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Dissertation Defenses at HSE University Move Online

Dissertation Defenses at HSE University Move Online

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For the past month, all dissertation defenses at HSE have been conducted online. However, this format is far from new: over the past two years, more than 80% of defenses at HSE University were conducted with at least one committee member attending remotely.

The transfer of defenses to online formats at HSE has been quick and painless particularly thanks to the fact that, unlike most Russian universities, online defenses were already permitted by HSE regulations. Back in 2018, after the university received the right to independently establish degree conferment procedures, a regulatory framework was created for conducting dissertation defenses online.

Elena Kobzar, Department Head, Office of Doctoral Studies, HSE University

Elena Kobzar, Department Head, Office of Doctoral Studies, HSE University

Moving any activity to an online format is a laborious task, and a dissertation defense is no exception. We created an infrastructure for this, tested various applications, and provided training for dissertation committee managers. Over the past two years, more than 80% of dissertation defenses were conducted with at least one committee member attending remotely. Now, since March 27, all HSE dissertation defenses have been conducted remotely entirely. Public viewership of the online broadcast is facilitated by links, which are provided by request.

The defense procedure, in which the dissertation is not discussed by a dissertation council of twenty to thirty people, but by a committee of five members, each of whom is a specialist on the topic of the dissertation, turned out to be more convenient in the conditions of self-isolation, says Elena Kobzar. It is much easier to organize and assemble a dissertation committee than a dissertation council. However, dissertation council meetings can also be conducted online at HSE—this is necessary in order to confirm the results of several defenses at once.

The first applicant to defend his dissertation entirely online was Alexey Rybalka, a Research Fellow at the HSE Economic Process Analysis and Forecasting Laboratory. ‘All of the well-known requirements gave me a healthy dose of adrenaline during my defense,’ says Alexey. ‘Indeed, back in January, the defense was scheduled for March 27—as it turned out, the last business day before the start of the non-working period announced by the president. Events unfolded rapidly; up until the last days we didn’t know exactly what format the defense would take, so we were diligently preparing various online options.’

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The defense ultimately took place on Zoom with the committee members joining in from Moscow, Yekaterinburg, St. Petersburg, and Utrecht (Netherlands). ‘I was very fortunate with my committee; each professor took the time to pre-test the format,’ says Alexey. ‘In Zoom’s demo-conference mode a few days before the defense, a number of us comprehensively tested all the necessary functions: connecting to the conference, the audio, the video, a screen demonstration with defense presentation, and the recording function. Of course, I prefer to speak in person, when you can feel and see the emotions of the audience and convey your thoughts in a more compelling manner. However, the committee chair, Tatyana Dolgopyatova, moderated the event so deftly that I did not feel a significant difference and enjoyed the defense.’

Konstantin Loginov, a Research Assistant at the HSE Laboratory of Algebraic Geometry and its Applications, also did not initially plan on defending his dissertation online. A member of his committee who works abroad, Italian professor Alessio Corti of Imperial College London, was even planning on coming to Moscow so he could participate in the defense in person. However, at the last moment, the situation changed, and Konstantin assumed that the defense would be postponed indefinitely. Moving the event online using Zoom was good news for him.

Konstantin defended his dissertation from his family’s country home in the Tver Region. The only snag they encountered, he recalls, is that ‘at one point my home wi-fi started to get a bit dodgy, so I had to quickly switch to a cellular connection.’ As Konstantin explains, the defense was carried out according to standard regulations and lasted about an hour. ‘I talked about my findings and showed my slides; the committee members read reviews and asked questions; I answered them, and my supervisor Yuri Prokhorov said a few words about the dissertation.’

A significant drawback to doing one’s defense remotely, Konstantin says, is the lack of informal face-to-face interaction, which usually happens afterwards. However, the celebratory ‘reception’ nevertheless took place, which his colleagues, who wished to congratulate him on the successful defense, organized remotely.

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