Duke Econ Celebrates First All-Remote Ph.D. Defense

Tuesday, March 17, 2020
A blonde woman sitting at a kitchen table with her computer

With all the uncertainty in the world right now, Ph.D. student Amanda Grittner wasn’t going to let COVID-19 get in the way of defending her dissertation, titled Essays in Labor Economics: Effects of Immigration Policy on Vulnerable Populations. On March 16, Grittner was the first-ever Duke Economics Ph.D. student to defend a dissertation remotely. “That day Duke cancelled classes I knew I had to find a way to do it all online,” said Grittner. She emailed the Graduate School to ask for guidance on online defenses, and went ahead and got in touch with her committee remotely. She was able to arrange for the defense to take place on the same date and time as it was originally scheduled. 

While in some Ph.D. defenses there may be a virtual component if a committee member isn’t on campus, Duke Econ has never had a fully-remote defense. Grittner made sure that everyone was set up with Zoom and knew how to use it. “I was mostly nervous about the technology and the internet,” she said. “But I think I was a little less nervous because I was at home.” She added that even though she still dressed up, she wore her slippers since no one could see her feet. 

Grittner said in a traditional, in-person defense, the candidate will leave the room while the committee discusses everything and decides if they have successfully defended. In this case, Grittner left the Zoom meeting and waited for an email from one of the committee members to let her back into the “room.” They then told her she had passed her defense and was now officially "Dr. Grittner." 

“It was a little anticlimactic because I was in my own living room,” Grittner laughed, “But I’m happy to share that this can totally be done online. I hope everyone does that to help reduce the spread of the virus.” 

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.