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PhD Defenses around the World: A Zoom defense from Indonesia to New Zealand

Today, I have invited Dr. Annisa Sidi to talk about her digital PhD defense. Annisa Sidi did her PhD thesis on national identity and multiculturalism in Indonesia at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. She is part of Indonesia’s diplomatic corps and has resumed her work after submitting her PhD thesis. She also holds an MA in International Relations and International Organisation from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands.

On 1 April 2020, I defended my PhD thesis on Zoom. Unlike perhaps thousands of other PhD candidates who now have to defend their theses virtually because of COVID-19, my thesis defense had been planned to take place virtually since about a year ago. It became clear to my supervisors and myself that I would not be able to finish and submit my thesis to allow for enough time for the defense to take place before my scholarship and student visa expired (I am Indonesian and did my PhD in New Zealand. It is too expensive for me to travel back to New Zealand on my own funds just for the defense).

While I was saddened by the situation, I had enough time to come to terms with it. I kept telling myself that I would have the comfort of my own living room for the viva, and that I could blame poor internet connections if things go bad (I did not do this. In fact, I found a hotel with high-speed in-room internet connection because the internet at my own place could be unreliable).

In any case, even if I had the funds to go to New Zealand, I wouldn’t have been able to, because of COVID-19. And if I did go to New Zealand, the viva would still take place via Zoom due to lockdown policies in place. So what was left for me was to make the best out of the situation.

Naturally, I was nervous about the whole process. My convener told me that because of New Zealand’s lockdown policy, she would have to convene my viva from her home instead of the university’s video conferencing suites, where IT support was always available. She said that this would be a first for her, even though she had convened virtual meetings before from the university premises. I was also nervous about my examiners. Would they be able to make it? What if they mistook the meeting time? What if I overslept? (The viva was scheduled for 3am local time for me.)

As the date drew nearer, I received an email from my convener with an invitation link for my defense on Zoom. It was a private meeting, as is custom at my university. This situation was a relief for me, because I have heard of Zoombombing, which is apparently a new pastime for really mean people. I made sure I had the link saved in multiple places. My convener also passed along some questions from my examiners, so I could prepare ahead of time. There could be more questions on the day, she told me. However, the guiding questions were a good indicator of the direction of the upcoming discussions.

On the d-day, I got online about fifteen minutes before the meeting time, and logged in to Zoom about ten minutes prior. To my delight, after I entered the virtual meeting room, I was greeted by an IT support person from the university! She said she would be there with us for the entire meeting to help with any issues that may arise. This is a blessing for me, and really good practice: I believe this should be the standard for every virtual defense. About two minutes after, my supervisor got online, and we were able to catch up quickly. Afterwards, my convener came online, too, as did my three examiners, one by one. When everyone was there, the convenor started by letting us introduce ourselves to each other, and then gave the floor to me to deliver my thesis presentation.

I was given 15 minutes to deliver a presentation on my thesis. The examiners had already read it, so I didn’t have to explain all the details: just my main arguments, as well as my reasons for wanting to do research on my chosen topic (it was national identity and multiculturalism in Indonesia) and my plans for after the PhD. Then the examiners asked me their main questions and we went on with discussions.

My convener did her job exceptionally well. She ensured me that she was there to make sure the defense went smoothly, made sure everyone spoke in turns, and that they spoke slowly and clearly. Her attitude really made me feel that I was in a safe space. After about 90 minutes of discussions, the convener said that my supervisor and I would be kicked out of the meeting for a few minutes while they deliberated on the results. It was the longest ten minutes of my life. To my delight, I was back in the meeting room again and the convener announced that everyone agreed to accept my thesis with minor editorial revisions. There was round of congratulations, a round of thank yous, a round of goodbyes, and just like that, everyone went offline one by one. Thankfully, there were no issues with IT.

For everyone else planning to do a virtual defense, I guess the main takeaway is to make sure you have a convener who knows how to do their job, and if possible, to have an IT support person throughout the meeting. These are extraordinary times, but we will remember our virtual defense forever. Also, I’m thankful for technology!

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