In spite of the circumstances, the day of the public examination was great!

Marleen Wierenga is one of the eight doctoral candidates who defended their dissertation remotely at the School of Business this spring.
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‘A public examination is always a public examination. It does not become any easier even if you organise it remotely,’ says Marleen Wierenga.
Marleen Wierenga's remote dissertation defence. Also in the image is the custos, Professor Minna Halme.
People could join Marleen Wierenga's defence via Zoom application. Marleen herself defended in the Board Room of the School of Business, where custos, Professor Minna Halme was present as well.

In her doctoral dissertation, Marleen Wierenga, MSc (Econ & BusAdmin), examined innovative entrepreneurship among the poor in India. Because of the coronavirus crisis, even the public examinations of doctoral dissertations at Aalto University were organised remotely this spring. For the School of Business, this meant eight public examinations. Below, Marleen Wierenga shares her experiences of the remote defence that she suddenly had to organise.

‘I am extremely grateful for the possibility to organise the public examination in spite of the circumstances and for the fact that the opponent was from Sweden. The time difference was therefore not a problem, either. During my doctoral studies, I sometimes dreamt about the day I would be defending my dissertation. Professors often recalled it as the best day of their life. My own day became different.’

‘Having to postpone the public examination to the future would have been a bigger disruption to my professional and personal life. When the coronavirus situation escalated in the spring and everyone at the university was urged to work remotely, I rather soon started to plan how to organise a remote defence. Of course, this was not a pleasant set-up, but it is the story that I will be recalling later about the spring of coronavirus.’

Suspense in the air, as appropriate

‘I think the major difference between a remote and a so-called normal public examination is that there is no live audience. Of course, my remote defence did have an audience, but it was not so visible as I was concentrating on the discussion with the opponent. A list of names and the total number of participants was displayed on the right side of my computer screen. Afterwards, I heard that the highest number of participants following my dissertation had been 75, but I don’t know who they were. This is a pity because I would have also liked to thank them personally afterwards.’

‘I felt very confident all week, I slept well and the morning before the public examination went quite fast. Even though the conditions were different from normal and I didn't see the audience, it was just as nervous. It is certainly an experience all doctoral candidates share.’

‘My public defence took place in late spring so people already had a lot of experience of remote meetings and remote work. I think everyone benefitted from it. The audience remembered to keep their microphones and cameras off.’

Participants from all over the world

‘A big difference compared with defending the dissertation in a so-called normal situation was that now I did not have to worry about organising the coffee event or the post-doctoral party, which I have heard are quite large projects in addition to preparing for the public examination.’

‘I also believe that more people followed the public examination because it was held remotely. Relatives and friends who live abroad and for whom it could have been difficult to travel were also able to see my public examination.’

‘The post-defence coffee event was also held “online”. I was delighted that so many people stayed online to raise their glasses. It was really wonderful and memorable. At the same time, it felt a little weird. People would normally congratulate you more privately, but now we were in a “group Zoom” of more than 40 people. A large number of people wrote in the chat and many people also said something. I enjoyed it very much. I even received a lot of congratulations messages afterwards. I think that, under normal circumstances, people would have said to me directly what they now wrote in their messages.’

‘Normally, there would be a post-doctoral party in the evening and you would invite people who are close to you and have in some way been involved in the dissertation process. Instead of having the party, I met up with a small group of friends. It was lovely to hear their feelings about the public examination. Of course, they had heard about my work-related trips and research papers along the way, but now they could form a comprehensive picture of my work. I don’t know if it would have been possible to spend so much time with friends on a normal day of the public examination.’

Post-doctoral party still ahead

‘It seems that I had to do a lot of extra in the public examination to maintain the same solemn atmosphere that you feel in a “live” public examination. On the one hand, the event was a Zoom meeting, similar to the ones we had had all spring, and on the other hand, it was a public examination in which I stood up when the protocol of the public examination required it.’

‘I would have also liked to hear feedback and thoughts from colleagues, but there was very little of it now.’

‘I still intend to organise the post-doctoral party, but it will probably be smaller than what I was planning first. It may not feel the same in other ways, either, as some time will have passed from the public examination by then and I will already have graduated officially as Doctor of Business and Administration and will have started a new project. But the post-doctoral party is still an important part of the whole doctoral dissertation process.’

‘As a tip to those who may defend their dissertation remotely in the future I would like to say that, at least myself, I liked having IT support close by. You should outsource the technological side to an outsider as much as you can so that taking care of it will not disturb your preparing for the actual defence of your dissertation. I would also like to say is that a public examination is always a public examination. It does not become any easier even if you organise it remotely.’

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