along the same lines) – Bryan Krause Sep 7 '17 at 21:37
  • @BryanKrause your phrasing is better, but yes exactly that. – StrongBad Sep 7 '17 at 21:41
  • @BryanKrause: I don’t see how your proposed wording solves anything. The answer is still: “it depends” (I cannot remember a defence where this did not happen, while it is obviously atypical in contexts where only the committee can ask questions to begin with). Also, this is not about what questions are likely to get voted to close, but which questions cause problems and should be closed. – Wrzlprmft Sep 8 '17 at 12:32
  • My reading of @StrongBad's argument is 2-fold: 1) that the "individual factors" close reason should be interpreted narrowly rather than broadly, and 2) that this is one of the types of questions that, although it does somewhat depend on individual factors, it does not depend so much on individual factors that one cannot give a strong answer; indeed, StrongBad's own answer to the question can be useful to anybody else in the same predicament, whereas the "what should I do with my life" sort of questions never are. – Bryan Krause Sep 8 '17 at 22:25
  • @BryanKrause: it does not depend so much on individual factors that one cannot give a strong answer – Unless you consider “it depends, ask those who know” a strong answer, I disagree. Looking at it again, I noticed that even some aspects of StrongBad’s answer do not generalise (see my comment there). And as for the close reason answering the question, I have no problem with this. Unless the question is deleted, it can still be found and help other people. I don’t see the point in having a bazillion questions where the only good answer is “it depends”. – Wrzlprmft Sep 9 '17 at 7:15

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