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I'm going to defend my dissertation soon and the school has a strict requirement for allowing remote defense. Under highly unusual circumstances they'll approve a remote defense, and they said convenience is not enough for justification, but "travel restrictions" are.

Right now I am out of the country and to be honest, the true reason why I want to apply for a remote defense are:

a) The flight ticket is extremely expensive and with great uncertainty, last time it took me some 5k USD to fly back to my home country (it's the lowest price I can get in 6 months), not to mention that required quarantine took me another 2k. Now it might be even more expensive considering that it's going to be a round trip, I probably need to budget of 20k or higher this time for just a round trip since there's aggregated quarantine requirement to get back to my country.

b) The flight might be canceled for no reason and it's not a random thing. As far as I know, they have canceled more than half the number of the planned flight this year. No one can guarantee that I can fly to the school nor back.

c) There's no guarantee that I can get back once I finished my defense. Say, if I get infected by COVID, I will have to wait for another 6 months before I can get back to my country, according to its policy. No exceptions are allowed. This will be another huge money issue, plus, if I get a job in my country I would not be able to return to my country and meet the job requirement on time, given a quarantine requirement of at least 28 days.

I don't know if the money issue sounds compelling but I guess that's not the one that will make the graduate school easily say yes? I don't know. Things are changing as of COVID policies and my country has a really strict one. I really don't want to take the risk and do something that is foreseeable of low probability. I'm not sure if the school cares about whether I can get back to my country or how expensive and difficult the whole procedure is going to be.

Any suggestions?

Many thanks in advance.

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    What countries are involved here? These restrictions seem very onerous at this point in time. Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 15:11
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    @AzorAhai-him- 28 days of quarantine and these flight costs makes it likely that China is one of the countries.
    – Anyon
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 15:18
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    You can request a remote defense, but the decision as to whether your reasons are sufficiently compelling is up to your institution. We're in no position to predict what decision they might make. Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 16:35
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    @AzorAhai A small number of jurisdictions (mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tonga) still have zero-COVID policies or did so in the last few months. In any case, I would think that a one-in-100-year pandemic qualifies as “highly unusual circumstances”. Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 12:03
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    I think it can depend how you choose your wording. If you say 'I have these reasons how compelling do you think they are?', you're less likely to succeed than if you say 'I am not able to attend my PhD defence in person because of COVID-19 travel restrictions from my home country of X'. Then if they ask what the restrictions are (they might not), pick two or three of the most compelling ones, and word them in a strong way (my country requires Y, which means I am not able to attend my defence in person)
    – Jojo
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 12:11

5 Answers 5

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The flight ticket is extremely expensive

A reasonable person would consider that a compelling reason.

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    Plus the whole Covid thing and a general major shift in the perception of virtual meetings. Sounds like the university needs to change its policy.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 15:48
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    Not to mention the quarantine. Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 15:55
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    @Katie I would not assume "don't care about COVID" when "haven't updated the official policy" is a possible explanation. Occams razor and university bureaucracy and all. Who wants to make a big push in a committee to change a written policy when all they have to do is apply the existing subjectivity in the policy?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 16:19
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    @BryanKrause Hanlon's razor also comes to mind: "Never attribute to malice that which can be attributed to stupidity" (or institutional inertia, or incompetence). Academic institutions are large ships which turn only very slowly. Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 16:28
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    While the answer is true, a university bureaucracy isn't a person, and can't be guaranteed to be reasonable. You ave to work (with) the system to ensure that your request is considered by a reasonable person. Also the multiple risks (covid itself, but also the risk of cancellation and disruption to the examiners and everyone else) may be a more compelling factor
    – Chris H
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 9:12
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You can only ask and learn, but I'd think that the combination of cost and COVID (including the lack of social distancing in air travel) goes beyond questions of "convenience".

If the defense is a few months away, then there is a certain amount of uncertainty that the best plans can actually be executed. There is a new variant sweeping the Earth at the moment.

You give good reasons in your post, but it is the department/university that makes the rules. It is worth asking. And it is worth getting your advisor to support you.

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  • That's a good point. In fact, the school asks us to apply for a remote defense at least 14 days before the defense, so I still got some time. But here's the ambivalent situation that I don't want to apply too early to make them say "you got time and you should come", but then if they says no to my request 14 days before the defense, I will have to pay for some 50k for the flight then.
    – Katie
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 15:20
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    @Katie I'd recommend figuring things out with them as soon as possible, rather than trying to play a game of "chicken" where you raise the potential costs to yourself in hopes that they don't want to commit you to those costs. The aphorism "poor planning on your part doesn't constitute an emergency on mine" comes to mind.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 15:58
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    @BryanKrause I think you are right. I should talk to them asap and figure out if they allow it or not.
    – Katie
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 16:02
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    @Katie Talk to your advisor first, if you haven't already.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Mar 29, 2022 at 16:04
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    can only second the advice to talk to your advisor - depending on who they are, they can have a huge amount of institutional clout, and can convince people that your request is reasonable (and it seems to be)
    – lupe
    Commented Mar 30, 2022 at 14:08
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All your reasons are compelling. There are clearly major travel restrictions in place, and your reasons are not just a matter of simple convenience.

The pandemic counts as "highly unusual" circumstances. And in addition, your country has much stronger restrictions than most other countries, which make your circumstances "highly unusual" even within the pandemic.

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  • Completely agree. Each of these reasons demonstrate a rather significant burden that's vastly disproportionate to the benefits of defending in person. Even more so when you combine them all. Most of these types of rules are intended to prevent people from defending remotely when they could reasonably do it in person with minimal additional effort. That's not at all the case here.
    – bta
    Commented Apr 1, 2022 at 14:51
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Your reasons seem perfectly valid to me (and most of the others here). However, the wording of your question and your reasons makes most of it sound like convenience ("oh, it's so expensive", "I might not be back in time for a new job").

Then, at the end of paragraph a and c, you mention quarantine. Short of not being allowed to travel at all, that's a really strong restriction. Put that first! Mention the details like duration and the fact that you cannot "home quarantine". Most of the things you put as your reasons (the cost for a ticket and quarantine, the number of cancelled flights, the personal impacts) are direct or indirect consequences of those restrictions and should be phrased as such.

Mention what happens if you get infected, but put that last, as it's only a possibility, while quarantine is apparently mandatory.

Don't expect the university to know those things already. You don't say where the university is located (US?), but here in Germany, COVID-related rules have become so complicated, I'm not even up to date with the local rules, let alone the rules related to travel to / from a random country.

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It's worth pointing out that defending a dissertation is a [rite of passage] for completing a Ph.D. For many programs it's one of two rites of passage: (1) qualifying exam and (2) dissertation defense. The members of your committee went through these rites of passage themselves and suffered to make it through. They will naturally want to resist making it any easier for you to earn a Ph.D. than it was for them.

It's unclear from the original question what your long term plan is. Would you ever return to the country of your graduate school? Expensive airfare seems like an argument in your favor, but it may not be enough to sway your committee/graduate school. Maybe some other particulars of your situation would be enough to convince them:

  • You're working serving the poor and it pays little or nothing and it would be too expensive to fly back
  • You're doing some exciting research in your field, but it pays little or nothing and it would be too expensive to fly back.
  • You have some life threatening illness and the risk of being at the mercy of quarantine rules is too great.
  • You have a pre-existing condition and the risk of contracting Covid during travel is too great.

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