Coronavirus outbreak has had a huge impact not only on our health but on all spheres of our life: from social relationship to the way we travel or work. The pandemic has also changed the PhD working process and, especially, how the thesis are being defended. Coronavirus brought us the online thesis defense.

At Geosciences Barcelona (GEO3BCN-CSIC) there are more than ten Ph.D. students who have been working on their project amid the pandemic. Some of them were able to successfully defend their thesis online, others have recently arrived at the institute and others have found ways to keep working on their research in these times.

Mario Benavente is one of the GEO3BCN Ph.D. students. His thesis is focused on the paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental reconstructions from lacustrine sediments from Azores Islands. Benavente arrived at Geosciences Barcelona in December 2018.

“I had to postpone a scheduled stay abroad in a research centre because of the pandemic”, explains Benavente. Despite this setback, Benavente admits that the way he works has improved thanks to home working: “I get less distracted and I find easier to create an appropriate working environment at home. Scheduling online meetings with my thesis supervisors has made the communication with them more frequent and fruitful”. “Avoiding commuting every day is something that avoids the stress involved", adds Benavente.

Olaya Dorado, researcher at the institute since October 2019, agrees with Benavente. According to the researcher, teleworking saves her commuting time, and improves concentration and conciliation: “I am from Madrid so working from home has allowed me to spend more time with my family than under normal conditions”.

Dorado's Ph.D. is focused on the petrological and geochemical characterization of the Teide-Pico Viejo volcanic field, in Tenerife. The pandemic has delayed Dorado's experimental work: "The lockdown began recently after I finished my field campaign in Tenerife, and I was not able to analyze the samples as I had planned”.

"This forced me to adapt to the new situation and find other ways to take advantage of the time", says Olaya Dorado, whose investigation is about six months behind schedule. “The consequences of all those months will continue to affect my work, but in general I think that the situation will improve. I hope it will not affect my future field campaigns and the stay in the United States planned for this year”, she says.

Newcomers

Erandi Tzayan Rodríguez-Pérez landed in Barcelona just one month before the lockdown. Erandi is studying the plant communities of the past in two volcanoes from central Mexico. Rodríguez-Pérez has had to change her research plans: “It’s been a great challenge to work in a new place under such circumstances”.

“Part of my work must be conducted in México using different research facilities in that country. I have had to reschedule my flights more than once, with all the stress involved”, she explains. "I still don’t know if I would be able to go to Mexico to sample and do the laboratory work required”, says Rodríguez-Pérez.

Travel limitations also affect Olivia Lozano, who joined GEO3BCN-CSIC last September to work on the TAITRANS project. "I’m worried because I don’t know if my scheduled research stays abroad will be possible, so let's cross our fingers", she says. In her case, she thinks that the situation is not directly affecting the preparation of her Ph.D. project on a day-to-day basis since she is carrying it out at the University of Salamanca.

On the other hand, Erandi Rodríguez-Pérez admits that "new realities, such as home working and online classes and congresses, are possibly taking on more and more force. However, she stresses the benefits of face-to-face work: "Personal interaction is also an important factor in our daily work and generates a sense of well-being and ownership”.

The online end of a stage

Mireia Peral got recently her doctoral degree at Geosciences Barcelona. Her Ph.D. thesis lecture was scheduled for March 20th but it has to be postponed. After waiting for several months because of the lockdown, Peral finally defended her work online on June 3rd, 2020. "I would have preferred to defend my thesis in a more traditional way. However, I am satisfied and happy with the final result”, she says. "Adapt to changes is part of life and the turning point that we all lived on March 14 has forced many of us to follow new paths”, she adds.

“At first, and for a short time, I was relieved that I had more time to better prepare for the thesis defense, but as the days passed the uncertainty grew and the wait to put an end to the work done for more than four-years”, says Peral.

In the middle of the second wave of Coronavirus, at the end of November, Ajay Kumar defended his thesis online. For Kumar, the situation generated by COVID-19 has helped him to know better himself. “We usually spend so much time working that we don't prioritize other things. The lockdown has taught me to be more disciplined with food, with work and taking care of myself both physically and psychologically”, Kumar says.

The thesis supervisors’ role

The thesis supervisors have also had to adapt to the Covid times. According to the researcher Joan Martí, Olaya Dorado's thesis supervisor, the pandemic “has set radical changes since we cannot have direct and continuous contact with our Ph.D. students, but we have adapted to the new situation as better as we could”.

"The main drawback in our case was the fieldwork. We were unable to access external laboratories and services, which in some cases have been completely closed or reopened with long delays”, says Martí.

Santiago Giralt, Mario Benavente's Ph.D. thesis tutor, agrees with Martí, and considers that the impossibility of traveling is one of the most important issues faced by Ph.D. students. Likewise, Giralt identifies “the loss of immediacy” as one of the main obstacles when contacting them. “The initial lockdown in March made us rethink the tutoring work and it was difficult to find the correct way at the beginning. Furthermore, the lockdown made us modify the work plan”, he believes.

On his part, Valentí Rull, Erandi Rodríguez-Pérez's thesis supervisor, does not find the benefits of teleworking. Rull admits that he faced lockdown "with resignation and making the most with the available resources”. Rull points out that for the moment there have been no changes in the thesis he directs.

Despite the drawbacks, the three researchers are satisfied with the work of their Ph.D. students. "All the thesis that I am supervising are progressing well", says Martí. In addition, he points out the advantages of homeworking: "There are some aspects that teleworking has facilitated, such as access to digital information and online interaction with other researchers and colleagues, which were previously unexploited".

Regarding the future of online presentations, the thesis supervisors consider that it has positive aspects, especially to avoid the difficulties in traveling. "It allows you to attend many of the presentations that, otherwise and with the usual amount of work, you would not be able to attend”, highlights Giralt.

Despite this, the human warmth and personal support of live thesis dissertations have vanished in the online presentations. In this sense, Martí says that “defending your thesis in front of an audience is always more rewarding. You have the support of close people and your colleagues, and you have direct contact with the members of the tribunal, which is always positive for the Ph.D.".

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