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  • Mary MacCarthy

Defending your Harvard Ph.D. thesis, on Zoom

Updated: May 6

Many of us are living our professional and personal lives on Zoom these days. From doctor's appointments to weddings and everything in between, it's all happening on our small screens. A few days ago, I was intrigued when I heard about a woman who'd experienced the culminating moment of her education on a Zoom meeting.

A cozy scene in Cambridge - but a far cry from a traditional setting for a Ph.D. defense!

Ronni Gura Sadovsky successfully defended her Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard University, from her living room - with her toddler playing in the next room.


For the non-academics: a doctoral defense is the formal presentation that officially marks the completion of 4-8 years, or even more, of intense study. The defense is the last formal "test" towards the doctorate degree being awarded; it's also a moment of celebration - generally more so than any formal cap-and-gown graduation ceremony.


Ronni kindly agreed to tell me about her experience.


HOW ARE YOU GETTING BY? When the pandemic started, Harvard was one of the first universities to send all students home. At that point, I got an email saying I could choose one of two formats for my defense: I could meet my committee [the small group of professors who evaluate the defense] in a large room that would allow for social distancing, or I could do it on Zoom.


I decided that it didn’t make sense to make my committee come in, in-person. And I figured, if it’s going to be a “Bizarro” defense anyway due to social distancing, it might as well be on Zoom.


There’s a ritual to the defense. The Ph.D. candidate presents their work, and then the committee goes to another room and meets on its own, then the committee meets just with the candidate. Finally everyone comes back together. On Zoom, the committee did set up two separate “rooms,” allowing us to somewhat follow that process, in a virtual way.


I went into the whole thing thinking, I don’t want this to be an imitation of an in-person defense. I want it to be different. So I changed the style a bit. I did a 15-minute presentation, followed by five minutes of "thank yous" to people who had worked with me. The "thank you" part is unusual, in my discipline.

Applause at the end of the defense - you can spot Ronni's daughter and partner in the bottom right corner

One of the grand theories of a doctoral defense is that you’re translating your work for the general public. But generally - in philosophy - it rarely turns out that way. The defense presentations end up being quite technical and narrow. But in the Zoom format, I really tried to make my lecture speak to a broad audience. One of my friends said that it felt a bit like “edu-tainment,” which I took as a compliment.


One reason this type of presentation seemed fitting was that, thanks to the online format, I got to invite a lot of people - many more people than would have fit in a seminar room. That was the major silver lining. I invited friends and family, people I’ve met at conferences over the years... Ninety-three people turned up!


The whole thing probably took three hours, but throughout it I wasn't really aware of the time.


At the end, when the committee announced I had passed, they asked everyone to turn off mute. Some people had their toddlers there, and my own daughter and partner came out from the room they'd been waiting in - and everyone congratulated me and made noise. Still, it was different from being together. It’s hard to do a big show of celebrating when there are no hugs, no champagne bottles popping open.


There was a bit of chatting, then it was all over.


In my home, we had ordered in Thai food, so my partner and daughter and I sat down for dinner together.


Over the past few days, it's hitting me that I'm a bit sad about having missed out on the "real" defense. I think about how many defenses I’ve attended in the past. Every time I would think, someday that will be me! It’s normally followed by dinner and drinks, and hours of dissecting things. It's a time to come down from the nervous energy, and to let that sense of completion sink in.


I feel there’s quite an irony in my story. My specialty, as a philosopher, is social norms and rituals. And yet, I'm taken aback to find myself so affected by the fact that the ritual I experienced was so drastically altered from the traditional protocols.


I should have been the first person to anticipate this! But actually, I've been caught off-guard.


I'm finding that I'm still reaching for the sense of completion - and I'm having to talk myself into feeling and recognizing that the process is over, that the milestone has been reached.


My daughter is two-and-a-half. Throughout the defense, she was one wall away from me - with my partner who was taking care of her. I had thought I’d spend the morning before the defense reviewing my presentation, but instead I spent that time setting up activities for my daughter: water beads, silicone containers, dolls.


We also set up a laptop in there for her to see the Zoom meeting. She does Zoom sessions with her daycare, so it's a familiar format to her. We had told her “Mommy is in circle time.” My partner says she listened in a bit, but mostly just played with her toys.


Since the defense, she's been calling me Dr. Mommy.

This was always going to be a huge transitional year for me. I went on the academic job market this year and was extremely lucky to get a job. I'll be teaching philosophy at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.


So I’ll be starting in academia soon, but what is academia going to be? It’s hard to imagine universities opening in fall.

Will we all be teaching all classes remotely? It’s one thing to start a semester teaching in a classroom, then transition to virtual classes. But to do the entire thing online is different. Especially for students starting out at university - it’s hard to imagine them not getting that in-person welcome to a college community.


The first course I'm slated to teach is social and political philosophy. I’ve decided to focus the course on the pandemic. For example - what business does the government have limiting our freedom? Also - it's a time when social norms are evolving rapidly. We’re no longer shaking hands, we’re standing six feet away from others, etc. Examining these changes and ideas, and more, will hopefully help the course feel relevant - especially if I have to teach the entire thing remotely, without the benefit of non-verbal and in-person communication with my students.

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