Digital doctoral thesis defences are here to stay

The other week, one of my doctoral students defended their thesis. Their opponent was from England but was stuck at their holiday home in France due to travel restrictions. The grading committee sat in Madrid, Paris and Stockholm, plus a reserve member in Luleå. Digital defences reduce travel and raise the quality.

The discussion and question session were excellent and interesting, very largely due to initiating questions from a suitably qualified opponent and grading committee and naturally, an intelligent doctoral student.

Several of the committee members had found it difficult to spare sufficient time other than for the actually public defence due to extensive education activities and numerous meetings right now towards the end of the semester. There was a large audience based in Europe and other parts of the world. There were no technical hitches and few have been reported on earlier such occasions.

This has not only raised the quality, but also reduced our environmental impact as travel to and from such public defences has been substantially reduced.

From initial concerns about possible IT system breakdowns and that the defence would not be perceived as being real, such worries have disappeared and the entire exercise is now seen as being a very positive experience. The respondent’s (alternatively the opponent’s) introductory summary of the thesis is very largely done in digital format as usual. The debate between the opponent and respondent also worked very well and can be spiced up with the active use of digital tools such as animated images, audio files, digital images and various digital background materials depending on the area the opponent wishes to concentrate on.

The question and answer session with the grading committee and audience also works really well. In order to keep the defence on subject and reduce the risk of other voices entering the frame during the summary and debate, and to ensure questions from the audience are asked one at a time, zoom webinars are recommended for the open public defence while a normal zoom meeting is enough for the closed grading committee meetings.

Digital thesis defences offer several advantages:
It is easier to find suitably qualified grading committee members and opponents as they only need to be present at the actual public defence without having to travel to and from Stockholm and spend the night there. A larger audience can attend which in itself improves the quality and offers a larger window to the outside world to showcase our brilliant research and third cycle education.

There is nothing in the Higher Education Act, Higher Education Ordinance  or the KTH guidelines for third cycle education to prevent one or several participants in a thesis defence from attending remotely.

These rules are also easy to satisfy for a digital defence. Since KTH switched to distance education in March, thesis defences at KTH have been digital.

Summer tip: During the spring, teachers, students, support personnel at the schools and KTH’s  administration and services and Research Support have all made monumental efforts to transit to distance learning and digital examinations. A big thank you for all your work. And make sure you have a well-earned and much-needed break during the holidays/summer break.