The Dissertation Defense Goes Digital as Social Distancing Becomes the Norm

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The COVID-19 pandemic has altered lives and disrupted everything from daily routines to rites of passage, like doctoral dissertation defenses. This week, Carolyn Hanesworth became one of the first of many Graduate Center doctoral candidates to defend her dissertation, “Mission Adrift: Managerialism in Higher Education and the Impact on Graduate Social Work Education,” digitally.

Hanesworth, now an alumna of The Graduate Center’s Ph.D. Program in Social Welfare, and her adviser, Professor Mimi Abramovitz (GC/Hunter; Social Welfare/Social Work) filled us in (remotely) on the experience.

Here is Hanesworth’s take:

The Graduate Center: What was your first reaction when, because of the coronavirus pandemic, CUNY halted in-person classes and meetings in the days prior to your dissertation defense? How did you feel when you realized that you’d be defending your dissertation remotely?

Hanesworth: I actually have not been having in-person meetings or classes for a while because I have been working on my dissertation and communicating with my committee over the phone. When I was scheduled for a Zoom defense, I was actually just relieved to know that the meeting would not be canceled. I was excited to do it over Zoom because I felt I would be less nervous speaking to my committee from home.

GC: What was it like for you to defend your dissertation via Zoom?

Hanesworth: I was still very nervous, but my committee put me at ease right away. I appreciated being able to be at home while I made last-minute notes and got myself mentally prepared. The process was incredibly smooth. I defended from my dining room table, which is the same spot where I spent countless hours writing the dissertation. This gave me more confidence because I was in my "zone.”

GC: What advice do you have for other students who will be defending their dissertations remotely?

Hanesworth: Enjoy it! I think there are many benefits to it. Definitely have a Zoom call as a test run.

And Professor Abramovitz’s perspective:

The Graduate Center: What was your first reaction when, because of the coronavirus pandemic, CUNY halted in-person classes in the days prior to Carolyn’s dissertation defense? How did you feel when you realized that you’d be setting up a remote dissertation defense?

Abramovitz: Most generally, the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting anxieties and fears have been upsetting to everyone. The halting of in-person classes, while understandably necessary, has caused major upheavals for students and faculty throughout CUNY.

While we all would have far preferred an in-person meeting and discussion with Carolyn for her defense, it was easier than expected to arrange for the digital version. First, it involved a small number of people with easy computer access. Second, the Social Welfare doctoral program, chaired by Dr. Harriet Goodman, was well prepared. It has had prior experience including long-distance committee members in dissertation defenses Therefore, we were all somewhat familiar with Skype and Zoom meetings. The situation was made even easier given that such digital meetings have also become the norm for other types of off-campus meetings.

GC: What was it like for you and the team to set up and participate in a dissertation defense on Zoom? How did it compare to in-person defenses?

Abramovitz: The defense, was a real team effort. Everyone pitched in, and so it went extremely well. We had good connections, good visuals, and good audio. Everyone, including Carolyn, was well-prepared and relaxed. The Zoom platform was hosted by Dr. Vicki Lens, a committee member, without a hitch. We had an interesting and robust discussion. At the end of two hours, we all agreed that all went very well and, surprisingly, maybe even better than some in-person defenses.
We love that Dr. Dan Herman, the other committee member, took a group photo documenting that we all survived the experience with flying colors. And best of all the committee approved Carolyn’s dissertation with no need for revisions!

GC: What advice do you have for fellow faculty members who will be setting up and participating in remote dissertation defenses?

Abramovitz: We hope this story eases at least some of the concerns that doctoral faculty may have about navigating dissertation defenses in this hopefully short-lived pandemic.

Submitted on: MAR 19, 2020

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