Streaming scholarship: Defending a thesis digitally during a pandemic

- March 30, 2020

A screen capture from Ashrafi, set to defend her thesis. (Provided images)
A screen capture from Ashrafi, set to defend her thesis. (Provided images)

Defending a PhD thesis is stressful. It’s arguably the most important presentation of a student’s academic career. The summation of years of study. There is a lot on the line. Then add COVID-19.

You would think it would shake her confidence, but Dal Interdisciplinary PhD student Mehrnaz Ashrafi was undaunted.

“I decided not to let a global pandemic stop me from completing my PhD,” says Ashrafi.

A few days before Ashrafi was set to travel to Halifax to defend her PhD thesis, she received word that, due to social distancing protocols put in place to counteract the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, all scheduled in-person PhD defences at Dalhousie were to be conducted remotely.

The IDPhD student, whose research focuses on corporate sustainability, says she was used to teleconference presentations, having conducted a significant amount of her research remotely while being based in Vancouver. Nevertheless, she was a little apprehensive. This was the last and most important hurdle she needed to clear on the long journey toward her degree.

From a distance

“We were going to have eight people joining from Halifax, Vancouver and Seattle,” Ashrafi says. “I was concerned that having multiple people involved, background noise and other distractions could directly impact the quality of my presentation. However, my stress was more related to the possibility of any disruption or technology failure in online communications.”

Ashrafi says she thought of potential obstacles, and planned ways to avoid them. She was also happy to see that all participants were provided clear instructions on the remote defence process from the Faculty of Graduate Studies. “By the date, I was fairly confident we were going to have a successful remote defence.”

While Ashrafi notes a small technological hiccup — Adobe Connect had to be used for both audio and video due to some problems with the originally planned teleconferencing system — the three-hour defence otherwise ran smoothly.


“Once things got settled, I did not think of it as presenting in a virtual operational environment,” she says. “Without realizing the moment, I was already into a deeply intellectual conversation with the members of my defence committee. This was very exciting, self-satisfying and rewarding.”

Soon after the process was complete, Ashrafi received word of her successful defence via email from her supervisor. Aside from representing a happy ending to a four-and-a-half-year PhD journey, the successful defence was the first one in Dalhousie’s history to be conducted entirely by remote methods.
Adding to the pressure of preparing for a PhD defence was the all-encompassing uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I experienced and successfully managed a wide variety of challenges during my PhD journey,” Ashrafi says. “I would never have imagined that I would need to defend my PhD thesis amid a global pandemic. Like many people across the globe, I have been experiencing strong emotional distress.

Tuning out the noise

“During my PhD studies, I learned to be adaptive, creative and optimistic in the face of adversity. So, I decided not to let a global pandemic stop me from completing my PhD.”

Ashrafi credited a strong support system for helping her along the way, and thanks her academic communities at Dalhousie and the University of British Columbia, as well as her defence committee for being “so accommodating” during the remote defence process.

She also expressed special thanks to her family, who are currently in Iran and couldn’t attend her defence, for their life-long inspiration and support. “I am very much thankful to my amazing parents and awesome brother who are my strongest motivation to pursue my dreams and never give up.”

Ashrafi has a message for future remote defenders: “For those who may be experiencing the same sense of overwhelming pressure because of current world circumstances, you should remind yourself that this is an opportunity, through a remote platform, to demonstrate your ability to manage uncertainties.

“Once you come through with shining colours under duress, you will be proud of yourself!”

Mehrnaz Ashrafi defended her PhD thesis, Corporate Sustainability in Maritime Ports, on Tuesday, March 24th. Her complete acknowledgements section can be found here.


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