Virtual victory: inside the new normal of online doctoral dissertation defences

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

They thought that the biggest challenge of their PhD defence would be controlling their nerves. Instead it was securing a quality Wi-Fi connection. Since mid-March, thesis defences at universities across Canada, like Waterloo's Jessey Rice, have gone online. But while it’s different than what they might have dreamed of, most new doctorates are just glad to find a way forward.

Rapid change of plans

When his defence was originally scheduled, Earth and Environmental Sciences PhD candidate Jessey Rice, who is currently based in Ottawa, had intended to stay over at his parents’ house north of Toronto and then make his way down to the U of Waterloo campus for the big day. But as the March 25 defence date approached, plans changed rapidly. By March 19 it was decided the committee would attend remotely and by March 20 it became evident that Dr. Rice and his supervisor, associate professor Martin Ross, would also be calling in. Realizing he’d need a more stable internet connection than what’s available at his parents’ rural home, Rice relocated to the guest bedroom at his aunt’s place.

Rice’s dissertation looks at the glacial history of northeast Quebec, the product of three seasons of fieldwork. The defence was held on Microsoft Teams videoconferencing software, chosen partly for its closed captioning functions to accommodate a committee member with a hearing disability. It all went smoothly but for one technical glitch that ejected a committee member briefly from the call.

“I was impressed with how smoothly it went,” said Rice.

His supervisor agrees and credited the campus IT support personnel who stayed online for the entire time.

“Surprisingly, given the situation, everything went well, better than we had all anticipated as it was one of the first on campus to go online,” said Ross, adding that it was his first virtual thesis defence in 14 years as a professor.

Rice said he was grateful for everyone coming together to make his successful defence happen, although he missed the body language cues that come from being face-to-face.

“There’s always that slight delay with online interactions, and when you’re presenting your PhD, those little silences make you wonder. Not getting instant audience feedback can be tough,” he said.

For Ross, the biggest change was the social aspect, noting that several students in his research group had planned to attend Rice’s defence, along with the government research collaborators.

“Thesis defences are a big part of academic life, an important part of the dynamic of a department,” Ross said. “It’s a big milestone.”

A week later, Ross hosted an online celebration for Rice with his research group.

This piece appeared in a national article about online doctoral dissertation defences by University Affairs.