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In light of the COVID-19 public health crisis, Harvard’s Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology has waived the public defense requirement for obtaining a Ph.D. — a major milestone of doctoral programs.
The OEB Graduate Program announced that the department decided to waive the requirement in an email to defending Ph.D. students March 11. Under the new policy, students can receive their Ph.D. if they turn in their dissertation and privately defend their work to their advisory committee via the online platform Zoom.
OEB Department Chair Elena M. Kramer wrote in an email that students also have the option to give a public defense over Zoom or to return to campus in the future to give a public seminar once University regulations surrounding the virus change.
“So far, these options seem to be sufficient to give students the flexibility they want,” Kramer wrote.
Michael M. Desai, the OEB Director of Graduate Studies, said the decision was “fairly straightforward” because many students had already completed almost all of their degree requirements. The department felt it was “not practical” to delay their graduation, he added.
Given that both Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 and the City of Cambridge declared a public health emergency over the COVID-19 outbreak — including issuing a stay-at-home advisory — Desai also said department leaders felt they had “no choice” but to waive the public defense requirement.
“Like so many of the things that are happening with the current global health situation, it’s unfortunate that we can’t do [defenses] in person at the moment,” Desai said. “We recognize that, of course, that is a disappointment to many of the students.”
Ph.D. candidate in OEB Avantika “Ava” Mainieri, whose public defense was canceled, said the presentation is typically a “big source of pride” for graduate students.
“It’s a nice way to show not only yourself and your committee, but your friends, your family, everyone, your department, ‘Look what I’ve been doing for the past six years. Yes, I missed all of these social outings for this reason. Let me show you all of my hard work,’” Mainieri said.
Mainieri also said she, like most members of her OEB cohort, has decided not to conduct a Zoom defense because of the platform’s limitations.
“It’s not a fun platform. It’s not fun to watch or to be a viewer or to be a presenter,” Mainieri said. “We want to show our friends and family, and they’re not going to be that enthused to watch an hour-long Zoom presentation. No one wants that.”
Other graduate students have chosen to extend their time at Harvard in order to conduct a defense. Ph.D. candidate in OEB Meghan Blumstein said she previously planned to graduate in May and begin a postdoctoral program. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, however, she decided to continue at Harvard until August and receive her degree in November in order to continue receiving funding and health care benefits from the University.
“I think ultimately I will end up doing [my defense] on Zoom, but obviously, it doesn’t have quite the same feeling as having a room full of people watching your talk,” Blumstein said.
Despite the current restrictions, Desai said the department will welcome graduate students back to campus to give public presentations once the coronavirus pandemic subsides.
“We obviously can’t do it in person right now. It’s not allowed,” Desai said. “But we will try to offer students the opportunity to do it as soon as it becomes allowed.”
And although some graduate students might prefer a public defense, Mainieri said she and her peers understand the severity of the public health crisis.
“As a scientist, I understand the reasoning behind quarantining or social isolation,” Mainieri said. “But of course, everyone’s a little selfish, and we’re all little bummed that we don’t get to do it.”
—Staff writer Callia A. Chuang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @calliaachuang.
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