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Defending Her Dissertation, at a Social Distance

Amanda Grittner, immediately following her successful online dissertation defense.
Amanda Grittner, immediately following her successful online dissertation defense.

Defending a dissertation is always stressful. But when the threat of the COVID-19 virus forced economics Ph.D. candidate Amanda Grittner to attempt it remotely this past Monday, she was unfazed. 

And in doing so, Grittner became the first Duke economics student to complete her dissertation defense entirely online.

She realizes it’s a sign of how scholars are already adapting on campus to the new environment brought on as the campus establishes best practices for staying safe in the pandemic.

“One of my committee members was already scheduled to participate remotely, so I had a Zoom call set up more than a month ago,” Grittner said in an interview this week. “Since I wanted to do my part in reducing the spread of COVID-19, I reached out to the Graduate School via our department coordinator last Monday and asked about logistics for dissertation defenses. I was also prepared to do the defense completely remotely. 

“Once the Graduate School gave permission to have defenses completely virtually on Thursday afternoon, I was able to react quickly. I informed my committee that we would do the defense as a video conference and helped committee members to set up and test the software if necessary.”

It turned out the logistics weren’t overly. challenging. Grittner used the video conferencing functions to share her slides, just as she would if she were presenting it in person. The video panel showed all dissertation committee members, and when the committee wanted to talk among themselves, she simply left the video meeting.  They contacted her by email when it was time for her to return.

Her dissertation was on “Essays in Labor Economics: Effects of Immigration Policy on Vulnerable Populations,” and the committee chair was professor Marjorie McElroy.

Grittner said she thanked the dissertation committee, her department faculty and the Graduate School for helping to make this happen.

“I hope everyone uses this option to do their milestone exams (dissertation, thesis and prospectus defenses) and helps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our community at Duke, Durham and beyond,” she said.

Grittner shared some tips for other students who will inevitably find themselves in the same situation:

  • Make sure ahead of time that every committee members has set up Zoom (or any other software you use). If necessary, help them setting it up through a phone call. I also did a test call with some members of my committee.
  • I shared my slides on Zoom by using the share feature while also having everyone on video on the side panel. When my committee wanted me to leave to discuss in the beginning and at the end, I just left the Zoom conversation. One of my committee members then emailed me when they were done and I could join back.
  • Make sure that your internet can handle the video call. If you share your home with roommates or family members, consider asking them to stay offline or at least not use services that take up a lot of bandwidth, such as streaming Netflix or doing video calls themselves.
  • I still dressed up as I would have for my in-person defense. I feel that helps you put you into the right mindset – and it feels a bit more official and celebratory, even if you are in your living room.
  • At the beginning of the call, make sure everyone can see and hear everything they need to. Encourage people to speak up if they have a technical issue, e.g. can’t hear you well.