20 May 2020
Zoom in on Defense
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Peter Scoblic dressed for success
for his Zoom dissertation defense.

This isn’t how it was supposed to be. But then again, what is in the age of COVID-19? We’re all adapting and adjusting. Bending and flexing. What seemed unimaginable a few months ago now seems understandable. Even logical. Such is the case for 19 doctoral students at Harvard Business School who learned on March 23 that they would make history by becoming the first class ever to defend their dissertations via video conferencing.

For the uninitiated, the term “dissertation defense” may conjure up images of a Senate hearing. The student on one side of the table, the faculty committee on the other, firing questions, probing for weaknesses, going in for the kill. Rest assured; it is no such thing. Under more normal circumstances, the dissertation defense is a welcome moment in the life of a doctoral student. It marks the culmination of years of hard scholarly work. The dogged pursuit of new answers to new questions. The final rite of passage to receive “licentia docendi”—license to teach. Candidates invite colleagues, friends, and family to bear witness. Yes, the faculty challenge the ideas, but all in the spirit of collegiality. If all goes according to plan, where once stood a student, now stands a doctor—and the champagne flows.

Doctoral candidate Peter Scoblic was envisioning such an experience up until a few weeks before his scheduled dissertation, which is ironic as his dissertation is about strategic foresight and “envisioning multiple futures so you can adapt better.” Yet in April, Peter found himself dressed in a suit and tie in the dining room of his home in Washington, D.C., addressing his dissertation committee via Zoom.

“It was less magnificent than I imagined,” deadpans Scoblic. “I was concerned about not being able to read the room but it actually worked far better than I thought it would.”

Michelle Shell's dissertation committee throws her a virtual high five.

Following his two-hour presentation, the faculty committee ducked into a private breakout room, leaving Scoblic and partner, Maura, to await the verdict. A few minutes later, Doctor Scoblic was able to celebrate, albeit from a sage social distance from his committee.

“I missed being able to celebrate the moment with the faculty and bringing together the people who have contributed to the process,” he said. “I wasn’t able to communicate my enthusiasm as much as I would have liked.”

Candidate Michelle Shell shares those feelings. Shell studies the emotions and anxieties of customers; her dissertation was about self-service concepts in which customers interface through technology. She was about to become a living example of her work. Adding to the anxiety of pivoting to a Zoom defense, Shell moved from Milton to Dover in the days leading up to the all-important meeting.

“I was in my new living room, literally surrounded by unpacked boxes,” says Shell with a wry laugh.

Early on in the presentation, Shell was finding it a challenge to read the room.

“I couldn’t see their faces because I was sharing my screen and my slides were up. It’s hard to feed off the crowd in that situation.”

And then, one of the committee members offered to go off of mute and just that little bit of interaction changed the whole dynamic. Shell invited the committee to ask questions as she went along and before long, the two hours was up and off went the committee to determine her fate.

Turns out that they were mostly figuring how to put a virtual background on their Zoom interface so that when they reappeared, each had a “Congratulations, Doctor!!” backdrop. A relieved and elated Shell, who joins the faculty of the Questrom School of Business at Boston University next fall, wished they were all together.

Still, she found the experience mostly positive. “It felt more intimate. I could really see each person when they spoke because they were highlighted,” she said. “There were fewer distractions than there might be in a conference room and I felt like the small number of people were really interested in what I was saying.”

So how did this all come about? Well, oddly enough, the idea originated in Wuhan, China, where doctoral student Grace Gu journeyed to celebrate Chinese New Year with her family.

“When I left Boston in January, I had no idea just how serious the situation was,” said Gu, Zooming in from her parents’ living room in Wuhan. “Within four or five days of my arrival, the city went on lockdown and my flight home was canceled. I was so concerned about how I would defend my dissertation in April.”

Then she had a Zoom meeting with Jen Mucciarone, managing director of Doctoral Programs, who, in a single sentence, wiped away all of Grace’s concerns: “Worst case, we’ll just do it online.”

“Up until then we had never allowed a defense to be done virtually. At times, we have flown committee members in from other parts of the country to attend defenses,” said David Scharfstein, senior associate dean for Doctoral Programs. “There was a lot of discussion about how we were going to do this, because most of us hadn’t used Zoom and we didn’t even know if it would work in China.”

As the situation in the U.S. became more dire, and universities, including Harvard, began to shutting down campuses, the choice to allow virtual defenses seemed more and more logical.

“We set a date that beginning the first Monday of spring break, all dissertations would be done remotely,” said Mucciarone. “The timing was right because, about then we started hearing that our students didn’t feel comfortable coming to campus, so they readily accepted the transition.”

Gu, by the way, passed with flying colors. Upon her return to Boston she will join the faculty of the Carroll School of Management at Boston College.

Between them, Scharfstein and Mucciarone have participated in dozens of dissertation defenses over the years and they are pleasantly surprised at how well Zoom has worked. They heap praise on the candidates and committee members for embracing the approach. Asked if this could change the way we think about the process going forward, the pair agreed that it is still preferable to have in-person defenses, just as we would prefer to have in-person classes. But Zoom-like tools could facilitate the advising process and make it easier to include committee members from other parts of the world.

Until then, the bubbly will have to remain corked.

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