In times of crisis, we tap untested resources and resilience. We need creativity to escape a terrible ‘new normal’ and determination to endure the journey. In short, we have to innovate and persevere. On 18 March 2020, for the first time in our history, one of our doctoral students defended her thesis virtually — a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. In this post, Mary Kaltenberg is joined by one of her supervisors, Neil Foster-McGregor, to discuss the background and outcome of this extraordinary event.
As I was preparing for my in-person defence, the situation of COVID-19 was quickly evolving – first, my elderly parents decided they should not fly from the USA to the Netherlands for the ceremony, then my friends who lived across Europe couldn’t come due to many restrictions, then due to the US Government restricting flights to Europe, I couldn’t attend in person, and finally the university buildings closed three days before my scheduled defence.
I was watching the announcement barring flights to Europe, and the moment that sentence was uttered I messaged Eveline in de Braek, the programme secretary – who makes all things happen – along with my advisors to see if we could do a ‘Zoom defence’. Quickly, UNU-MERIT and Maastricht University were able to figure out a solution, to have all my corona members online with a pro-rector, using the video-call app Zoom.
This wasn’t what I had imagine during all my years as a PhD student – I thought I would defend my thesis in the same dress I defended my proposal and celebrate with my friends and family with a party. But, in times of crisis, we have to act fast and creatively. So, I put a virtual background of where I would have defended, and carried on regardless.
In any other circumstance, I would not recommend it – I would even advise against it. I wanted to be surrounded with my friends, to have the podium in front of me, to have a dinner with the corona members and conversations that can’t be replicated online. But I needed my degree to start a new job this Fall as an Assistant Professor of Economics at Pace University, New York. This called for creativity – hence the zoom defence. We even had a virtual defence party with many of my friends, and people from across the world showed up and we could dance and talk together.
In the coming months, our lives will be completely disrupted. My experience has shown that we are remarkable in our ability to adapt. For the time being, this is what needed to be done. However, virtual life can’t replicate in-person gatherings. A hug, a cheer, and intimate conversations can’t be virtualised. The future is not about complete digitalisation – it’s about integrating the digital world into our physical world.
There was obvious nervousness about the impact of COVID-19 for Mary and her hopes of defending her PhD thesis. Located in Boston and needing to fly herself and family members into Europe at a time when travel restrictions were being put in place, there was clear uncertainty as to whether her scheduled PhD defence would take place.
It must have come as a relief, therefore, to hear that her efforts and those of Eveline in de Braek from UNU-MERIT working with the Dean’s College resulted in the possibility of a – indeed, the first – remote PhD defence. When the day of the defence arrived there were uncertainties of a different kind: would the technology function? How would we deal with the pre- and post-defence formalities? How were we going to sign the degree certificate? What degree of formality should we aim for in our attire to sit in our lounge, bedroom, study and stare at a computer screen for an hour or so?
Ultimately, the technology worked well and was flexible enough to allow the procedure to run in a format that was familiar to us all, further helped by the pragmatism of the pro-Rector, Wil Foppen, and the homework on the Zoom platform by the Promoter, Bart Verspagen. (The answer to the question of appropriate attire is still open, however, with a range of more or less formal styles on display – though nobody wore a toga).
The remote defence had at least one advantage over the in-person defence: allowing a couple of members of the degree committee that live on different continents and that wouldn’t have travelled for the defence to be present. Ensuring that this option is available once we return to normality and in-person defences would seem to be an obvious conclusion from this experience (and could also be a small step in helping with attempts to reduce the carbon footprint of the university).
So, are remote PhD defences the way forward in general for PhD defences in Maastricht? Well, the technology is certainly at the stage where it functions well enough, and in this case, it allowed the candidate – Mary – to defend her thesis in reasonable time and move on to the next stage of her life and career, with a position at Pace University in New York awaiting her in the Fall.
Different to my PhD defence in the UK many years ago, locked in a room with two examiners for three hours discussing in detail the thesis, however, the PhD defence in Maastricht is more than a defence, it is also a ceremony and a celebration: an opportunity for family and friends to be present and to congratulate the candidate in person, an opportunity to say farewell to an institution and to colleagues that have endured the tough times and celebrated the good times with you, and an opportunity to say goodbye to a town that has been home for a number of years.
According to proverb, necessity is the mother of invention, but in these extraordinary times it is also a close relative of improvisation. And, in this case, that improvisation played out well and achieved the result that we were aiming for. Overall, there was a great deal of relief that the technology worked, a great deal of satisfaction and pride that Mary was able to successfully defend her thesis and that the extraordinary situation that we face was not able to hold her back.
There was, however, a tinge of sadness that Mary was not able to defend and celebrate in person in front of her family, friends, peers and mentors. That celebration will no doubt take place, and we look forward to welcoming Mary back to Maastricht later in the year to have that celebration.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU / H.Pijpers; M.Kaltenberg; J.Waidler