What it’s like to defend your Ph.D. during a pandemic

‘How different it would be to see the crinkled eyes of your parents light up in pride, to take in the fact that your degree is the culmination of all the sacrifices they’ve made for you’

On April 1, 2020, after eight years, two concussions, a supervisor who moved to another university, a pause for a summer internship and several existential crises about what I was doing with my life, I successfully defended my Ph.D. dissertation in Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources Management at the University of Toronto. I will now be known as Dr. Roderique, the first person to earn a doctorate in my entire family. My dad jokingly asked if I would go to medical school now, but after three post-graduate degrees (I have an M.A. in criminology and a law degree in addition to my Ph.D.), I think I can safely say that I am done. 

I had been a bit worried when the pandemic hit and classes were cancelled at the university. Would I still defend in person? Would it be my supervisor and I in a small room, with everyone else attending virtually? (The other people on my defence committee included two other members of my supervisory committee, an external reviewer from York University, and two additional members from my department.) As more and more of our society was shut down, I was afraid that I would remain paused, so close to the goal I had been chasing for so long. I was afraid that if my defence was cancelled, I would become a Ph.D. dropout two weeks from completion. 

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Ultimately, my defence proceeded as scheduled via Zoom. Preparation was undoubtedly harder than it would have been but for the pandemic—I found it difficult to concentrate, was continually sucked into the news vortex and frequently became distracted with making sure I had enough supplies and my parents and sisters were okay. I had to work in dribs and drabs of productivity, wiped of my law-honed ability to write for 12-plus hours a day. At the same time, I also had to take on more paid work as a teaching assistant, as my eight upcoming speaking engagements—my primary source of income—were all cancelled, a casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Still, much of the defence process was normal. I familiarized myself with the intricacies of the newest version of PowerPoint, and hemmed and hawed over colour schemes and choosing the right icons. I practiced with my friends over Zoom, an unexpected opportunity to share with them my research into how motherhood and fatherhood differentially impact workplace social networks and relationships. I fretted about what to wear, eventually settling on my lucky blouse from my favourite Canadian designers, Horses Atelier (buy local!), and a pair of pink pants.  I edited and revised my 20-minute presentation, and then edited and revised it some more. I used some of my law school studying techniques, creating an outline with possible questions. 

There were some novelties. My defence had to be protected via password to avoid “Zoom bombing,” whereby anonymous individuals enter random room IDs, scrawl foul messages and take over the screens with explicit images. While presenting, I could only see my own face in a small box in the upper right corner, because my presentation took up the entire screen. In some ways, this made things easierI couldn’t see or worry about anyone’s reactions. I just stared straight at my slides, feeling comfort in the familiar words, words that I had written and rewritten for almost a year. I was nervous, but the lack of visual distraction made things much less nerve-wracking.  

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The rest of the defence passed in a blur. I know there were questions, and I answered them—well, I thought. I switched the video from my face to the faces of my committee, superimposed over my slides and could see nods as I responded. Before I knew it, it was 11:45—time for me to exit the Zoom meeting so my committee to deliberate my fate. Waiting was torturous, and the process was made more difficult by my committee’s need to send virtual voting forms to the graduate studies committee chair. 

When I re-entered the Zoom meeting, I was greeted with the words “Congratulations, Dr. Roderique.” I had done it. There were cheers and laughter, a brief moment of joy in a world that needs some right now. I took a picture with my committee, holding up their virtual faces to my own. 

I was glad my defence was able to happen despite the pandemic, but I also felt a profound sense of loss. That I couldn’t hug and high-five the people on my committee. That the champagne my supervisor had squirrelled away in her office for this moment was now just sitting there—and will sit there—for months, at the very least. That I was unable to share this moment with those who mean the most to me—my parents, my sisters, my best friends. The Twitter likes, while lovely, just weren’t a substitute for the touch of those I care about the most. 

I didn’t realize, before COVID-19, how much those physical connections mean at times like this. How different it is to get a congratulations in person, to actually see the crinkled eyes of your parents light up in pride, to feel the warmth of their embrace, to take in, viscerally, the fact that your degree is, in a way the culmination of all the sacrifices they have made in their lives for you. I didn’t know how much I wanted to have a gathering of my friends, high-fiving and selfie-taking and celebrating this milestone the way I have happily celebrated theirs—graduations, book launches, babies, weddings—until I couldn’t. I know there are so many things to mourn and to be sad for right now, but I think it’s okay to be sad about this, too. For the time being, I will stare at pictures of bottles of champagne and wait my turn to celebrate properly. And you’re all invited to the party. 

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