COVID19 and a New Vision of a PhD Defence Day:
A Graduate Student’s Perspective
I attended a PhD defence for the first time during my undergraduate studies at the University of Waterloo. As a newcomer to academia this was when I learned the basics of the doctoral defence proceedings. All lab members took the afternoon off to attend the event in a room a little fancier than where typical lab meetings were held and a big fuss was made over the fact that it was technically a public event despite the final audience being exclusively lab members. Then some people I had heard of but not met – the chair and university examiners – arrived and the event began with the candidate giving a talk that was shorter and more simplified than any explanation of their work I had ever heard before. So far so good.
Next was the question period. Watching examiners flip through the roughly 150-page thesis (meanwhile the longest thing I had written myself at this point was perhaps 20 pages) to pull a question referring to a single line of writing and observing the candidate produce an intelligent response was impressive once, and downright daunting to watch for a full two hours. However, the PhD candidate in question on this day would later be awarded the Governor General’s Gold Medal for scholastic achievement at the graduate level. Needless to say, the oral examination resulted in a successful pass and spurred an evening of celebration at a local pub.
Once I began graduate school for myself at UBC, I, like many other new graduate students, began to envision my own PhD defence. Looking forward to a day when I could be proud of a body of work, celebrate with friends, and get some closure on the graduate school experience is part of what got me through to the end. Doctoral students who conduct their research at the BC Cancer Research Centre often elect to hold their defence at UBC, providing a rare trip to campus for the entire lab that only heightens the occasion. After watching a lab mate successfully defend their PhD at UBC my vision was set; I would someday defend my PhD in the Thea Koerner House Examination Room #200, the same room where my supervisor Dr. Kevin Bennewith defended his PhD years earlier.
I received permission from my supervisory committee to write my thesis in January 2020, beginning the process that leads to the coveted defence date. I designed a tight timeline to hold my defence in July and wrote the majority of my thesis in February before traveling to Lisbon to attend a research conference. Other conferences in Europe at this point in 2020 were among the first to be cancelled due to COVID19 but my conference was set to continue as Portugal had zero confirmed cases as of late February. This decision held despite the large contingent of Italian researchers set to attend (Italy was already known to be hard hit by the virus and was the obvious epicentre of COVID19 in Europe). The conference opened on March 2nd and on that same day the first case of COVID19 was confirmed in Portugal. The event continued generally as normal although an Italian keynote speaker opened the meeting by suggesting that everyone “stay two metres away from anyone who looks or sounds Italian, just in case”. Returning from the conference in Lisbon marked the shift from pre-COVID19 life to the world of social distancing as the World Health Organization declared COVID19 a worldwide pandemic on March 12. Later that week, I sent Kevin the first complete version of my thesis.
Thankfully the COVID19 pandemic did not cause any delay in the review of my thesis by supervisory committee members or the selection of an external examiner, all despite the administrative burden placed upon professors to organize university and laboratory operations during the pandemic. Preparing for a virtual defense was much the same as preparing for a regular defense. The only difference was that my studying all took place from the couch at home rather than my desk at the BC Cancer Research Centre. Then it was time to schedule the long-awaited defence date. Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies mandated that all oral examinations be held virtually with no audience attendance as of March 19th. Thus, I would sign on to my virtual defence on July 8th from the 11th floor meeting room of the BC Cancer Research Centre, not from UBC.
On the big day I made my way to the meeting room with water, a snack, a copy of my thesis, a laptop for the Zoom call, and, in lieu of physical or virtual attendance, I found a good luck note from my wife in my laptop case. I finished setting up fifteen minutes prior to the start time and waited alone in the meeting room for the defence to begin. Having the room to myself prior to the defence turned out to be a positive. I was feeling relatively confident about the imminent exam and this way there was nobody else providing nervous energy in the room.
It felt a bit comical to briefly sign off of Zoom and sit alone in the meeting room for a couple minutes during the in camera session that decided the result of the exam, but with the decision of “pass” relayed to me I still felt the instant feeling of accomplishment.
Once everyone signed on we began in the same way as the first defence I attended had, with a short presentation describing only the surface of my research. Next, the questioning period. One-by-one examiners took turns flipping to specific pages of my thesis to pose questions for discussion. As it turns out, the specifics of a 150-page thesis are not difficult to discuss when you have been working on the project for six years. The examiners asked some big picture questions on the implications of my research and eventually ended the meeting. It felt a bit comical to briefly sign off of Zoom and sit alone in the meeting room for a couple minutes during the in camera session that decided the result of the exam, but with the decision of “pass” relayed to me I still felt the instant feeling of accomplishment. In what seemed to be only seconds later, Kevin appeared at the door (he had participated in the examination from his office) to congratulate me. It was all finally over.
After some reflection I think what I always wanted from my PhD defence was a day that I would never forget. With hopes that the world recovers from the COVID19 pandemic and that virtual defences are a rarity, I think I will always remember the day of my PhD defence in the summer of 2020.
My wife and lab mates all took the afternoon off of lab work or working from home to celebrate at a nearby park, while socially distancing of course. I would never have envisioned the location or circumstances of the defence or celebration, but the feeling of completion and being surrounded by friends was all the same. After some reflection I think what I always wanted from my PhD defence was a day that I would never forget. With hopes that the world recovers from the COVID19 pandemic and that virtual defences are a rarity, I think I will always remember the day of my PhD defence in the summer of 2020.