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Ph.D. Student Erica Mitchell Holds iSchool’s First Virtual Dissertation Defense

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Erica Mitchell had spent years preparing for this moment. Years of juggling work and her studies, writing, researching, and practice had all come down to the final days before she would present her Ph.D. dissertation defense before a panel of faculty experts.

Then, the coronavirus began to spread throughout the US. Campuses began to shut down. Meetings and coursework were all moved to virtual platforms. Erica faced a challenge she had not prepared for: presenting her entire dissertation defense online.

Not one to shy from a challenge, she began to plan how she would shift to this new mode. She knew that she’d need to have contingencies in place to address any problems with technology.

Erica Mitchell
Erica Mitchell

“My first step was to come up with three different video conferencing options. First, I set up a Microsoft Teams room on Syracuse’s server. I set up another on my work server, and my advisor offered his Zoom room as the third option,” Mitchell said. The night before her defense, she tested out her options and found Zoom’s video quality was better. Many traditional dissertation defenses have their own onsite IT support. But in her situation, she had to solve technology problems on her own.

And solve she did. The night before her defense, her internet router failed, and while she was able to get it running again, she prepared a back-up modem and router in case.

By the time she started her defense, she was definitely in uncharted territory. 

“One of the harder things was not being able to get body language feedback. I backed up from the screen. So I could have it more like a presentation at a podium. But the video thumbnails were so small I couldn’t see the committee very well,” she said.

Yet, even with the unique challenges Mitchell successfully defended her dissertation. This makes her the first-ever Ph.D. candidate in the iSchool to virtually defend her dissertation.

Her ability to adapt to this change has garnered respect from faculty and colleagues alike. “Imagine that, having to change your mode of defense, just days beforehand, to something never been done before?” said Steve Sawyer, director of the iSchool’s doctoral programs.

Erica’s  dissertation is entitled “Cybersecurity @ Home: The Effect of Decentralized User Perceptions of Personal Security Performance on Household IoT Security Intentions.” After graduation, she’ll begin working as a research scientist at West Point, where she hopes to continue her research in critical infrastructure research and the Internet of Things that she began at the iSchool.

Feature image: Erica Mitchell defends her dissertation from home in a Zoom conference call with iSchool faculty and colleagues. Screenshot courtesy of Prof. Martha Garcia-Murillo.

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