Even COVID-19 can’t stop graduate students from defending their theses

The virtual thesis defense might be our future for a while. (Image: Canva)
The virtual thesis defense might be our future for a while. (Image: Canva)

COVID-19 may have temporarily shuttered universities and laboratories, but this is not deterring graduate students from defending their thesis. With social distancing norms being enforced throughout the country, graduate students are turning toward a virtual thesis defense. Colleges and universities have started adapting to the work-from-home culture. They have begun using remote learning tools and virtual platforms such as Zoom and WebEx for lab meetings, journal clubs, symposia, thesis defenses, and even graduation ceremonies. In many universities, graduate program administrators and faculty are helping students transition into the virtual meetings. They are even providing graduate students with tips on how to defend a virtual thesis.

Abbey is at the end of her sixth year of a PhD program and has been working on her thesis for the past few months. Her dream of presenting her work in an auditorium in front of her peers and colleagues was shattered as soon as her university temporarily shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Just a week away from her defense date, Abbey started transforming her presentation to fit a virtual thesis defense. She had her laptop set up in her dining room and performed a test run of the entire virtual defense using Zoom. On her big day, although Abbey was well prepared, she felt very weird talking to her laptop screen as she’s more used to presenting to a room filled with people. There were about 100 Zoom meeting attendees during her presentation. At the end of her talk, the attendees asked a few questions via chat or microphone. Everyone, except Abbey and her thesis committee members, was asked to stay online to have a virtual closed meeting after her talk. After about an hour of discussions, Abbey successfully defended her PhD thesis. Abbey’s lab mates had even arranged for a virtual party to celebrate her success.

Even though many graduate students like Abbey have completed their virtual defenses without any glitches, there are few others like Sam, who experienced cyber-harassment called “Zoombombing” during their virtual defenses. Sam’s virtual defense started with about 40 participants. Within the first 10 minutes of the presentation, an additional 15 participants joined his virtual defense talk. As soon as Sam started talking about his results, trolls started popping up during his presentation. Although Sam didn’t seem too disturbed in the beginning, the number of trolls kept increasing and eventually threatened his presentation. Unfortunately, the defense had to be halted for a few minutes because of the trolls. Luckily, Sam’s mentor intervened and removed all hoax Zoom user accounts after which Sam got back to his presentation. There are a few ways to prevent Zoombombing issues during presentations and meetings. You should carefully prepare for your virtual defense and have multiple test runs to prevent any mishaps. In addition, don’t share the link to your online defense openly on social media platforms, but instead, send the link directly to the people you want to attend. It is also helpful to make a friend or colleague a co-host of the meeting so they can monitor and remove anyone making trouble. This way you can give your full attention to your defense presentation.

Apart from such setbacks, virtual defenses still seem to be well attended, often with 100 or more attendees. The probability of such a large turnout for an actual in-person defense would likely be low since many attendees are spread throughout the country and sometimes even overseas. Virtual defenses have the potential to transform thesis defenses even beyond this current pandemic. One way to open up thesis defenses to a larger community in the future would be to provide both options to attend an online and in-person defense. During these uncertain times when our scientific community tries to stay connected, virtual defenses and seminars are a great way to socialize and keep up with the new advancements in the field.

About the Author:


Sumana Sundaramurthy is a graduate student in David Pruyne’s Lab at SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY. She studies how formins regulate muscle development using Caenorhabditis elegans as a model. Email: sundaras@upstate.edu. Twitter: @ranjusunda