Navigating a Ph.D. Proposal Defense in the COVID-19 Pandemic

On April 22, 2020, I completed and passed my Ph.D. thesis proposal defense with the help and support of my thesis committee members. The main aim of my thesis proposal is to explore how to design gestural interaction techniques for multi-touch spherical displays to support collaborative learning among family groups in museums. As a part of my proposed work, I planned to build a multi-touch spherical display application for collaborative learning and further evaluate its effectiveness by conducting two in-lab studies with family groups. The timeline for my proposed research work was between Summer 2020 to Summer 2021, intending to graduate in Fall 2021. However, in these times of the COVID-19 pandemic and campus closures, as a Human-Centered Computing Ph.D. student, it was important for me to keep progressing towards my proposed research goals and timeline while keeping in mind the risks of conducting human-subject studies. Therefore, preparing for my proposal defense during this challenging landscape of the COVID-19 pandemic pushed me to give more thought into developing some alternative research plans prior to the proposal itself, to cover for a situation in which conducting user studies that involve face-to-face interactions with human subjects might not be safe for my participants. This idea of thinking about alternate research plans that will help me keep making progress in my research came up during a weekly meeting with my advisor. Usually, students might not have to think about alternative research plans for their proposals in other times. In this blog post, I will discuss and reflect on my experience related to preparing for my thesis proposal defense in these times of uncertainty. Keeping the constraints of running in-person user studies in mind, here are some of the questions I thought about when preparing alternate plans for my proposed research:

  • Can I use existing human-subjects’ data for my proposed research? As a first step to help me develop alternative research plans for my proposed work, I started looking at all the existing human-subjects study data I and my research team had collected over the past few years, in particular those related to multi-touch spherical displays. Then I made a list of research questions that we originally wanted to answer based on our existing study data but were still not answered. This exercise helped me come up with some alternative proposed research plans to discuss with my thesis committee that would not require any new user studies.
  • Can I adapt any online-study research methodologies used by prior work for my research? Another approach I took was to explore if it could be possible for me to conduct online user studies to help me build gestural interactions for large touchscreen spherical displays. I looked at prior research in HCI to help get an idea of the different types of research methodologies prior work has employed in this space to design interactions for co-located large touchscreen technologies. For example, one of the prior works I came across was from Morris et al. [1] in which the authors used survey methodology to elicit users’ expectations for managing conflicts around a large touchscreen display, which they later used to implement their interactive tabletop software. I took inspiration from this prior work to come up with some alternative plans for my proposed research.
  • How should I present these alternative plans to my thesis committee? After coming up with alternative research plans, I discussed them with my thesis committee members. This discussion happened during the closed committee question session. To make this discussion productive, I prepared some backup slides to help me present 4 alternative plans I developed to my committee. For me, this discussion turned out to be very useful. My committee members were super supportive and listened to all the alternate plans to help me decide the best route for me so that I can keep making progress towards earning my Ph.D. It is important to keep in mind that your committee members want to see you succeed and thus try not to get too stressed when discussing these alternative plans with them.

All the points I discussed above are just some of the ways Ph.D. students can consider navigating their proposal defenses in this unprecedented time. The proposal defense process can vary widely among Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) programs at different institutions and even depend a lot on your specific area of interest within the broader HCI research field.

I am Nikita Soni, a Ph.D. candidate in the INIT lab. Throughout the entire process of preparing and passing my Ph.D. proposal, I have learned that sometimes things might not go according to plan, and it is completely fine. Thus, we as Ph.D. students should adapt accordingly and take ownership of our work so that our thesis committee can help us succeed. I am looking forward to the next phase of my Ph.D. research in the INIT lab. If you’re about to propose your dissertation, good luck! Also, for anyone interested, I will be happy to share my proposal document and presentation slides. Feel free to reach out via email at

[1] Morris, M.R., Forlines, C., Ryall, K., and Shen, C. 2004. Conflict Resolution in Paper and Digital Worlds: Two Surveys of User Expectations. Proceedings of CSCW Conference Supplement.

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