Graduate students ‘Zoom’ to their own defense

Editor’s note: Visit the official Western COVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

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Kateryna Metersky understands being flexible.

During her six years of working on her PhD in the Faculty of Health Sciences, the registered nurse had already balanced her studies and research responsibilities with teaching, nursing, and family life raising three children and now on maternity leave.

Despite the challenges, however, Metersky was finally ready to defend her dissertation earlier this month – when everything changed.

“As news started spreading of COVID arriving in Canada, or more notably in my hometown of Toronto, I did not initially think anything of it,” she said. Then schools closed. Businesses closed. Universities went online. Life pressed paused. “That is when it really hit me that I may not be able to defend as planned.”

Metersky was just one of dozens of PhD candidates ready to defend their dissertations at the moment COVID-19 struck. For each, the realities of the situation started to mount quickly. There were so many questions.

“The situation was challenging for me,” Metersky said. “If I had to defend in person, how would I leave my three kids at home with no school or daycare and travel from Toronto to London? How would this look from a two-metre social distancing requirement? Would all my examiners be able to make it still? How would I be able to prepare for the defense while having to work from home, since I’m also a nursing instructor taking care of three young kids, and having my husband work and study from home as well?”

It was a challenge unlike anything the university had ever seen, yet one the School of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (SGPS) moved to address almost immediately by providing a unique virtual venue to cap graduate students’ university careers.

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Margaret McGlynn, Acting Associate Vice-Provost in SGPS, began looking into the idea of video conferencing about a month ago when a few international students who returned home between submitting and defending their PhD dissertation were not able to return to campus. No big deal, she thought at the time.

Within a few short weeks, however, the COVID-19 pandemic grew. Video conferencing, she realized, would become the new reality.

“It was really important to have everyone on board. Everyone from graduate coordinators to examiners to chairs were learning to use Zoom – in a hurry and under difficult circumstances,” said McGlynn, noting most of the graduate students seemed comfortable with the technology.

With the help of Matt Dumouchel, Manager (Information Systems), the process to go virtual began.

As preparations were made, coordinators were constantly in touch with committees and students, ensuring they knew how plans were evolving. While no one objected to the idea, there were concerns – from worries about broadband connections to comfort with the technology.

“But everyone was keen to make sure that students who were so very close to the finish line shouldn’t be delayed by something completely out of their control. Everyone was very supportive,” McGlynn said.

PhD defenses went online on March 19.

This wasn’t entirely new ground for SGPS, McGlynn said. But it was certainly rare.

In the last year, SGPS used some sort of remote access in 46 defenses, mostly to accommodate an external examiner who could not attend in person. They have already conducted 10 completely virtual defenses in just this past week or so.

“Some programs chose to pause thesis exams until they were sure the process maintained our standards and didn’t disadvantage students in any way,” McGlynn said.

“But we expect to see everyone coming online. We want students to know that they should continue to submit when their theses are done. We’ll do them all remotely until we have the option to be back in person.”

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Kateryna Metersky smiling outside

Special to Western NewsKateryna Metersky, PhD’20 (Nursing), was among a group of recent PhD candidates in the last week who defended their dissertations via video conferencing after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the opportunity to defend in person.

When defense day came – March 24 – Metersky still had some work to do.

She spent the hours leading up to the event cleaning her small two-bedroom apartment, especially moving toys and playthings out of the camera’s view. With her kids safely tucked away with her husband, she was ready – even down to wardrobe considerations.

“I always knew I was going to wear the same blouse that helped me be successful during my proposal exam. It is the only other time I wore it, and I consider it lucky. Although the examiners would only see the top half of my outfit, I still wanted to get dressed as I would for the in-person exam, so I wore my dress pants. However, I did pair them up with my fuzzy socks and house slippers.”

Nursing professor Carole Orchard was Metersky’s supervisor. She said the virtual defense process flowed well, despite no ‘public presentation’ portion with questions from the audience.

There were small challenges, like managing transitions when the student exits the conference call while the examiners confer occurred. But there were also small benefits. “There was a greater interaction amongst the examiners to connect with each other than normally occurs,” Orchard said.

“In all honestly, I actually really enjoyed my defense,” Metersky said. “I think it went even better than it would in person. It is hard to say if it was easier or more difficult; I do not have a previous defense to compare it to. But I will say that it was probably very similar in terms of nerves and anxiety as my in-person proposal defense.”

The hardest part, Orchard said, was not being there to offer a big congratulatory hug to her student.

“The elation within the candidate is the wonderful culmination of such an exam,” she said. “While we were able to congratulate her, she had to return to her isolated home environment with her three young sons. We plan to have a special dinner session to celebrate her achievement when we can.”

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While in-person defenses will return once concerns around COVID-19 have passed, the past few and coming days offer a learning opportunity for the SGPS team.

“People have been pleasantly surprised by how well the process works. There are some parts we’ll keep,” McGlynn said, citing online comment forms. “But the one moment where you really feel the difference is when you tell the student that they’ve passed and congratulate them – there are no handshakes, no hugs, and no Goblet of Knowledge.

“It’s a small price to pay in the circumstances, but we’re all looking forward to being able to celebrate together in person again.”