For Ph.D. students, virtual defenses brought together friends and family across the globe

May is a busy month for many Princeton graduate students as they defend their dissertations or hold final public orals as last steps in years of work toward a Ph.D. As doctoral candidates were preparing for this rite of passage this spring, they suddenly had to make plans to conduct their defenses virtually, when Princeton moved to online instruction on March 23 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Below, five students who have just received their doctorates describe that milestone moment.   

screenshot of a zoom seminar

Hannah Rubinton (middle at top) defended her dissertation in economics — and then celebrated — over Zoom from St. Louis.

Theresa Andrasfay working at her computer

Theresa Andrasfay

Theresa Andrasfay

Date: May 7, 2020

Title of dissertation: Health Across the Life Course"

Department: Office of Population Research

Degree received: Ph.D. in Demography (Population Studies)

Adviser: Noreen Goldman

The actual defense wasn’t too different from what I would have done on campus. I still got dressed up in a suit (albeit with slippers instead of uncomfortable flats), gave a slideshow overview of my dissertation, and answered a series of questions from my committee.

After the defense, the usual tradition is to invite all the professors, staff and students from the whole department to gather outside of the conference room for cake and a toast to the new Ph.D. I tried to recreate that experience at home by having a prosecco toast with my husband and baking cupcakes, but it felt a bit anticlimactic. Perhaps getting dressed up in the cap and gown and walking across my living room during the virtual hooding ceremony will feel more momentous [the virtual Hooding ceremony was held on May 29]. Even though it is disappointing to miss out on the usual milestones, I am sure I will never forget this experience of finishing my Ph.D. during this period of social distancing.

Megan Emmanuel

Megan Emmanuel

Megan Emmanuel

Date: May 8, 2020

Title of Dissertation: “New Biocatalytic Methods for Selective Radical Reactions”

Department: Chemistry

Degree Received: Ph.D. in Chemistry

Adviser: Todd Hyster

I always had mixed feelings about giving an in-person FPO (final public oral). I was excited for all that it represented as a rite of passage, but I also had some public speaking anxiety, so I was happy to give my talk from the comfort of my bedroom in my cozy slippers!

The virtual FPO also allowed me to share the moment with my family, which would have been almost impossible otherwise as an international student. My parents have been a huge source of support, so it meant a lot to us to be able to have this collective experience.

I’m in the first graduating class of Professor Todd Hyster’s lab, so we didn’t have any post-FPO traditions. My adviser sent champagne to the defending students, and the entire lab celebrated with a Zoom karaoke party, which I hope becomes the new tradition. The tremendous sense of community and family in my lab had been at the forefront of my entire Princeton career and definitely made the end of my time very special.

Orlando Reade sitting opposite a laptop computer

Orlando Reade

Orlando Reade

Date: May 13, 2020

Title of dissertation: “Being a Lover of the World: Lyric Poetry and Political Disaffection After the English Civil War”

Department: English

Degree received: Ph.D. in English

Advisers: Bradin Cormack, Nigel Smith, Susan Stewart

The dissertation defense was a very happy event for me. Although I was sad not to return to Princeton, it being virtual meant I was able to invite friends and family who otherwise would not have been able to attend. It felt like a chance to make a bridge between my work in Princeton and my home in England. I did the exam in the sitting room of my house in London. I wore a floral tie that belonged to my friend George Pitcher, a retired Princeton professor who died in 2018.

I placed my laptop on a stack of books by thinkers who have inspired me. They were my totems as I presented my project.

The professors were all very warm and kind in their responses. In a period of isolation, the event was a welcome moment of virtual being together. I celebrated the next weekend with a Zoom dance party.

Hannah Rubinton sits at her laptop with a child in a pink tutu on her lap

Hannah Rubinton

Hannah Rubinton

Date: May 1, 2020
Title of dissertation: “Essays on Spatial and Macroeconomics"
Department: Economics
Degree received: Ph.D. in Economics
Adviser: Richard Rogerson 

I defended from our new home in St. Louis, Missouri, which we had bought before the pandemic. We decided to move early once everything in New Jersey shut down. Only the morning of the defense did I realize that the 10 a.m. start time in Princeton would mean 9 a.m. for me and 7 a.m. for my poor adviser in Arizona.

Fortunately, everyone made it out of bed. Even a few friends from my cohort joined the Zoom call, and they were able to distract me while the professors were deliberating in their ‘breakout room’ for what felt like a long time. I almost didn’t hear my adviser telling me I passed over my 3 year-old questioning me about why Rapunzel has magic hair.

St. Louis is my hometown so later that evening my parents came over, and we had a celebratory Zoom call with the whole family. I’m disappointed that we [were not able] to participate in Reunions and Hooding this year. The silver lining: I won’t be 8 months pregnant, so I expect reunions to be a lot more fun when we attend next year.

Prashanth S. Venkataram

Prashanth S. Venkataram

Prashanth S. Venkataram

Date: May 1, 2020

Title of dissertation: “Scattering Theory in Fluctuational Electromagnetics at the Nanoscale: From Numerical Methods to Fundamental Limits”

Department: Electrical Engineering

Degree received: Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering

Adviser: Alejandro Rodriguez

It takes a village to raise a child, and to shape a Ph.D. graduate too.

In this context, there was a significant silver lining through conducting the final public oral, or FPO, remotely: I was able to have relatives from across North America and India, other friends across the U.S. and Asia, and collaborators from Europe all join my presentation, with everyone sharing the same experience (and for many of them, this was their first time seeing a Ph.D. defense).

It was wonderful to have the presence of so many people who have meant so much to me and my family. Later, I got to talk more with relatives, and that evening and the following two days, my parents and I met with several longtime family friends in the area — individually and at an appropriate physical distance — to share in the joy. It wasn't what I planned or hoped for, but I'll take it!