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Mason PhD students adapt to coronavirus pandemic by moving dissertation defenses into the virtual realm

April 15, 2020   /   by Anna Stolley Persky

Seventeen people used Zoom to attend Trish Kelshaw's presentation on improving methodology for assessing concussions in children. Photo provided.

Carrie Klein had long imagined defending her dissertation, the final step in the process of earning a PhD in education through Higher Education Program in George Mason University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. She pictured making her presentation in a conference room before a three-person panel, surrounded by family and friends. It would be an intimate setting, and then they would all go to the Oh George! restaurant in Fairfax to presumably celebrate.

The coronavirus pandemic completely disrupted her plans.

Klein’s dissertation defense, held on March 16, looked nothing like she thought it would, due to the need for social distancing. Instead, Klein defended her dissertation on campus, with just her advisor, husband and son in the same room. The panel members, friends and the rest of her family interacted with her via Webex.

“At first I was frustrated and really bummed,” Klein said. “And then I was like, I just need to realize that this is reality right now, and that at least people could still participate. I decided it would be a good experience regardless, and it was.”

Klein is one of 18 Mason doctoral candidates in education defending dissertations this semester. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the students, professors and administrators have had to move the entire process online.

“The way we’ve continued proves the resilience and innovation of Mason and its students,” said Margret Hjalmarson, director of Mason’s PhD program in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). “We weren’t going to let this situation hold us back or impede our students’ progress.”

Carrie Klein defended her PhD in Education dissertation on campus, with just her advisor, husband and son in the same room. The panel members, friends and the rest of her family interacted with her via Webex. Photo provided.

Generally, a dissertation represents the culmination of a doctoral candidate’s work. At CEHD, dissertation defenses are held in conference rooms and are “pretty warm and friendly,” said Hjalmarson. This semester, six doctoral candidates were able to defend their dissertations in person before Mason closed its campuses. Eleven candidates defended their dissertations online, and the final candidate is scheduled for later in April. So far, all the candidates will be awarded PhDs.

Trish Kelshaw, who received her PhD in education, said 17 people used Zoom to attend her March 30 presentation on improving methodology for assessing concussions in children. She did her presentation from her basement.

“It was pretty smooth,” Kelshaw said. “The only thing to adjust to was feeling professional and ready to do this when you are in the basement of your own home.”

El Brown, who received her PhD in early childhood education, said the move to defending her dissertation online had some surprising results.

“Initially I was reticent because it was not what I had anticipated,” Brown said. “Then I was watching the news and realizing how quickly everything was changing.”

Brown posted her initial disappointment about the situation on Facebook. A wide variety of Facebook friends then asked to attend online. To her surprise, 38 people watched her discuss her research into how turning points shape the life trajectories of military mothers parenting young children with disabilities.

“All kinds of stakeholders in early education attended, along with my family and friends,” Brown said. “It led to job offers.”

Klein also ended up with more people attending because the process was online. About 30 people watched via Webex as Klein discussed her dissertation topic—big data analytics in higher education.

“It was different and a little weird,” Klein said. “But it was still a celebratory event.”