School Pivots to Confront COVID-19 Pandemic

Diana Gehlhaus Carew (cohort '15) defended her dissertation in RAND's Washington office. Videoconference attendees included (clockwise on screen) Dean Susan Marquis and Professors Cynthia Cook, Bruce Orvis, and Charles Goldman.

Tim McDonald/Pardee RAND

May 28, 2020

With California’s “safer-at-home” orders in place starting in mid-March, virtually every aspect of our Ph.D. program has been turned on its head. Through online courses, research, dissertation defenses, school-wide town halls, and even parties and trivia nights, Pardee RANDites have remained socially close if physically distant. Students, faculty, and staff have met the challenge with characteristic spirit.

Academics Go Virtual

This spring quarter, all courses were moved entirely online.

“Our primary concern was making sure that classes would be academically rigorous, accessible for all of our students, and flexible for students experiencing hardship during the pandemic,” said Academic dean Angel O'Mahony.

Using the videoconferencing app Microsoft Teams, professors can see students while lecturing, share documents and slides, answer questions in real-time, and administer tests. The chat feature has been a valuable tool for the students to communicate ideas amongst themselves, as well as get the instructor’s attention without interrupting. All class sessions are being recorded, allowing students to go back and review lectures to ensure they completely grasp the material.

Jarrett Catlin (cohort ’18) has noticed that these successes have translated for both larger classes and one-on-one working sessions: “My professor made [the transition] work really well. The lecture-based course translates well to remote,” he said, while adding “My favorite remote experience was getting dissertation counsel from Dave Baiocchi. He used an online white board to draft ideas, it was incredibly helpful!”

Additionally, school staff have sat in on each class, providing technical assistance and sharing best practices from one course to another. Registrar Alex Duke noted, “As we pivoted online on very short notice, there were a host of concerns, but we've successfully cross-trained and gotten our professors, instructors and guest speakers accustomed to the Teams interface. We are pleased that we had no downtime or interruption with classes and student participation levels are high.”

Dave Baiocchi shared tips and tricks on using Miro for virtual whiteboarding

Other technology-facilitating tools are also being explored. Prof. Krishna Kumar noted, "I taught three 3-hour lectures in economic development this spring, and the first hour or more is all math. I was worried about teaching it without a whiteboard, so I used educreations. I was pleasantly surprised how well this works, especially the ability to record."

Student Advisor Dave Baiocchi, who uses Miro, held a workshop on the use of that whiteboarding platform. More than 30 professors attended the "lunch and learn" session.

O'Mahony added, "I think Miro might make my classes more interactive rather than lecture oriented."

What about qualifying exams in July, and dissertation proposals and defenses? All are being offered online, and in some cases facilitating participation from those in other areas who are now able to join.

In May, Diana Gehlhaus Carew (cohort '15) was the second Pardee RAND student (now alum) to defend her dissertation via Teams videoconference.

“It was a different experience. I always imagined defending my dissertation in a room of people, standing in front and having open discussion. Instead I was in a big empty room, sitting, on my laptop, with just one other person. But it went off well! I was so happy that a great group took the time to call in,” she said.

In some ways, it was just like any “live” defense, she added: “The questions focused on my policy implications and next steps for extending this research, which would be wonderful to see. It made me feel like people were still following along, still engaged, and still excited about what I was contributing to the space. I got to thank my committee at the end, and they were kind back to me, it was the perfect way to end the call.”

OJT: Online Job Training?

As all of RAND has moved to working from home, so has students’ participation in OJT. Most students have been able to maintain their OJT commitments, and some have thrived in the new work environment.

Gaby Alvarado (cohort ’19) has used her qualitative research skills, as well as opportunistic networking, to land herself both new projects and increased roles. “Before COVID it was really hard to get on certain projects that required site visits, because it meant I had to skip class for extended periods.”

Because more interviews are taking place over the phone, this has enabled Alvarado to join not only projects’ analysis teams, but also their interviewing teams. This has allowed her “more hours, more experience, [and] more opportunity to show researchers [her] range of skills.”

Additionally, RAND has prioritized COVID-19 research, and many of the projects include students,

Prof. Jeanne Ringel worked with five students — Lawrence Baker, Lynn Hu, Pedro Lima, Michelle Priest, and Keren Zhu — on a quick-turnaround COVID-19 decision support tool. She commented, “All of the students involved were fantastic to work with, put in long hours on a short timeframe, and made great contributions.”

“Our primary concern was making sure that classes would be academically rigorous, accessible for all of our students, and flexible for students experiencing hardship during the pandemic.”

—Angel O'Mahony

Ringel added that Lima and Baker “functioned like full researchers with content and technical knowledge/skills that were instrumental to the development of the epidemiological model and the web tool. I have worked with many students during my time at RAND and they are among the very best.”

Of course, not all existing projects have been able to shift to an online research model. To ensure that all students have consistent access to project work during the pandemic, students have been provided 3 free days of time to help them look for projects, and an additional OJT broker has been added.

Pardee RAND is also joining the RAND-wide effort to bridge the gap between researchers finding themselves overwhelmed with work during the crisis and those who need more opportunities to get on projects. The School fielded an OJT survey to better understand the problem.

Associate dean Rachel Swanger told students, “Your participation will help us understand how OJT is changing in the midst of COVID-19. Results will be shared with you and with RAND research management as we try to devise measures to ensure that work is distributed as evenly and fairly as possible so that RAND can meet its obligations to our clients and the public.”

Events and Career Services Maintain Community

While all in-person events were canceled, students have been engaged in other virtual events and activities.

The School has held virtual Town Halls over Teams to address student concerns, present the School’s plans and contingencies, and provide the latest updates on the virus and how it is affecting RAND.

Career Services held a virtual Presidential Management Fellows Program information session, as well as a career talk by alum Zhimin Mao (cohort '11) about the World Bank’s Young Professionals Program.

Michael Mata, the inaugural Community-Partnered Policy and Action practitioner in residence, found his “residency” cut short soon after it began, but he too successfully shifted to online events. (See related article.)

Virtual Trivia Night was a rousing success. (The answer to this hint, from the category "Before and After," was: "Who is Smokey the Bare Necessities?")

Gabriela Armenta (cohort '15) formed dissertation working groups to provide support and motivation for upper year students as they work on their dissertations from home. In May, CoCom sponsored a two-week Dissertation Writing Challenge, offering Starbucks gift cards to all students who joined working groups for 10 days and completed a half hour of uninterrupted dissertation work each time.

The School has also focused on providing mental health resources and events. Psychoanalyst Dr. Paulene Popek held a virtual Q&A Mental Health Session. The well-attended event discussed student health wellness including how to deal with feelings of anxiety and guilt associated with the COVID-19 virus outbreak. Students were also mailed a “Mental Health e-Guide” to give them advice and information on resources for managing their mental health during this stressful experience.

According to Career Services director Sandy Buchan, “Dr. Popek left the students with some hope and light at the end of the tunnel.”

To keep students connected socially, Program & Compliance Analyst Amy Nabel has led the charge on multiple virtual happy hours and trivia nights, while Bernie Beltran, the school's budget analyst, created "Pardee RANDezvous," an online forum to celebrate birthdays and share fun news.

Summer quarter has already been designated as online-only, and Los Angeles county recently announced that “Stay-at-Home” orders will remain in place until at least July. The School will continue monitoring guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as state and local public health agencies to ensure the health and safety of the students, faculty, and staff.

As we continue to adapt with our online classes, OJT resources, and other avenues of student engagement, we look forward to providing an academically fulfilling and rigorous program throughout the pandemic.

— Dylan Nir