Online dissertation defenses highlight student adaptability

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By Nataliya Kalabina,


By Kendra H. Oliver

Over the past few weeks, the Basic Sciences community has witnessed the successful defenses of six of its students. They demonstrated remarkable adaptability and professionalism in these uncertain times as they shared their research with virtual crowds topping out near 200 viewers for some of the talks.

The importance of doctoral education lies in the fact that it not only produces new knowledge but also knowledge makers. A public oral dissertation defense is a quintessential component of the doctorate for most universities, yet how students experience this final public demonstration of their work varies greatly even in the best of times. This variation is particularly pronounced in the midst of the ongoing public health crisis. With public distancing and work-from-home orders in place, Basic Sciences’ recently defending students pioneered new and innovative approaches to disseminate their dissertation work.

In the early days of COVID-19 in our community, there was a need to transition to online presentation formats rapidly. The same week that social distancing and remote work mandates were put in place, Kevin Jagessar purchased ZoomPro even before the university rolled it out. Bianca Flores coordinated with VUMC and telecasted her talk. Jenny Aguilar and Rafael Perez conducted their presentations from different states due to travel restrictions. The students handled technical challenges and limitations with grace and poise.

Yet, many of the students agree that digital presentations would be a good thing to continue, even when things return to normal.

Flores said, “Honestly, it exceeded my expectations, and I love that my defense is immortalized as a link so I can watch it for years to come.”

For students who have family from out of town, digital defenses provide an added advantage. Perez, for example, appreciated that family and friends from all over the U.S. and the Dominican Republic who would not have otherwise seen him present had the chance to do so. Aguilar even had an early research mentor from high school view her defense.

Although the current situation is not ideal, these newly minted Ph.D.’s demonstrated their resilience and tenacity by adapting to new technologies that broadened the public dissemination of their research. Given the uncertainty of the self-isolation and remote work timeline, it is likely that many more students will have to present digitally, but as with their Ph.D.’s, we know they will excel in this task.

For tips on presenting a digital dissertation defense, check out this student-compiled resource or this list of best practices.


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