University of Tennessee

Haslam Ph.D. Students Shine in Online Dissertation Defenses

May 29, 2020

Defending a dissertation is an unforgettable milestone for any Ph.D. candidate. For those who defended theirs this spring, COVID-19 social distancing measures made the experience particularly memorable.

Justin Yan was among the first Haslam College of Business students to do a completely virtual defense. Yan earned his Ph.D. in Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Organizations after successfully defending his dissertation, “Exploring the Unknown Requires Leveraging Uncertainty: Two Essays On a Real Options Perspective On the Pattern and Decision Making of Entrepreneurial Internationalization,” via Zoom on March 30.

“My advisor [David Williams] and l planned ahead and did a practice defense through Zoom,” Yan said. “During the defense day, we arranged the main defense on Zoom for 90 minutes, including 40 minutes of presentation and 50 minutes of Q & A. Then the committee deliberated in another Zoom meeting and announced the news afterward.”

Following his defense, Yan and his family commemorated the occasion with a special dinner at home. Yan, who will begin his academic career as an assistant professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship at Baylor University this fall, hopes to have the chance for an in-person celebration at some point.

“I definitely want to celebrate with my advisor and committee later this year, maybe during conferences,” he said. “Although there is a little bit of disappointment for not having the moment in person, the satisfaction of hearing the good news made up for it.”

Tara Mohrfeld, director of academic and student services for graduate business programs in Haslam, also felt some initial disappointment when she learned defenses would be held online.

“The defense is a culmination of so much hard work, dedication and perseverance, and you want to share it with the people who helped you get to that day,” said Mohrfeld, who earned her Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration in the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences. “However, I was able to be in the room with my advisor, Dorian McCoy, who was instrumental throughout my Ph.D. and dissertation process.”

On March 27, Mohrfeld and McCoy socially distanced in a classroom in the Claxton Education Building, where Mohrfeld successfully defended her dissertation, “Journey To Academic Leadership: Experiences Of Women Business Deans,” to the rest of her committee members and guests via Zoom. Mohrfeld points out that an online defense has certain advantages over an in-person one.

“The silver lining of having done my defense virtually is that I have a recording of it,” she said. “I was able to invite others to join in that experience that may not otherwise have been there, and I could share it–via the recording–with others.”

After Mohrfeld’s defense, before she departed to receive balloons and flowers in her office and celebrate with friends and family via Zoom, McCoy invited the committee and guests to make some final comments. 

“It was a very special moment, one I will never forget, and one I will literally be able to look back on forever,” Mohrfeld said. “It was a blessing more than a disappointment.”