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Doctoral Dissertation Defenses Move Online

Pandemic Impacts Public Gatherings—Graduate Students Turn to Videoconferences for Presentations of Their Research

April 29, 2020
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Michael Yereniuk

Michael Yereniuk left almost nothing to chance when he realized in March that he would be defending his dissertation online instead of standing in a room before scholars, friends, and family.

The candidate for a PhD in mathematics practiced his presentation, “Global Approximations of Agent-Based Model State Changes,” approximately 10 times on the videoconferencing platform Zoom, with friends and relatives watching remotely and asking questions.

“When I give presentations, I like jumping around the room and being very visual,” says Yereniuk, who successfully defended his dissertation April 7. “I had to think about being a talking head and not using my hands as much. And because it was just my face on the screen, I tried to maintain calm facial expressions.”

Welcome to the new world of graduate studies. As university campuses have closed most operations and public authorities have discouraged gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate students have moved their presentations, defenses, and even their celebrations online.

WPI has shifted these activities to Zoom, and a number of doctoral candidates have already used the technology in recent weeks to defend their dissertations. Others are scheduled to do so in the coming weeks.

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Doug Reilly presentation

The technology allows graduate students to close out years of work.

“Five years ago, I might not have been able to do this,” says Douglas K. Reilly, who successfully defended his biology and biotechnology dissertation, “Neuromodulation of Sex-Specific Pheromone-Mediated Behaviors” on a Zoom session April 10. “I don’t know if everyone would have been as technologically able to join in on a remote meeting. I would have been stuck waiting until this pandemic was over.”

Learning to Refine Presentations

Normally, dissertation presentations and defenses are a mix of public and private events. A candidate for a doctorate writes a dissertation that is based on research overseen by an advisor and reviewed by a committee of scholars. The candidate makes a public speech outlining the research, then privately meets with the committee to answer questions. This “defense” allows the candidate to show how the research advances knowledge about a subject.

If successful, the candidate usually has a chance to celebrate with department and committee members after a defense, perhaps even with a toast.

Videoconferencing tools can be used to adapt presentations for remote attendees, says Rory Flinn, WPI assistant dean of graduate studies, who recently led a webinar for graduate students on how to use Zoom to defend theses and dissertations. Presenters can use chat tools to field questions and scribble schematics on virtual whiteboards.

"You've done this momentous thing. Plan some kind of celebration."

-Rory Flinn Assistant Dean of Graduate Studies

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Rory Flinn

Some challenges have surfaced. Presenters must be wary about disruptive intruders who Zoom-bomb meetings. Reilly’s presentation was briefly infiltrated by intruders until he calmly removed them from the video conference.

“I imagine that these presentations are going to have smaller audiences now,” Flinn says. “It will probably mostly be a candidate’s committee, as well as a few research groupmates and maybe other people in the department.”

Speakers also must think how best to use the technology. Yereniuk changed the appearance of parts of his presentation when he knew he would not be standing in a room with a laser pointer and a projection of his slides. He also revamped his presentation slides so the text would fit on the screens of different kinds of computers. Reilly, cognizant of the data bandwidth available to him, removed animations from his slides.

Advisors Act as Gatekeepers

Then there’s the matter of bringing it all together. Sarah Olson, associate professor of mathematics and Yereniuk’s advisor, acted as gatekeeper, making sure she knew the names and screen names of Yereniuk’s relatives who would be joining the videoconference. She also briefed the committee that would be evaluating Yereniuk’s dissertation on how the event would proceed.

“Michael and I figured out what he was comfortable with, I figured out what I was comfortable with, and I sent an email the day before to the committee,” Olson says. “There were no objections. Michael sent out his slides a day ahead of time to the committee, and then we reminded them that there was a phone number to call into the presentation if they lost their internet connection.”

Those kinds of preparations make remote dissertation defenses possible. Yet nothing really replaces an in-person event, says Jagan Srinivasan, associate professor of biology and biotechnology, who was advisor to Reilly.

“When you're giving your thesis defense or when you're trying to present something that is so important to you, you interact with the audience,” Srinivasan says. “It's a very organic process. You see when a person is reacting. You tend to slow down your pace. You tend to clarify a point.”

To address one aspect of solitary Zoom defenses, Flinn recommends that PhD candidates make sure to schedule a post-defense videoconference with others to celebrate.

“You've done this momentous thing,” Flinn says. “Plan some kind of celebration with friends, family, colleagues, everyone. It can be the next day or later that same day. Talk and share. Just have a social gathering for a little while.”

-By Lisa Eckelbecker