Students and faculty adjust to the virtual format for thesis defense amidst COVID-19

Thursday, May 21, 2020 - 7:06pm

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Design by Maggie Wiebe

Thesis defense has traditionally been one of the final and most important steps for master’s and doctoral students to obtain their degrees. However, due to the restrictions on in-person events as part of the effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, thesis defenses are now being held virtually, forcing students and faculty to adjust to the new format. 

John Godfrey, Rackham Graduate School assistant dean, commented on the difficult challenge of making swift and effective adjustments in reaction to the pandemic. 

“Moving our operations online was a major challenge,” Godfrey said. “Rackham staff were working remotely and the pace of work has not stopped because of COVID. There have been students continuing their defense and getting their degrees. We had to do many things from adjusting policy, to accommodating students, to assessing financial needs of the students.”

Godfrey explained how a lot of effort has gone into ensuring a smooth transition to the virtual format since one of the school’s primary functions is to facilitate dissertation and thesis defenses.

“Rackham’s major role is in administering dissertation defenses,” Godfrey said. “We have had 185, maybe close to 200 dissertation defenses that have taken place online since instructions ended on campus. It appears that it’s going fairly seamlessly.”

Rackham student Amy-Charlotte Devitz stated one of the biggest challenges she faced was the lack of audience feedback. 

“I think the biggest challenge is that you lose the ability to kind of get that audience feedback when you are presenting,” Devitz said. “Because the program I was using, on your screen you can only see your slides, and obviously you need that to be able to present properly, but you can’t see the audience and you can’t really gauge their reactions. It’s hard to read the room.”

Engineering Ph.D. candidate Kevin Hughes said the process of defending his thesis remained largely unchanged for him, with the biggest challenge being equipment and hardware preparations beforehand. 

“In general, BlueJeans was fairly good,” Hughes said. “One challenge was actually I moved during this process. My wife and I moved to where we are going to be working in Minnesota, which brought up a few challenges, which include getting a reliable internet connection setup, the purchase of cable, better quality microphone. I did a few practice sessions beforehand just to troubleshoot the connection and audio quality issues.” 

Godfrey believed the new virtual format has many benefits, including more flexibility and ease to implement accommodations, but also said it takes away the celebratory and ceremonial aspect of it. 

“In shifting to virtual, I think it may be easier to schedule the defense,” Godfrey said. “Normally, you had to have people all show up to the same building at the same time and sometimes it can be a little tricky. It may have, at the end, proven to be more accommodating. But it certainly takes away the celebratory aspect, like the reception afterwards where people congratulate the person who just finished their defense.”

Hughes said a virtual thesis defense raised concerns over privacy since more people can join.

“I had a larger audience than I would have had in Michigan,” Hughes said. “For instance, my sister, she just had a baby so she wouldn’t have been able to come to Michigan to view the thesis defense. It was a little bit more convenient. I had to consider being more selective about who I invite. For instance, for social media invites, I didn’t give the link to everybody, due to privacy concerns, so I had to be a little more selective about just who I told I was defending.” 

Godfrey said Rackham instructed both students and faculty to use Bluejeans instead of other platforms in order to provide better security and privacy. 

“The dissertation defenses have been traditionally public events,” Godfrey said. “They are always publicized. Typically friends, people from the department and families are the ones to show up. There has been concern about Zoom bombing. I have not heard of anything happening, and we have our guidelines to use BlueJeans, which is a much more secure environment, and instructions on how to invite people as well.” 

Godfrey said though the virtual format can never replace the long tradition of in-person thesis defense, it has the potential of becoming a viable alternative option moving forward. 

“We haven’t had a chance to evaluate our experience,” Godfrey said. “This might be a viable option in the future, but there has been a long tradition of the defense being face-to-face, and there are good reasons for that. But I can imagine this might be an allowable solution, particularly since our graduate students are so international.” 

Hughes said while the virtual format does require a lot more fine-tuning and adaptation, it has noticeable benefits and should be considered more often. 

“In the future I do think this process should be utilized more,” Hughes said. “There were some hiccups with it, but I think there are a lot of benefits to it this way. For one thing, it provides a lot of flexibility. For example, for a person like me, I was able to begin the moving process early. It also gives opportunities to people who would otherwise not be able to attend. So in general the pros probably outweigh the cons in a lot of the situations.”

Daily Staff Reporter Jialin Zhang can be reached at jialinzh@umich.edu.