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PhD Defense around the World: A digital defense during a global pandemic

Today, I am hosting Adelina Genova to share her experience of defending her PhD during COVID-19. A recent graduate of Politecnico di Milano, Adelina is a bulging engineer heavily interested in renewable energy, data analysis and the intersection of these two in the building sector. You can find her on twitter as @Zmeyche, occasionally retweeting the funniest daily content and wondering if Academia can be changed from within.

When I expected my graduation, I didn’t imagine it as seamlessly endless string of emails with reassurances, requirements and instructions. It was supposed to be simple – come to the university grounds, wait up your presentation turn, present in front of the jury, while they’re going through the printed thesis copy, then wait till proclamation, put on a corona d’alloro on your head and grab a drink with friends and family.

As it turns out, a global pandemic doesn’t care much about one’s plans and when it hits the region of your university, it hits hard. And this is how, nearly a month before graduation date, we were notified our defences will be held in distance mode, thus absolving the graduates from the need to travel (and crossing borders in my case) and risk being infected or worse.

Here is the place to thank the staff of Politecnico di Milano that made all of this possible by putting in thought and countless hours of work to make not only graduation but also learning in distant mode possible. They really kept us informed on an almost everyday basis since the restrictive regulations in Lombardy region took place.

While regular defence would have commenced of providing the reviewer of the thesis a copy of it and presenting in front of a jury, the set up for the defence in distant mode required from the graduates to upload a list of documents online, including their presentation and a pdf of the thesis and providing the jury with a link to the folder in a channel specifically appointed for the discussions of the platoon of graduates presenting in front of this jury.

Where the face-to-face version is almost fool proof – presenting in person, having a physical copy of the thesis for the jury to take a look at and where even PC problems could be overcome, screen-to-screen needed additional precautions, manifesting in the form of having all the information already available for the jury in case internet connection crumbled or some sort of software problem occurred.

Few days before the day of the defence we were provided with a link to an online room channel on Teams, where we had to provide the links to theses information folders and, in case of being unfamiliar with the software, test its functionalities beforehand. Additionally, we could provide the link to the online discussion room to our closest relatives and friends so they could still be with us during graduation.

The thesis defence itself went as expected, e.g. went on and on and on and instead of presenting sometime around the initially scheduled time, I had to wait for my turn for another approximately 90 minutes. Fortunately, mine was the last presentation and after a brief discussion between the members of the jury in an adjacent channel and a short wait on graduates’ side, we were all declared dottori al Politectnico di Milano – graduates and from this moment on – alumni.

We were also promised a video recording of our thesis defense and an official gathering, once things get back to normal, to receive our diplomas and have the officials congratulate us in person instead of by prerecorded video in the University youtube channel. And while having a defense online isn’t the most ideal of circumstances, I am sure at least those of us with families, partners and friends few time zones away from Milan were happy to be able to share with them this moment live. Of course, in this digital era our graduation would have resulted in countless number of stories, pictures and videos shared online instantly even under normal circumstances, but this way we got to be responsible to our own health, to the one of others and simultaneously experience our success with the people we care about.

Probably none of this year’s cohort of graduates imagined their thesis defense being more of a solitary experience than a shared joy for their next milestone, yet here we are.

Isolated but not divided, separated but not alienated, apart and still together.

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