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Departments forge plans for dissertation defenses in the era of social distancing

  • Student looking at laptop screen
    Defending online:  William & Mary has suspended the requirement for doctoral candidates to defend their dissertations in person. Ph.D.-granting departments are considering a variety of approaches in the era of social distancing.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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UPDATE: As of March 30, the Office of Graduate Studies and Research is now requiring all dissertation/thesis defenses, qualifying and comprehensive exams and other similar events be conducted via remote means.

William & Mary’s move to modified academic operations is prompting departments to look into alternative ways of conducting dissertation defenses of Ph.D. candidates.

The doctoral defense is a capstone event for Ph.D. students. Like most universities, William & Mary requires candidates for doctorates to defend their dissertations in person, a procedure that typically includes a public component as well as closed door viva voce with a committee that has supervised the work.

In-person attendance at a dissertation defense is a matter of tradition and it’s also spelled out in the Graduate Arts & Sciences Catalog requirements. But the closing of the campus and implementation of social-distancing measures prompted the university to lift the in-person requirement until the institution returns to normal operations.

“(R)emote participation by students will be permitted in colloquia, comprehensive exams, qualifying exams and dissertation/thesis defenses,” Virginia Torczon, William & Mary’s dean of graduate study, announced in an email to graduate studies students and faculty. “Students may participate from off campus via Skype, Zoom or other remote means during this time.”

The announcement of the suspension of in-person participation came after Torczon solicited members of the  Arts & Sciences Committee on Graduate Studies by email on March 12.

“I received an almost immediate second to the motion and had eight votes out of eleven in favor within hours of my initial request. No votes were opposed,” Torczon said. “I pulled the trigger once I had a clear quorum.”

The School of Education had numerous defenses already scheduled for the first week after spring break, and acted quickly to keep doctoral students on track, conducting dissertation defenses by Zoom right away.

The education school’s doctoral handbook only requires that all members of the dissertation committee be present, either in-person or virtually, and that the defense be open to the university community, so a change in regulations was not necessary.

“My main priority in moving the final dissertation online was to assure that students feel comfortable with the technology and also come away with a positive experience to serve as a capstone for their doctoral experience,” said Pamela Eddy, professor and chair of the department of educational policy, planning and leadership.

So far, 13 School of Education doctoral students have defended dissertations virtually through Zoom. Doctoral students typically celebrate the successful defense of a dissertation by ringing the school bell, located in the courtyard, while surrounded by their dissertation committee, friends and family. And while this beloved tradition has been necessarily put on hold, faculty and students look forward to recreating the moment in the future.

“I’m looking forward to having a ‘do-over’ time to bring graduating students back to ring the bell and to celebrate in historic fashion this important part of the defense,” said Eddy.

William & Mary’s School of Marine Sciences at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science has adopted a similar policy as Arts & Sciences. An email to the VIMS community from Linda Schaffner, associate dean of academic studies, notes that thesis and dissertation defenses can be conducted remotely.

Details are being worked out in departments at VIMS as well as on the Williamsburg campus. A variety of approaches are being considered.

“I believe Zoom will serve us well for the period of social isolation,” said Michael Lewis, chair of the university’s Department of Computer Science. “We just had a two-hour faculty meeting using Zoom and I was pleased with how it performed.”

Jeff Nelson, director of graduate studies in the Department of Physics, said his department will endeavor to retain the in-person element, at least for the dissertation defense scheduled for before the summer break.

“We expect that it will be a mix of local people in the room and a Zoom audience for the rest to keep it public,” he said. “If conditions change, it will be via Zoom only.”

Martin Gallivan, chair of the Department of Anthropology, said his department has had preliminary discussions of how a doctoral defense would be conducted, but hasn’t settled on a final plan.

“Our dissertation defenses are a committee-driven process, so the committee chair will have to sign off on whatever approach we ultimately land on,” he said. “And we want to accommodate the student undergoing the defense and their committee as much as possible.

Each department follows its own procedure for defenses, and most vary little from what Gallivan outlined for doctoral candidates in anthropology — the student’s dissertation summary, a public question and answer session then a closed-door Q&A with just the candidate and the committee.

“With any eye toward this structure and the goal of keeping things simple and redundant, we are contemplating dissertation defenses that combine ‘asynchronous’ and ‘synchronous’ content,” he said.

Gallivan went on to explain that the idea is to begin with the asynchronous aspect, in which the candidate would record their dissertation summary. The likely app for the summary capture would be Panopto, William & Mary’s lecture-capture software.

The department will post the pre-recorded summary on Blackboard or another online utility. The next part begins with standard operating procedure: Gallivan said the department sends out invitations to the anthropology department community and to the wider university community through the daily William & Mary Digest email announcements.

The only difference, he said, is that interested attendees RSVP so they can be added to the Blackboard site, where they can view the prerecorded summary.

The synchronous aspect begins with the public portion of the defense, in which the candidate answers questions through Zoom or another online meeting utility. A second Zoom session, for the candidate and the committee only, will take the place of the closed-door, in-person Q &A.

“Our fingers are crossed that this will work,” Gallivan said.

Online dissertation defense need not be divided into asynchronous and synchronous components. Lewis says it’s likely that computer science will do the entire defense through Zoom. He said the department is used to online participation in the proceedings, with dissertation committee members joining remotely from Asia or Europe often.

“I imagine we will follow the usual structure of the defense,” Lewis said. “First there is a public talk, and open questions from the audience and the committee. Then the audience is asked to leave and the committee continues questioning the candidate. Finally, the candidate leaves and the committee discusses amongst itself.”

Lewis said each stage of the defense will be possible in Zoom: “Having the pro version of Zoom is really going to help,” he added.