I finished my PhD on sea-ice dynamics in Nunavik, an Inuit territory in the Canadian Arctic, during the pandemic. My defence took place on 30 October 2020, over Zoom.
Adrenaline can wipe away your memories and feelings, and I wanted something to keep it real and tangible.So I asked my friends in the 60-person audience to create memes — a visual inside joke, given specific context with text — to help my performance live on. They delivered gloriously. The highlights included a re-enactment of my exasperation when someone unmuted themselves 15 minutes into my presentation (it was my 5-year-old niece, so all is forgiven).
After a couple of hours, they had shared more than 100 memes, and I had been recommended for a doctoral degree in water sciences.
Ahead of the occasion, I used a private Facebook event to post the Zoom meeting link and explain to my non-academic loved ones what to expect of a PhD defence. I also posted pictures and anecdotes of experiences I had during my PhD, such as the time I booked my fieldwork flight for the wrong month and then sprained my ankle on the way to the airport.
The Facebook event served as a virtual gathering place for members of the audience, as they endured a 3-hour long discussion on sea ice and satellite imagery. PhD defences are technical, and lay audience members often find them hard to understand and get bored. Our friends and family attend our defences because they want to celebrate our achievement, not to pick up deep knowledge on a subject.
Friends and family could jot down jokes in the Facebook feed or screen-grab slides they found dense and incomprehensible. They adapted well-known memes to the event. In the “Joey’s delayed reaction” meme, based on a scene from the television programme Friends, the character’s eyes slowly widen as he realizes the dire implications of his situation. My friend created an image of a relaxed Joey contemplating photos of my study site, followed by a startled Joey staring at complicated graphs.
Meme-sharing allowed even baffled audience members to remain engaged throughout the event. Across disciplines and backgrounds, they were united in their encounter with an ultra-specific thesis.
In addition, meme-sharing was a way for the audience to engage not only with the content I presented, but also with me as an individual. Many of the memes captured fleeting exasperation at a jury member’s question, or other quirks of the presentation.
After the jury announced I had succeeded in defending my thesis, we used the Zoom meeting to host a virtual reception, because your defence should be as much a cause for celebration as it is an exam. The post-defence party is one of the rare occasions when the people PhD candidates look up to, such as advisers and mentors, shower them with praise. In a job where we’re continuously defending our work and gracefully receiving feedback from audiences, reviewers and editors, getting this positive, no-need-to-be-constructive feedback is a treat.
During my party, a friend shared his screen and scrolled through the memes. Crying with laughter over impossibly specific jokes about my research, alongside my friends and family, is the brightest memory I have of my defence.
All of this would, of course, be easier in the absence of a pandemic, when you could book a meal, a pub trip or a soirée with your laboratory mates and family to celebrate your hard work. But during the pandemic, when interactions are limited to Zoom, I think it’s even more important to find ways to celebrate.
We can take advantage of the virtual environment to improve PhD defences. It makes it possible for friends and family from all over the planet to join us. During my defence, those who needed to had the flexibility to combine it with another activity, such as working or parenting. As someone who has also attended virtual defences, I know that it can be better for the audience: we’re not captive at the back of a room, we can engage with others during proceedings, and we can Google things we don’t understand.
A lot has been written about the unhealthy stress levels that accompany careers in academia, and the pandemic might make this better or worse in the long run. Turning my PhD defence into something fun, thanks to the circumstances of the pandemic, was something I enjoyed and deserved. I heartily recommend it.
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