Defending a doctoral degree dissertation is stressful enough—it’s the final opportunity to prove to the faculty committee that you have a firm grasp on your field of study and are pushing the frontier of research—but Jatia Wrighten’s oral defense of her doctoral dissertation in political science at the Schar School was scheduled to fall amid the global COVID-19 lockdown. Her presentation would be virtual, not in person.
“I have actually never presented virtually,” she said a day before the defense. “I am a bit nervous that the format of the defense will take away from this defining moment.”
It also meant three children—ages 12, 9, and 6—now doing school at the same dining room table she uses for her research and writing, would be upstairs in a bedroom with her husband, Andrew, a Prince William County policeman who works from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., the so-called midnight shift.
To top it off, the family is packing up to sell their Woodbridge, Va., house for a move to Richmond where Wrighten is to start teaching in the fall at Virginia Commonwealth University. She will be a tenure-track assistant professor in American Government and African American Politics. A PhD is required for the position.
Like the graduation of the Class of 2020, degree defenses continue in a virtual format. Despite the sudden change in format, the Schar School reports no delays or cancellations, according to Beth Eck Olchowski, assistant dean for program management.
“We have had six defenses in the last four weeks—four dissertations and two [PhD] proposals,” she said. “We offer practice runs with students and faculty to avoid technical problems and undue nerves on the defense day. Student Services moderates and addresses technology issues so that the faculty and candidate can focus on the substance of the defense.”
More defenses are scheduled in coming weeks.
For Wrighten, the doctoral degree is more than a required credential for her career, it is a milestone for her family.
“I have stayed steadfast and confident knowing that at the end of this journey I would defend in front of my family and a supportive committee,” she said. “I would be hooded in front of the entire university [at commencement] with my grandparents, who lived through segregation, sitting in the audience, beaming with pride. It is hard to come to grips with the actual reality of this moment. It is nothing like I imagined.”
Things were different a day after the oral defense: Wrighten defended her dissertation, entitled Who Runs the World? An Examination of Black Women and Leadership in State Legislatures, and received a few notes from her faculty committee. (Read about her study.)
Once she fine tunes the work, she must submit it by May 8 to the George Mason University Libraries and the Schar School. PhD Student Services at the Schar School works with Wrighten to make sure her requirements are completed.
“I’m glad my defense wasn’t cancelled or postponed,” Wrighten said. “I’m excited to be done.”
One benefit of having a virtual defense was, surprisingly, a larger audience, especially at 10 a.m. on a Friday when most people, typically, would have been at work.
“Seeing others watching, even though I couldn’t see their faces, was very encouraging,” she said. “That was a very cool advantage.”