Most PhD students are currently choosing to defer their PhD defence ceremonies until 1 September at the earliest. According to Marleen van Kester, the university’s beadle, some 15 per cent are opting for an online defence ceremony. Two weeks ago they were able to defend their theses in a virtually empty room, with the examining board making an online appearance through Zoom. Now the entire ceremony is conducted online. “As far as that’s concerned, we are acting in accordance with the rules issued by RIVM [the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment – ed.], and we don’t want people to travel unnecessarily. The chairpersons often do make their way here, as they tend to be older people (like myself, actually) who are less experienced at remote working.” Van Kester says most PhD students who opt for an online ceremony live abroad. “Either that or they need their doctorates now, for a job or for a grant application.”

On 27 March, Alexandra Rusu became the first PhD student in Rotterdam to have a defence that was conducted completely online, from her home in Brussels. Four days after the ceremony she has returned to work (she is an economist with the European Commission) and is very busy. “Thankfully, I did have the weekend off, but right now is not a good time to take a few days off.”

Feeling stressed out for longer than necessary

Rusu was awarded a PhD for a dissertation entitled ‘Essays in Public Economics’. Postponing the ceremony was not an option for her. “I was really looking forward to getting the whole thing over and done with and closing this chapter of my life. So the fact that I wasn’t able to have a proper ceremony didn’t really matter to me. I didn’t want to have to wait several more months and feel stressed out any longer than I had to. I guess it probably sounds irrational, but I was afraid something might go wrong, despite the fact that I had submitted the whole thing.”

She felt she’d spent quite enough time writing the dissertation, as well. “I don’t even want to think about how long I worked on it. Much longer than I had expected and hoped. If I had completed the whole thing in three years, I wouldn’t have minded waiting a few more months. But I’d been waiting for so long that I was all out of patience. So I was really glad we were able to do things this way.”

Hora est

Alexandra Rusu met haar proefschrift

Rusu praises Erasmus University, which she says is quite open-minded and flexible with regard to online PhD defences, compared with other universities. “Given the situation, this is great for people who don’t want to wait. Both the university and my supervisor went all out to make sure my defence went off without a hitch, and it did.”

She says the main drawback was the fact that it was harder to interact with her audience. “It was a bit strange looking at two monitors while keeping an eye on the time, too. That took a bit of coordination. Other than that, though, it was just like a regular ceremony, with an explanation of the subject for laypersons and 45 minutes’ worth of questions. When the hour was up, the registrar entered to shout ‘hora est’. I’m not sure I actually heard her, but I definitely saw her! I was quite afraid beforehand that something might go wrong, so we even had an emergency plan in place in case there would be a power outage. But the technology worked just great.”

Van Kester said they owed that to the Media Support Centre. “The department really is ahead of its time. They gave me the most wonderful support. I’m 60, so I didn’t grow up with this type of technology. I had to get used to it myself, which was a lot of hard work, but I do enjoy it and find it educational. I actually expect there will be benefits we will keep using once this period is over, such as working with Zoom more often with examiners who are abroad, which isn’t allowed under the current rules.”

No baggy jumpers allowed

The media support centre also ensures that there are live streams for the PhD students’ friends, family and colleagues. “We do that to ensure that the defence ceremonies remain public, but we don’t post the links on the website, because that’s too much of a privacy issue,” says the registrar. Rusu loved the fact that her family was able to watch the whole thing. “It made me feel very safe and surrounded by my loved ones. We actually had a really good time! Another thing I thought was really cute was the fact that several of my examiners were wearing their gowns, while the rest were all wearing suits, as far as I could tell. My paranymphs were dressed very nicely, as well. It made me feel quite special that they’d made such an effort for me, despite the fact that they were at home.”

Van Kester: “We don’t require the examiners to wear their gowns, because the gowns are here and we don’t want them to have to travel to come and get them. But we do ask everyone to dress up nicely. So no baggy jumpers allowed.” Rusu herself had already bought an outfit to wear during the ceremony. “So I didn’t let the coronavirus stop me from wearing my new dress!”

And was it party time afterwards? “Not the way I had in mind. But I promised everyone that I’ll throw a real party once this is all over. My family in Romania were better prepared than I was. They had champagne. We had ordered a pizza, but unfortunately, it was cold and disappointing. We ended up heating up a frozen pizza, and because I’d been looking forward to it for so long, it did end up feeling quite festive.”