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PhD candidate defends dissertation remotely—from her closet—in historic UMSI first

Monday, 03/23/2020

On a Tuesday morning during an increasingly strange time, Carol Moser walked into her bedroom closet a PhD candidate and walked out two hours later with a doctorate in information. 

Amid unprecedented disruption of normalcy wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, Moser accomplished a historic first for UMSI as she successfully defended her PhD dissertation in a 100% virtual event.

“The initial plan was to fly back to Michigan, be there for two or three days, defend at Rackham in one of their beautiful conference rooms, have everyone attend and then have a big celebration after,” said Moser, who recently moved to Raleigh, NC with her husband and two young children. 

But when Dean Finholt announced a schoolwide movement to online classes and a ban on gatherings less than a week before her dissertation defense, Moser and her advisors knew they had to take a fully remote approach to the event. 

“The first feeling was a lot of uncertainty — how is this going to happen, what steps do I need to take to plan to make sure it's successful,” Moser said. She recalibrated her presentation to account for the quirks of addressing an invisible audience over BlueJeans, eliminating calls for participation and adjusting expectations around visual cues like body language and eye contact. 

One key issue remained.

“I was very worried about where I was going to present from,” Moser said. “Children are very unpredictable. I have a four-year-old and an almost-two-year-old, and they're home … they're a little stir-crazy, they're a little louder than normal. 

“… as I was practicing my slides, I could hear every little fight and exciting moment happening out there, so I decided we needed to find a better solution — and the closet in the master bedroom was the most isolated, quiet spot where they most likely wouldn't come looking for me.”

Moser’s colleagues and friends were buzzing with good humor about the setting of her dissertation defense before her event (including her advisor Dr. Sarita Schoenebeck, who tweeted about it just before Moser went live). But Moser herself had a bit of apprehension. 

I think my first feeling was, ‘I hope that I'm not diminishing this event by doing it in my closet,’” Moser said. “It is, in my mind ... a very momentous thing, and you're acknowledging ... the work of many people, including my committee members, so I was hoping that it wasn't going to diminish it.”

“But I also understood we're all in this together, and everyone would understand, and that this was the best solution to give a good presentation.” 

The dissertation, “Impulse Buying: Designing for Self Control with E-Commerce,” covered work for the last several years of Moser’s PhD. She said the motivation behind the work was to help consumers who wish to curb their online impulse buying. She studied design features used by online retailers to encourage impulsivity to identify potential interventions to curb impulsive buying. 

With colleagues sounding off their support in the live chat, Moser presented her research and navigated what her committee called a “model” Q&A session. When her committee gleefully passed Moser, her advisor Paul Resnick, dressed in full regalia, presented a bottle of champagne and promised the group would share it once they could safely come together and celebrate in person. 

“After the presentation, that day was very strange because there were mixed emotions of first elation, you're so happy that you've passed your dissertation,” said Moser. 

“And then also oscillating between that and some anxiety because things are uncertain out there and we're all worried about loved ones and neighbors and our communities. So a very strange day to be oscillating between such different emotions."

In the midst of the post-defense tumult, though, Moser said the virtual event did have one cheerful benefit: the ability to read through her friends’ and colleagues’ comments. 

“Some very, very kind attendees screen-captured everything and sent it to me, and there were so many words of encouragement and congratulations,” she said. “It was like a nice, warm feeling at the end to be able to read all those comments from my colleagues.”


* * * 


As the number of coronavirus cases continues to increase in Michigan, it’s likely that many more doctoral candidates at UMSI, U-M and institutions everywhere will also have to defend their dissertations virtually. 

Moser encourages doctoral candidates in similar positions to connect with their personal and professional networks for help. “If there's a way to reach out to others, the university, advisors or committee members ... be especially mindful of that,” said Moser. “There will be unique challenges.

“This turned out wonderfully for me, but I don't want that to also paint the picture that this is an easy thing and that other students should have as easy a time. It only went well because I had so much support.

“In terms of practical advice, test your connection beforehand, find a spot where you feel comfortable — even if it's a closet. And then just trust in all your work and your practice and your preparation. It will get you through.”

-UMSI News Service