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  • CAREER COLUMN
  • 30 March 2020

How to defend a PhD remotely

  • Alyssa Frederick 0

Alyssa Frederick is a postdoctoral scholar at the Bodega Marine Laboratory in Bodega Bay, California, part of the University of California, Davis.

You can also search for this author in PubMed   Google Scholar

In November 2019, I conducted my PhD defence using the videoconferencing software Zoom.

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doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-00971-z

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged .

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PhD Defence Process: A Comprehensive Guide

PhD Defence

Embarking on the journey toward a PhD is an intellectual odyssey marked by tireless research, countless hours of contemplation, and a fervent commitment to contributing to the body of knowledge in one’s field. As the culmination of this formidable journey, the PhD defence stands as the final frontier, the proverbial bridge between student and scholar.

In this comprehensive guide, we unravel the intricacies of the PhD defence—a momentous occasion that is both a celebration of scholarly achievement and a rigorous evaluation of academic prowess. Join us as we explore the nuances of the defence process, addressing questions about its duration, contemplating the possibility of failure, and delving into the subtle distinctions of language that surround it.

Beyond the formalities, we aim to shed light on the significance of this rite of passage, dispelling misconceptions about its nature. Moreover, we’ll consider the impact of one’s attire on this critical day and share personal experiences and practical tips from those who have successfully navigated the defence journey.

Whether you are on the precipice of your own defence or are simply curious about the process, this guide seeks to demystify the PhD defence, providing a roadmap for success and a nuanced understanding of the pivotal event that marks the transition from student to scholar.

Introduction

A. definition and purpose:, b. overview of the oral examination:, a. general duration of a typical defense, b. factors influencing the duration:, c. preparation and flexibility:, a. preparation and thorough understanding of the research:, b. handling questions effectively:, c. confidence and composure during the presentation:, d. posture of continuous improvement:, a. exploring the possibility of failure:, b. common reasons for failure:, c. steps to mitigate the risk of failure:, d. post-failure resilience:, a. addressing the language variation:, b. conforming to regional preferences:, c. consistency in usage:, d. flexibility and adaptability:, e. navigating language in a globalized academic landscape:, a. debunking myths around the formality of the defense:, b. significance in validating research contributions:, c. post-defense impact:, a. appropriate attire for different settings:, b. professionalism and the impact of appearance:, c. practical tips for dressing success:, b. practical tips for a successful defense:, c. post-defense reflections:, career options after phd.

Embarking on the doctoral journey is a formidable undertaking, where aspiring scholars immerse themselves in the pursuit of knowledge, contributing new insights to their respective fields. At the pinnacle of this academic odyssey lies the PhD defence—a culmination that transcends the boundaries of a mere formality, symbolizing the transformation from a student of a discipline to a recognized contributor to the academic tapestry.

The PhD defence, also known as the viva voce or oral examination, is a pivotal moment in the life of a doctoral candidate.

PhD defence is not merely a ritualistic ceremony; rather, it serves as a platform for scholars to present, defend, and elucidate the findings and implications of their research. The defence is the crucible where ideas are tested, hypotheses scrutinized, and the depth of scholarly understanding is laid bare.

The importance of the PhD defence reverberates throughout the academic landscape. It is not just a capstone event; it is the juncture where academic rigour meets real-world application. The defence is the litmus test of a researcher’s ability to articulate, defend, and contextualize their work—an evaluation that extends beyond the pages of a dissertation.

Beyond its evaluative nature, the defence serves as a rite of passage, validating the years of dedication, perseverance, and intellectual rigour invested in the research endeavour. Success in the defence is a testament to the candidate’s mastery of their subject matter and the originality and impact of their contributions to the academic community.

Furthermore, a successful defence paves the way for future contributions, positioning the scholar as a recognized authority in their field. The defence is not just an endpoint; it is a launchpad, propelling researchers into the next phase of their academic journey as they continue to shape and redefine the boundaries of knowledge.

In essence, the PhD defence is more than a ceremonial checkpoint—it is a transformative experience that validates the intellectual journey, underscores the significance of scholarly contributions, and sets the stage for a continued legacy of academic excellence. As we navigate the intricacies of this process, we invite you to explore the multifaceted dimensions that make the PhD defence an indispensable chapter in the narrative of academic achievement.

What is a PhD Defence?

At its core, a PhD defence is a rigorous and comprehensive examination that marks the culmination of a doctoral candidate’s research journey. It is an essential component of the doctoral process in which the candidate is required to defend their dissertation before a committee of experts in the field. The defence serves multiple purposes, acting as both a showcase of the candidate’s work and an evaluative measure of their understanding, critical thinking, and contributions to the academic domain.

The primary goals of a PhD defence include:

  • Presentation of Research: The candidate presents the key findings, methodology, and significance of their research.
  • Demonstration of Mastery: The defence assesses the candidate’s depth of understanding, mastery of the subject matter, and ability to engage in scholarly discourse.
  • Critical Examination: Committee members rigorously question the candidate, challenging assumptions, testing methodologies, and probing the boundaries of the research.
  • Validation of Originality: The defence validates the originality and contribution of the candidate’s work to the existing body of knowledge.

The PhD defence often takes the form of an oral examination, commonly referred to as the viva voce. This oral component adds a dynamic and interactive dimension to the evaluation process. Key elements of the oral examination include:

  • Presentation: The candidate typically begins with a formal presentation, summarizing the dissertation’s main components, methodology, and findings. This presentation is an opportunity to showcase the significance and novelty of the research.
  • Questioning and Discussion: Following the presentation, the candidate engages in a thorough questioning session with the examination committee. Committee members explore various aspects of the research, challenging the candidates to articulate their rationale, defend their conclusions, and respond to critiques.
  • Defence of Methodology: The candidate is often required to defend the chosen research methodology, demonstrating its appropriateness, rigour, and contribution to the field.
  • Evaluation of Contributions: Committee members assess the originality and impact of the candidate’s contributions to the academic discipline, seeking to understand how the research advances existing knowledge.

The oral examination is not a mere formality; it is a dynamic exchange that tests the candidate’s intellectual acumen, research skills, and capacity to contribute meaningfully to the scholarly community.

In essence, the PhD defence is a comprehensive and interactive evaluation that encapsulates the essence of a candidate’s research journey, demanding a synthesis of knowledge, clarity of expression, and the ability to navigate the complexities of academic inquiry. As we delve into the specifics of the defence process, we will unravel the layers of preparation and skill required to navigate this transformative academic milestone.

How Long is a PhD Defence?

The duration of a PhD defence can vary widely, but it typically ranges from two to three hours. This time frame encompasses the candidate’s presentation of their research, questioning and discussions with the examination committee, and any additional deliberations or decisions by the committee. However, it’s essential to note that this is a general guideline, and actual defence durations may vary based on numerous factors.

  • Sciences and Engineering: Defenses in these fields might lean towards the shorter end of the spectrum, often around two hours. The focus is often on the methodology, results, and technical aspects.
  • Humanities and Social Sciences: Given the theoretical and interpretive nature of research in these fields, defences might extend closer to three hours or more. Discussions may delve into philosophical underpinnings and nuanced interpretations.
  • Simple vs. Complex Studies: The complexity of the research itself plays a role. Elaborate experiments, extensive datasets, or intricate theoretical frameworks may necessitate a more extended defence.
  • Number of Committee Members: A larger committee or one with diverse expertise may lead to more extensive discussions and varied perspectives, potentially elongating the defence.
  • Committee Engagement: The level of engagement and probing by committee members can influence the overall duration. In-depth discussions or debates may extend the defence time.
  • Cultural Norms: In some countries, the oral defence might be more ceremonial, with less emphasis on intense questioning. In others, a rigorous and extended defence might be the norm.
  • Evaluation Practices: Different academic systems have varying evaluation criteria, which can impact the duration of the defence.
  • Institutional Guidelines: Some institutions may have specific guidelines on defence durations, influencing the overall time allotted for the process.

Candidates should be well-prepared for a defence of any duration. Adequate preparation not only involves a concise presentation of the research but also anticipates potential questions and engages in thoughtful discussions. Additionally, candidates should be flexible and responsive to the dynamics of the defense, adapting to the pace set by the committee.

Success Factors in a PhD Defence

  • Successful defence begins with a deep and comprehensive understanding of the research. Candidates should be well-versed in every aspect of their study, from the theoretical framework to the methodology and findings.
  • Thorough preparation involves anticipating potential questions from the examination committee. Candidates should consider the strengths and limitations of their research and be ready to address queries related to methodology, data analysis, and theoretical underpinnings.
  • Conducting mock defences with peers or mentors can be invaluable. It helps refine the presentation, exposes potential areas of weakness, and provides an opportunity to practice responding to challenging questions.
  • Actively listen to questions without interruption. Understanding the nuances of each question is crucial for providing precise and relevant responses.
  • Responses should be clear, concise, and directly address the question. Avoid unnecessary jargon, and strive to convey complex concepts in a manner that is accessible to the entire committee.
  • It’s acceptable not to have all the answers. If faced with a question that stumps you, acknowledge it honestly. Expressing a willingness to explore the topic further demonstrates intellectual humility.
  • Use questions as opportunities to reinforce key messages from the research. Skillfully link responses back to the core contributions of the study, emphasizing its significance.
  • Rehearse the presentation multiple times to build familiarity with the material. This enhances confidence, reduces nervousness, and ensures a smooth and engaging delivery.
  • Maintain confident and open body language. Stand tall, make eye contact, and use gestures judiciously. A composed demeanour contributes to a positive impression.
  • Acknowledge and manage nervousness. It’s natural to feel some anxiety, but channelling that energy into enthusiasm for presenting your research can turn nervousness into a positive force.
  • Engage with the committee through a dynamic and interactive presentation. Invite questions during the presentation to create a more conversational atmosphere.
  • Utilize visual aids effectively. Slides or other visual elements should complement the spoken presentation, reinforcing key points without overwhelming the audience.
  • View the defence not only as an evaluation but also as an opportunity for continuous improvement. Feedback received during the defence can inform future research endeavours and scholarly pursuits.

In essence, success in a PhD defence hinges on meticulous preparation, adept handling of questions, and projecting confidence and composure during the presentation. A well-prepared and resilient candidate is better positioned to navigate the challenges of the defence, transforming it from a moment of evaluation into an affirmation of scholarly achievement.

Failure in PhD Defence

  • While the prospect of failing a PhD defence is relatively rare, it’s essential for candidates to acknowledge that the possibility exists. Understanding this reality can motivate diligent preparation and a proactive approach to mitigate potential risks.
  • Failure, if it occurs, should be seen as a learning opportunity rather than a definitive endpoint. It may highlight areas for improvement and offer insights into refining the research and presentation.
  • Lack of thorough preparation, including a weak grasp of the research content, inadequate rehearsal, and failure to anticipate potential questions, can contribute to failure.
  • Inability to effectively defend the chosen research methodology, including justifying its appropriateness and demonstrating its rigour, can be a critical factor.
  • Failing to clearly articulate the original contributions of the research and its significance to the field may lead to a negative assessment.
  • Responding defensively to questions, exhibiting a lack of openness to critique, or being unwilling to acknowledge limitations can impact the overall impression.
  • Inability to address committee concerns or incorporate constructive feedback received during the defense may contribute to a negative outcome.
  • Comprehensive preparation is the cornerstone of success. Candidates should dedicate ample time to understanding every facet of their research, conducting mock defences, and seeking feedback.
  • Identify potential weaknesses in the research and address them proactively. Being aware of limitations and articulating plans for addressing them in future work demonstrates foresight.
  • Engage with mentors, peers, or advisors before the defence. Solicit constructive feedback on both the content and delivery of the presentation to refine and strengthen the defence.
  • Develop strategies to manage stress and nervousness. Techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing, or visualization can be effective in maintaining composure during the defence.
  • Conduct a pre-defense review of all materials, ensuring that the presentation aligns with the dissertation and that visual aids are clear and supportive.
  • Approach the defence with an open and reflective attitude. Embrace critique as an opportunity for improvement rather than as a personal affront.
  • Clarify expectations with the examination committee beforehand. Understanding the committee’s focus areas and preferences can guide preparation efforts.
  • In the event of failure, candidates should approach the situation with resilience. Seek feedback from the committee, understand the reasons for the outcome, and use the experience as a springboard for improvement.

In summary, while the prospect of failing a PhD defence is uncommon, acknowledging its possibility and taking proactive steps to mitigate risks are crucial elements of a well-rounded defence strategy. By addressing common failure factors through thorough preparation, openness to critique, and a resilient attitude, candidates can increase their chances of a successful defence outcome.

PhD Defense or Defence?

  • The choice between “defense” and “defence” is primarily a matter of British English versus American English spelling conventions. “Defense” is the preferred spelling in American English, while “defence” is the British English spelling.
  • In the global academic community, both spellings are generally understood and accepted. However, the choice of spelling may be influenced by the academic institution’s language conventions or the preferences of individual scholars.
  • Academic institutions may have specific guidelines regarding language conventions, and candidates are often expected to adhere to the institution’s preferred spelling.
  • Candidates may also consider the preferences of their advisors or committee members. If there is a consistent spelling convention used within the academic department, it is advisable to align with those preferences.
  • Consideration should be given to the spelling conventions of scholarly journals in the candidate’s field. If intending to publish research stemming from the dissertation, aligning with the conventions of target journals is prudent.
  • If the defense presentation or dissertation will be shared with an international audience, using a more universally recognized spelling (such as “defense”) may be preferred to ensure clarity and accessibility.
  • Regardless of the chosen spelling, it’s crucial to maintain consistency throughout the document. Mixing spellings can distract from the content and may be perceived as an oversight.
  • In oral presentations and written correspondence related to the defence, including emails, it’s advisable to maintain consistency with the chosen spelling to present a professional and polished image.
  • Recognizing that language conventions can vary, candidates should approach the choice of spelling with flexibility. Being adaptable to the preferences of the academic context and demonstrating an awareness of regional variations reflects a nuanced understanding of language usage.
  • With the increasing globalization of academia, an awareness of language variations becomes essential. Scholars often collaborate across borders, and an inclusive approach to language conventions contributes to effective communication and collaboration.

In summary, the choice between “PhD defense” and “PhD defence” boils down to regional language conventions and institutional preferences. Maintaining consistency, being mindful of the target audience, and adapting to the expectations of the academic community contribute to a polished and professional presentation, whether in written documents or oral defences.

Is PhD Defense a Formality?

  • While the PhD defence is a structured and ritualistic event, it is far from being a mere formality. It is a critical and substantive part of the doctoral journey, designed to rigorously evaluate the candidate’s research contributions, understanding of the field, and ability to engage in scholarly discourse.
  • The defence is not a checkbox to be marked but rather a dynamic process where the candidate’s research is evaluated for its scholarly merit. The committee scrutinizes the originality, significance, and methodology of the research, aiming to ensure it meets the standards of advanced academic work.
  • Far from a passive or purely ceremonial event, the defence involves active engagement between the candidate and the examination committee. Questions, discussions, and debates are integral components that enrich the scholarly exchange during the defence.
  • The defence serves as a platform for the candidate to demonstrate the originality of their research. Committee members assess the novelty of the contributions, ensuring that the work adds value to the existing body of knowledge.
  • Beyond the content, the defence evaluates the methodological rigour of the research. Committee members assess whether the chosen methodology is appropriate, well-executed, and contributes to the validity of the findings.
  • Successful completion of the defence affirms the candidate’s ability to contribute meaningfully to the academic discourse in their field. It is an endorsement of the candidate’s position as a knowledgeable and respected scholar.
  • The defence process acts as a quality assurance mechanism in academia. It ensures that individuals awarded a doctoral degree have undergone a thorough and rigorous evaluation, upholding the standards of excellence in research and scholarly inquiry.
  • Institutions have specific criteria and standards for awarding a PhD. The defence process aligns with these institutional and academic standards, providing a consistent and transparent mechanism for evaluating candidates.
  • Successful completion of the defence is a pivotal moment that marks the transition from a doctoral candidate to a recognized scholar. It opens doors to further contributions, collaborations, and opportunities within the academic community.
  • Research presented during the defence often forms the basis for future publications. The validation received in the defence enhances the credibility of the research, facilitating its dissemination and impact within the academic community.
  • Beyond the academic realm, a successfully defended PhD is a key credential for professional advancement. It enhances one’s standing in the broader professional landscape, opening doors to research positions, teaching opportunities, and leadership roles.

In essence, the PhD defence is a rigorous and meaningful process that goes beyond formalities, playing a crucial role in affirming the academic merit of a candidate’s research and marking the culmination of their journey toward scholarly recognition.

Dressing for Success: PhD Defense Outfit

  • For Men: A well-fitted suit in neutral colours (black, navy, grey), a collared dress shirt, a tie, and formal dress shoes.
  • For Women: A tailored suit, a blouse or button-down shirt, and closed-toe dress shoes.
  • Dress codes can vary based on cultural expectations. It’s advisable to be aware of any cultural nuances within the academic institution and to adapt attire accordingly.
  • With the rise of virtual defenses, considerations for attire remain relevant. Even in online settings, dressing professionally contributes to a polished and serious demeanor. Virtual attire can mirror what one would wear in-person, focusing on the upper body visible on camera.
  • The attire chosen for a PhD defense contributes to the first impression that a candidate makes on the examination committee. A professional and polished appearance sets a positive tone for the defense.
  • Dressing appropriately reflects respect for the gravity of the occasion. It acknowledges the significance of the defense as a formal evaluation of one’s scholarly contributions.
  • Wearing professional attire can contribute to a boost in confidence. When individuals feel well-dressed and put-together, it can positively impact their mindset and overall presentation.
  • The PhD defense is a serious academic event, and dressing professionally fosters an atmosphere of seriousness and commitment to the scholarly process. It aligns with the respect one accords to academic traditions.
  • Institutional norms may influence dress expectations. Some academic institutions may have specific guidelines regarding attire for formal events, and candidates should be aware of and adhere to these norms.
  • While adhering to the formality expected in academic settings, individuals can also express their personal style within the bounds of professionalism. It’s about finding a balance between institutional expectations and personal comfort.
  • Select and prepare the outfit well in advance to avoid last-minute stress. Ensure that the attire is clean, well-ironed, and in good condition.
  • Accessories such as ties, scarves, or jewelry should complement the outfit. However, it’s advisable to keep accessories subtle to maintain a professional appearance.
  • While dressing professionally, prioritize comfort. PhD defenses can be mentally demanding, and comfortable attire can contribute to a more confident and composed demeanor.
  • Pay attention to grooming, including personal hygiene and haircare. A well-groomed appearance contributes to an overall polished look.
  • Start preparation well in advance of the defense date. Know your research inside out, anticipate potential questions, and be ready to discuss the nuances of your methodology, findings, and contributions.
  • Conduct mock defenses with peers, mentors, or colleagues. Mock defenses provide an opportunity to receive constructive feedback, practice responses to potential questions, and refine your presentation.
  • Strike a balance between confidence and humility. Confidence in presenting your research is essential, but being open to acknowledging limitations and areas for improvement demonstrates intellectual honesty.
  • Actively engage with the examination committee during the defense. Listen carefully to questions, respond thoughtfully, and view the defense as a scholarly exchange rather than a mere formality.
  • Understand the expertise and backgrounds of the committee members. Tailor your presentation and responses to align with the interests and expectations of your specific audience.
  • Practice time management during your presentation. Ensure that you allocate sufficient time to cover key aspects of your research, leaving ample time for questions and discussions.
  • It’s normal to feel nervous, but practicing mindfulness and staying calm under pressure is crucial. Take deep breaths, maintain eye contact, and focus on delivering a clear and composed presentation.
  • Have a plan for post-defense activities. Whether it’s revisions to the dissertation, publications, or future research endeavors, having a roadmap for what comes next demonstrates foresight and commitment to ongoing scholarly contributions.
  • After successfully defending, individuals often emphasize the importance of taking time to reflect on the entire doctoral journey. Acknowledge personal and academic growth, celebrate achievements, and use the experience to inform future scholarly pursuits.

In summary, learning from the experiences of others who have successfully defended offers a wealth of practical wisdom. These insights, combined with thoughtful preparation and a proactive approach, contribute to a successful and fulfilling defense experience.

You have plenty of career options after completing a PhD. For more details, visit my blog posts:

7 Essential Steps for Building a Robust Research Portfolio

Exciting Career Opportunities for PhD Researchers and Research Scholars

Freelance Writing or Editing Opportunities for Researchers A Comprehensive Guide

Research Consultancy: An Alternate Career for Researchers

The Insider’s Guide to Becoming a Patent Agent: Opportunities, Requirements, and Challenges

The journey from a curious researcher to a recognized scholar culminates in the PhD defence—an intellectual odyssey marked by dedication, resilience, and a relentless pursuit of knowledge. As we navigate the intricacies of this pivotal event, it becomes evident that the PhD defence is far more than a ceremonial rite; it is a substantive evaluation that validates the contributions of a researcher to the academic landscape.

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Remote PhD Defense: Lessons Learned

virtual phd defense

This post was written by Aravin Sukumar, a recent PhD graduate from the University of Toronto, Institute of Medical Sciences. 

My PhD defense was something I was envisioning for many years throughout graduate school, where I would dress up in a fancy suit, demonstrate my abilities as an academic researcher, and celebrate with handshakes and hugs from people who have watched me grow. With the current pandemic, this image of the defense seemed to disappear. For those of you who plan on defending your MSc or PhD over the next few months, or in the near future, you will have to be prepared to conduct a virtual defense, either through Zoom or another online platform. I was part of a cohort of graduate students that recently defended their PhD in a virtual setting and wanted to share my experiences and tips for preparation. These tips are based on a combination of articles I’ve read, advice from others who have defended in the past, and from my own experience with a virtual defense.

When I first heard I had to switch to a virtual defense, like many others, I was a bit disappointed because I had spent several years of my life leading up to this moment. The most important thing to remember is that this is still a special occasion for you, your family, friends, and colleagues, regardless if it is done at home or not. Despite the virtual nature, this is your momentous opportunity to showcase your passion for your area of research, while having a fun and interactive conversation with your examiners. Your supervisor and examiners are eager for you to pass, and they will want to hear your ideas on the implications and applications of your research and how you would further advance this project.

One of the first things to do is read up on your department’s policies on scheduling the online defense which can differ between graduate departments within your institution. My department was the Institute of Medical Science (IMS) which chose to facilitate the virtual meeting using the Zoom platform. The IMS Thesis Coordinator set-up the Zoom meeting and relinquished control to the designated Chair once they joined. My department did a great job in coordinating the defense and ensuring all examiners received protocol information for the defense which alleviated any stress regarding the set-up of the meeting. I was required to email copies of my thesis to all defense members ~1 month before the defense, but I know of some examiners preferring a hardcopy. I joined the Zoom meeting ~15 minutes before the defense start time to ensure my PowerPoint presentation could be effectively shared and that my camera/background were properly set-up. I used an external monitor connected to my laptop which allows you to use presenter view on Zoom (need to enable dual monitor usage in Zoom general settings). Your attire is entirely up to you, however, my attire reflected what I would have worn if the defense was in-person, a dress shirt and blazer, but with sweatpants as I planned to present sitting down. Dressing professionally helped keep this memorable moment special, while taking advantage of the comfort of having a virtual defense at home.

For the defense, I used plugged-in earphones with a built-in microphone but was notified within a few minutes that my microphone was making contact with my shirt resulting in additional noise. I adjusted the microphone to resolve this issue but may have benefited from an alternative wireless headphone/microphone option or if sensitive enough, your computer microphone should be sufficient. During the question period, each member had an allotted time to ask their questions (~8–10 minutes) and this occurred over two rounds. I was advised to keep my PowerPoint presentation in outline mode so I could view multiple slides at once, which is much easier to navigate than individual slides. I printed a hardcopy of my thesis just in case the examiners wanted to refer to a specific section in the thesis. However, I mainly used my PowerPoint slides to answer the questions throughout the defense. I was able to practice my defense presentation several times with my lab which gave me confidence that my computer, internet, and camera were fully functional and optimized. I also informed everyone in my house that this meeting was happening to avoid any unpredictable requests or incidents (e.g. fire alarm from cooking, etc). At the end of the question period and the start of the deliberation period, I was requested to leave my room and to wait for a text message from my supervisor to re-enter. An alternative approach to this would be to leave the meeting entirely and join the Zoom meeting again once I got the approval. This process will ultimately depend on your department’s best practices. Overall, the defense went smoothly with no glitches, the committee members were all supportive and interested in the research, and I passed!

Here are some tips and lessons I believe helped me prepare for my defense:

  • Practice, practice, practice: I received invaluable feedback from my lab and people who have previously defended. Even presenting to people outside your field is a great way to get unique perspectives on your work, which will prepare you for the defense in which you have experts from wide-ranging fields.
  • Anticipating questions: There are many articles online regarding what questions you can expect at your defense which will help prepare you for the “big picture” questions or even questions related to your future goals . During my PhD defense, I noticed two main question types: i) how does your research contribute to the broader area of research? ii) how would you advance your current work as a scientist? what would be your hypothesis and experimental strategy to address this hypothesis?
  • Body language and backdrop: It is obvious that presenting in-person is quite different than presenting through a webcam, but many aspects are similar. Mark Bowden, a body language expert, provided some great advice on establishing a “personal connection” with your audience. He provides several key points for virtual meetings in general which include positioning your laptop/webcam to eye level which promotes a better personal connection with people, compared to looking up or looking down at the audience. Lighting is also important and can include a lamp behind your computer to shine light towards your face or even a window to allow natural light to illuminate your face.
  • Climbing the thesis mountain: Read your thesis a few times (which can be exhausting) and with extended breaks in between to get a fresh perspective on your thesis. I would recommend waiting between 1–3 weeks (depending on defense date) to take a deep dive into your thesis. It helped me perform a less biased critical appraisal of my own work and formulate new questions.
  • External perspectives: Review 2–3 recent papers from your examiners. Your examiners are the leading experts in their own field and will have differing perspectives than yours. I would recommend reading some of their research to anticipate how their work could relate or apply to your research. For example, if one of your examiners is developing a new technology to deliver drugs within the human body, you could come up with ideas on how your research could benefit with this technology or at the very least, have an idea about other similar technologies. This will demonstrate to your examiners that you possess the ability to apply external concepts to your own work and research objectives.
  • Keep the application in mind: Often times in biomedical research, we delve deep into testing research questions that require a razor-sharp focus on specific biological pathways, the interaction between two chemicals, or algorithms that analyze diverse datasets. In order to appreciate the impact of your research, you will need to keep the real-life application (e.g. patient for medical research, communities for epidemiological research) in mind and be able to communicate how your research will provide a future benefit. This can be non-trivial sometimes but can be addressed with further research and conversations with other researchers in your respective fields.
  • Endgame: After the defense, I knew I could not have a big celebration with my family and friends or go on the dream vacation as I envisioned for many years — this was disheartening. However, I was still able to connect with the people I care about and enjoyed the moment! My lab planned a virtual Zoom party where we had some drinks and played online games. They even surprised me with a cake delivery which was heartwarming! I caught up with my family and friends and ordered an enormous amount of food from our favourite local restaurant. During these times, it is the simple things that matter more. Within a few days, an anti-climactic feeling does sort of set in, but I took solace in the fact that my next chapter will be a more exciting and fulfilling adventure. With the current COVID-19 situation, we must acknowledge that patience is not only a virtue, but a necessity.

You have spent more time on your research project than anyone else so you should feel confident that you know your data and conclusions. It is impossible to know all aspects of your research area and it is very common that there are conflicting reports in your field. You should accept these imperfections as it is inherent in all disciplines of research. The key skills to take away from this include being able to use your data to come up with your own hypotheses and to understand the methodological approaches that are used in your field. Make sure you have fun, acknowledge the limitations of your research, and continuously highlight the impact of your data. The purpose of the defense is not to get a grilling, but for the examiners to see your perspectives and understanding of the implications of your work in the broader scientific realm. Good luck with your upcoming defenses!

Many many thanks for sharing your experience. Really it is ver helpful to me, as i am going to defend my Ph. D. thesis in near future.

Much appreciation for your advice based on your experience. I’m defending my dissertation in three weeks time. My research project is on health care equity. Your advice on how to prepare.

I had my PhD thesis defense virtually as well. The committee of examiners are not interested in finding fault in your thesis but to gauge your understanding of the thesis. You must convince them about your motivation to undertake your research on a given issue, why is the issue important, and demonstrate to them that you are an expert in the area by being very crisp and articulate in your presentation. In my case these was no power point presentation but I was given 15 minutes to explain what my thesis was about from introduction to findings. The whole idea is you must understand your thesis in an out. You must have you facts problem statement, theory, conceptual framework, literature review, methodology, findings and recommendations on your figure tips. You have heard of the idea that you should be able to pitch your thesis in five minutes?, yes that is exactly what is required but now in 15 minutes minus a power point. Additionally, expect two rounds of questions from the committee of examiners. Take note that the examiners have diverse background, others will probe you on the statistics, others on the theory and literature you reviewed. Lastly, expect general questions around the subject of your study, here you should take a firm position and justify why, remember with the Doctorate degree, you are an expert and should be offering expert opinion and advise at policy level, so do not fumble in your presentation. In general practice you presentation two to three times, this helped me a lot to build my confidence, which is very instrumental in ensuring your are eloquent and coherent in your thought trail. You must organise your thought trail.

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Defending a phd thesis on zoom.

Zoom image: Luisa Angeles (left) in the lab in 2019 with her PhD adviser, UB chemistry professor Diana Aga. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Luisa Angeles (left) in the lab in 2019 with her PhD adviser, UB chemistry professor Diana Aga. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published May 11, 2020

Zoom image: In UB chemistry professor Diana Aga’s lab, students sign a laboratory freezer after a successful PhD defense. Luisa Angeles wasn’t able to take part in this tradition on the day of her defense on April 21, but she was able to add her name in early May when she returned her keys to the lab. Photo: RJ Mendoza

In UB chemistry professor Diana Aga’s lab, students sign a laboratory freezer after a successful PhD defense. Luisa Angeles wasn’t able to take part in this tradition on the day of her defense on April 21, but she was able to add her name in early May when she returned her keys to the lab. Photo: RJ Mendoza

Like so much else in life, a rite of passage for doctoral students has gone virtual during COVID-19: the PhD defense, in which students present their research and field questions from faculty before receiving a degree.

You enter this event as a student. You leave as a newly minted PhD.

For Luisa Angeles in the Department of Chemistry, this milestone took place on the afternoon of April 21. It happened on Zoom.

On the bright side, her parents and siblings in Asia got to attend, logging in at 1 a.m. in the Philippines. On a less cheerful note, the celebration afterward just wasn’t the same as it would have been in person, despite a virtual toast.

As far as everything in between — the actual defense — the experience was a little strange, but it went pretty smoothly, Angeles says.

“I’m really happy,” she says. “It’s one thing that makes me feel really good, that I was able to finish everything. I had to defend my thesis before I can start a job — even with the pandemic going on.”

Tips to conquer a Zoom defense

Angeles was the first student in the UB chemistry department to defend a PhD online during the pandemic.

When she learned in March that she would need to defend virtually, “I really wanted to push through with it,” she says. “I thought it would be agony, waiting to see if the social distancing rules would change.”

For her dissertation research, she developed lab techniques for detecting chemicals such as antibiotics, pesticides and industrial compounds in the environment. She also put those analytical methods to work identifying pollutants found in waterways such as rivers and lakes, and in water released from wastewater treatment plants.

Some tips from Angeles on prepping for a virtual defense:

  • Practice — virtually! Angeles’ defense included a 45-minute presentation, followed by a Q&A. She practiced in person with her husband, but she also did a virtual run-through. “I did a practice with other lab members via Zoom,” Angeles says. “I did the actual presentation, and afterward, they were asking questions. It made me comfortable doing the actual Zoom defense.”
  • Get familiar with the technology. Angeles says her department laid out some helpful recommendations for online defenses, such as assigning a member of the PhD candidate’s thesis committee to serve as meeting host — a role that Angeles’ adviser filled. Before the defense, Angeles and her adviser worked together to test functions like screen-sharing and breakout rooms for private conversations. 
  • Dress up and find a quiet spot. “Try to dress up the same way you would dress up in a normal defense, and find a nice area in the house where it’s well-lit and quiet, where you would be able to focus,” Angeles says. Doing so gave her confidence and underscored the importance of the event.

Before the defense, “I was still nervous in the same way I was nervous if it was going to be in-person,” Angeles says. “I really appreciate the support of everyone that helped me because it’s really a difficult time to do a defense because there’s a lot of stress and anxiety.”

With her time at UB complete, Angeles will soon head to North Carolina, where she has landed a job as a chemist with a company that specializes in analytical chemistry. The job interview took place on Zoom, and a tour of the firm’s labs on FaceTime.

Zoom image: A screenshot shows Luisa Angeles (second user from left) conducting her PhD defense via Zoom as UB faculty members and her parents (sitting together in the far right screen) watch. Image: Diana Aga

A screenshot shows Luisa Angeles (second user from left) conducting her PhD defense via Zoom as UB faculty members and her parents (sitting together in the far right screen) watch. Image: Diana Aga

Zoom image: A screenshot shows friends, family, mentors and colleagues toasting Luisa Angeles on Zoom after her successful PhD defense. Image: Diana Aga

A screenshot shows friends, family, mentors and colleagues toasting Luisa Angeles on Zoom after her successful PhD defense. Image: Diana Aga

The many emotions of a virtual defense

The end of the PhD journey counts as a joyful moment at a time when so much else is grim.

Both Angeles and her adviser, chemistry professor Diana Aga, say the best part of the Zoom defense was that it allowed Angeles’ family in the Philippines to attend. This included Angeles’ parents, whose plans to travel to Buffalo were canceled due to the pandemic, and Angeles’ three siblings, who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to join.

“It was actually a bit emotional at the end when Luisa’s parents gave a congratulatory message to their daughter,” says Aga, Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences. “The parents were choking back tears when they spoke. Her younger sister, who is in college in the Philippines, also attended virtually. Incidentally, she is also a chemistry undergraduate student, so now she has a good idea of what to expect in a PhD defense.”

The defense brought people together in a special way. A faculty member who recently had a baby was able to attend without leaving home. A former graduate student who mentored Angeles logged in from Luxembourg, where he’s doing postdoctoral research.

Somehow, though, the worst part about defending on Zoom was not being able to truly celebrate together, Aga and Angeles say.

Before the pandemic, Aga’s team would mark a successful defense with a series of traditions. Friends and colleagues would gather, and the student who just defended would add their name to the door of a laboratory freezer holding the signatures of a long line of past graduates. Though Angeles was able to sign in early May, when she stopped by campus to return keys to Aga, the ritual was a quiet one. Only Angeles, her husband and Aga were present.

Following past defenses, “My students would also give a present and a card to the successful graduate, say congratulatory words and take pictures,” Aga says. “We miss all of these.”

“It’s just happier, more fun, when you’re all together,” Angeles says. “Usually after the defense, we would share food and celebrate together. Just being together after a happy event, I think. That’s what I missed.”

Instead, following Angeles’ defense, participants gave a virtual toast. Together, but also apart, they raised a glass on Zoom. From the U.S., from the Philippines, from Luxembourg, they cheered Angeles on and wished her well in the next phase of her life.

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How to Defend Your Dissertation, Virtually

by Nitasha Mathayas, PhD / Apr 9, 2020

Nitasha Mathayas

Tips on preparing, presenting, and celebrating from a new PhD.

On March 24, one day after in-person meetings and instruction at the university were halted and moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic, Nitasha Mathayas earned a new title: PhD. She delivered her dissertation defense—on students’ sensemaking using gesture-augmented simulations—via Zoom to her committee of Curriculum & Instruction faculty, her family, and friends. Over the next several weeks, many doctoral students will face the same situation. Here, Nitasha shares her experience and advice for holding a successful virtual dissertation defense.

Prepare Well in Advance

  • Online meeting setup and structure: Several days before your defense is scheduled, talk to your dissertation committee chair and decide your conferencing platform and how to structure the meeting. One of my committee members, Dr. Stina Krist, hosted the Zoom video conference call and made me a co-host. She also managed the breakout session for the private discussion.
  • Practice, practice, and practice some more on Zoom! (Or whatever video conferencing platform you choose to use.) Don’t just practice your talk like you normally would in person. Try giving the talk a few times to make sure you test everything out. I practiced my talk on Zoom three times with my colleagues and their feedback helped me adjust my pacing and presentation. Shout out to my Education peers for coming online multiple times on late evenings for me. You know who you are!
  • Make adjustments: I like to point when presenting in person. But I could not do that remotely, so instead I added subtle animations and bolded things on my slides. While there is a laser pointer option with PowerPoint, it is better that the slides themselves highlight things you need to emphasize.
  • Strong internet connection: While practicing, I figured out my home internet was not good enough to run the video call and my presentation, so I went to campus (was the only one there, social distancing was practiced), used an ethernet cable, set up a lamp, and ensured my environment looked professional.
  • Professionalism matters: On that note, do everything you can to look professional. Dress formally, use a good webcam that is centered on your face (no weird angles). Use good lighting (add more lamps if needed) and have a clean background (no bright windows, distracting artwork, no pets in the background).
  • Last call: Touch base with your dissertation committee a few days ahead of your scheduled defense to see if they have specific requests. For instance, one of my committee members asked me for my slides ahead of time.

Check—and Double-check—your Tech

  • Connectivity: Before the defense begins, see if your committee members can hop onto the call 10 minutes early to check for issues on both ends.
  • Two screens recommended: In terms of technical set up, I used my laptop and a second monitor. I presented my slides on my laptop and transferred Zoom’s control bar and attendee video to the second screen. This way there was nothing in front of my slides while I used them.
  • Single screen works, too: If you use a single screen, you may have to minimize your speaker view to see your slides. If not, you might have to leave some empty space on your slides so you can put the attendee video there. A few people could not see text on my slides as their video panel obscured it.
  • Test screen sharing options : Zoom has multiple options and things may get confusing if you use PowerPoint's automatic presenter mode. I set mine to use the primary screen only. I did not have access to slide notes, but I did not need them as I had practiced it well enough.
  • Backup hardware: Keep a backup device (or two) ready to go in case you have technical issues. I had a backup laptop with me that I thankfully did not have to use. Yet later that evening, my dock gave out and my second screen went green. I really lucked out there. Phew!
  • Record yourself: You can watch video of practice sessions to critique yourself, and you will also want to remember to record your actual defense.

Present, then Celebrate!

  • Slides: I shared my final presentation file with my committee a few hours before my defense by uploading it to Box. This way they could access the slides at any speed they wanted, and I got to correct some typos without emailing them multiple versions. The upload file was the final version though, it was not a draft.
  • View your committee: Ask other attendees to log off and log onto the call again after all dissertation committee members have joined, so that the committee appears on top of the speaker view.
  • Explain the process: My chair described how we would structure the conversation. My presentation was about 30 minutes. He requested that my committee ask me clarification questions during the talk but to hold substantive questions for later.
  • Questions: There was time for audience questions at the end from non-committee attendees. Audience members were asked to turn their video off during the talk but to turn it back on while they asked me questions. This really helped keep the committee’s videos up on top and I could see them when I needed to.
  • Main room and breakout room: The main room was used for the public portion of the defense and was recorded, and then committee members moved to a breakout room that was not recorded. My family and friends waited with me in the main room while my committee discussed.
  • Audience: I am glad I invited my friends to attend my oral defense. I was nervous and having them there made me much more confident when I talked. And they cheered with me when my advisor informed me that I had passed!
  • Positive takeaways: There were some unexpected perks of my online defense. My friends and family from India were in attendance, which would not have happened if the talk was on campus. This way they were given the same experience as everyone else. Also, the Zoom session was recorded (a personal choice that everyone agreed to but is optional) so I now have a video of one of the most important days of my life to look back upon.
  • Celebrate! Finally, plan to celebrate yourself. You did it! You made it! You deserve it! This is an important milestone, and it is unfortunate that you cannot celebrate in person. I set up a second Zoom party between 6-8 p.m. that evening and invited friends, committee, and family. We all toasted in our respective homes and people hopped on and off the call during that time. I was able to feel thankful and connected for a while. My friends and colleagues have given me so much and I was glad I could cherish that moment.

P.S. I also bought myself a Ph.Diva shirt. It’s not coming off for a few days. No one can smell it but me… phew for social distancing right now! Good luck fellow colleagues. You will all be great!

Enago Academy

Virtual Defense: Top 5 Online Thesis Defense Tips

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A Master’s or Ph.D. research defense is that momentous event you have been waiting for! It is that day when you want to proudly demonstrate your passion for research to everyone who have been a part of this long journey. It’s your chance of fulfilling your dream and acquiring the degree you have worked ceaselessly for. While researchers until now were well versed with defending their thesis in person, the standstill brought by the pandemic has made us adapt newer methods to keep our work going. With advances in the technological field, it has now become easier for researchers around the globe to defend their thesis virtually.

Top 5 Tips for Effective Online Thesis Defense

Your supervisors, mentors, and colleagues are eager to hear the principle applications and significant implications of your research. Defending your thesis right from the comfort of a living room was not something researchers had ever envisioned! Several institutes have updated their procedures and examination policies to support virtual defenses. It is important that you carefully read and understand the structure, protocol, and requirements well in advance to help you plan your thesis defense skillfully. Here we present top 5 tips for effective thesis defense remotely.

1. Perfect Your Pre-Defense Preparation

  • Universities and institutes have  revamped their thesis submission and defense protocols  to better suit remote requirements.
  • Talk to your faculty administration department and the dissertation committee chair to decide the conferencing platform and how to structure the open research defense.
  • Test your system prior to the actual defense from the same location you plan to use on D-day! Learn how to switch or share screens, control your microphones and camera, how to allow questions following your presentation, etc.
  • Contact your university’s technical and IT support team for tips to enhance the technological experience.
  • Share your final presentation file with the committee a few hours before the thesis defense. This way you could get to correct some typos before presenting it during the defense.

2. It is All About the Research Defense Setup

  • Ensure you set up your system in a quiet and well-lit room. It is always advisable to have a light source behind your camera, or to your side.
  • Remember that it’s a professional set-up. Dress formally and avoid over accessorizing.
  • Sit against a plain, light-colored wall. Ensure there is no distracting artwork or bright windows in the background. You may also make use of blur-out or a subtle virtual background provided by the platform you are using. Test this in advance to check if it looks good.
  • Create two rooms- a main room for public interaction and presentation, and a breakout room for private discussions with the dissertation committee or your supervisor.
  • Presenting your work through a webcam is indeed different than  in-person presentation . Therefore, position your system and webcam to eye level ensuring a better face-to-face contact.
  • It becomes easier to point out things on slides while presenting in person. However, it could not be done that remotely. Instead add subtle animations and highlight pointers on your slides that you want to emphasize on while defending your thesis.

3. Practice, Practice and Practice!

  • Practice your talk with your colleagues, in-house mentors and supervisors. Their feedback will be instrumental in adjusting the pace of your presentation. You can also take advice from people who have previously defended their thesis using this mode. Furthermore, presenting your work to friends from other fields will help you get diverse perspectives on your work.
  • Record your practice sessions to critique your presentation skills and improve based on your performance.
  • Anticipate questions in advance  and prepare your answers well. Some very frequently asked questions include: 1) How does your work contribute to broader area of research? 2) Do you plan to advance your current work?
  • Read recent papers published by your examiners. Remember that your examiners are leading-experts in your field of research and it is definitely a plus if you let them know how you work can relate or sync with their research goals. For instance, if one of your examiners is developing a novel technique to deliver drugs within the human body, you could suggest some ways in which your research can be aligned with theirs.

4. Begin Your Thesis Defense Early

  • Reboot your system, make all the essential updates, turn off applications that might pop-up unexpectedly to ensure a smooth run. Ensure that you have a strong internet connection to support video conferencing.
  • Log in to the  video conferencing software  at least 20-30 minutes in advance to ensure the technology is working fine for everyone! Talk to your attendees about how you plan to proceed with the defense.
  • Request the examination committee members to login 10-15 minutes prior to your actual research defense time to check for any technical issues on both ends.
  • It is recommended that you use two screens to manage your slides and video panel. In case, you cannot have a second screen, check with your committee if you can keep your camera switched off while presenting.

5. Do You Have a Plan B?

  • Even the best made plans may go for a toss! Rather than panicking in the moment, it is better to have an alternative technology solution ready if something goes wrong or stops functioning mid-way through your defense.
  • Discuss plan B with your supervisor/committee members, mentioning the circumstances under which you may have to implement plan B.
  • Keep a backup hardware ready to use in case there are some technical glitches.

Do you remember your first reaction when you learned about having to defend your thesis online? What do you think will be the major challenges? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below. If you have any questions related to thesis defense, post them  here  and our experts will be happy to answer them! You can also visit our  Q&A forum  for frequently asked questions related to research writing and publishing answered by our team that comprises subject-matter experts, eminent researchers, and publication experts.

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Defending from Home: Navigating a Remote PhD Defense

  • Posted by Katrina Oko-Odoi PhD
  • 25 November 2020

The current global pandemic has hastened the arrival of one reality of modern grad school: the remote PhD defense. Until recently, grad students may have had a committee member or two attend their defense remotely or live-streamed their defense for out-of-town friends and family, but 100% virtual PhD defenses were relatively rare.

Navigating a remote PhD defense can require some additional preparation and planning compared to an in-person defense. Here are some important considerations to keep in mind if you’re considering a virtual PhD defense.

Get to Know the Rules

Before you begin planning the details of your remote PhD defense, check out the rules and requirements of your institution to ensure you can accomplish everything remotely. ( This guide walks you through preparing to submit your dissertation). Will your institution accept electronic signatures on important forms? Will you need to mail signed forms to your university or physical copies of your dissertation to committee members?

Many institutions may have changed their requirements to adapt to the realities of social distancing and remote grad school , so be sure to check informational webpages frequently and reach out to staff if you have questions.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Once your virtual defense is on the books, start preparing your virtual presentation environment. See if your institution offers free licensed-user access to common video conference platforms, like Zoom or Adobe Connect, which will eliminate any time and participant limits. Practice hosting calls on that software with various users before your defense to get comfortable using it.

Decide where in your home you’ll be doing your defense presentation and practice in that space. Try to practice during the same time as your scheduled defense to test the lighting and sound. Ensure that your webcam works well and the internet connection you’re using is up to the task of hosting a stable video call for a couple of hours. Be sure to have pets, roommates, and children—with appropriate supervision, of course!—in a separate room to reduce background noise during your remote PhD defense.

Put a Game Plan in Place

Awkward silences and talking over other people seem to be the norm on conference calls, so minimize these by establishing an agenda for your remote PhD defense. Discuss the order of events and any general rules in advance with your committee and adviser.

Will your adviser want to introduce you before you begin presenting? Who will act as moderator for muting and unmuting audience members to ask questions? Will you be holding all questions until the end of your presentation? Deciding on these ground rules in advance and communicating them to all participants at the beginning of your defense will help avoid confusion and distractions. If you need some guidance on where to start when establishing these rules, check out this free, detailed how-to guide that Ashton Merck shared after her successful remote PhD defense in March.

Have a Plan A, B, and C

Even the best-laid plans can go awry, especially when dealing with technology. Reduce some stress by having contingency plans in place for common issues, like dropped connections or presentation and sound issues.

Do you have a phone number for all your committee members in case their internet connection fails and you’re unable to email them? Do you have an alternate location with wireless internet access that you could use if needed? Consider sending a PDF of your presentation to your committee in advance in case everything goes haywire and you’re forced to go old-school and use the phone. Practice getting interrupted by glitches, bad audio, and dropped connections so you can stay focused during your remote PhD defense.

Celebrate Your Hard Work

Having a remote PhD defense may not be what you envisioned after years of hard work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a meaningful, enjoyable experience. These experiences of MIT doctoral students attest to the silver linings in a virtual PhD defense.

Treat your remote PhD defense like you would an in-person defense—get dressed up even if you’re presenting alone in a room. Plan a virtual celebration with friends and family afterwards and make sure everyone has a bottle of champagne to toast to your accomplishment! Whatever you do, be sure to acknowledge your achievement and involve your support system in the celebrations.

Embracing the Remote PhD Defense

Remote PhD defenses will likely become more common in the future, as students and professors see the benefits and flexibility it provides. With the right preparation and practice, your virtual PhD defense is more likely to run smoothly and be the rewarding, empowering experience that you imagined.

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Katrina Oko-Odoi PhD

Katrina Oko-Odoi PhD

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In Sweats or Suits, Graduate Students Embrace the Remote PhD Dissertation Defense

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Composite image of Richard Giadone, Adam Vogel, Jori Chambers, Fatima Aqeel, a group of students who defended their dissertations remotely this spring.

Richard Giadone (MED’20) (from left), Adam Vogel (MED’20), Jordan Chambers (MED’20), Fatima Aqeel (GRS’20), and Kyle Pedro (MED’20) (not pictured) successfully defended their PhD dissertations remotely, via Zoom.

As they present from their kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms, friends and family tune in from around the world via Zoom

Cydney scott.

Adam Vogel always pictured himself defending his PhD neuroscience dissertation at Boston University in a room filled with faculty, classmates, friends, and family, and afterward, his mentors toasting him at a party. Instead, he sat alone, in the middle of the night, clicking on a Zoom link from his Airbnb in a high-rise outside sweltering Manila, where he’d gone on spring break only to be marooned for months by the Philippines’ nationwide COVID-19 lockdown.

When it was over, recalls one of his mentors, Shelley Russek , director of the Graduate Program for Neuroscience, who had beamed in from Boston (12 time zones behind the Philippines) for the defense, “I extended my hand—virtually—and said, ‘Congratulations, Dr. Vogel, you did it.’” 

That, and a round of clapping hands emojis from the other members of the dissertation committee, was the party for Vogel (MED’20).  

Adam Vogel did his Zoom defense in shorts and one of the three shirts which he brought with him to the Philippines. Vogel sits in a gray chair, his hands clasped, and wears a white long sleeve shirt and jeans.

“Adam was the first one [at BU] to Zoom his defense,” says Russek (MED’94), a School of Medicine professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics. “We were all nervous about it.” Afterward, offline, she was so spent emotionally from worrying about Vogel and how the remote presentation would work, she says, “I cried.” 

That was March 30. Four months later, as Russek says, the virtual dissertation defense at BU, and at universities across the country, has become routine. In fact, thanks to the accessibility that comes with Zoom, the remote academic dissertation defense has become a hot ticket. Friends and family members are tuning in from around the world. Vogel estimates 40 to 60 people showed up online for his presentation, “A tool for the in vivo gating of gene expression in neurons using the co-occurence of event-driven neural activity and light.”

“Some students will take it as if it’s Broadway,” Russek says. “They’re in front of the camera, all eyes are on them.”

Like so many other aspects of the COVID-19–imposed virtual world, the online PhD defense presents obstacles along with some unexpected benefits. There are, of course, worries about connectivity and technical glitches. 

“There is always one faculty member who will shout on chat, ‘Will everyone please turn off their microphones,’” Russek says. “Some students don’t have strong internet signals and you lose them for a little bit. Then someone has to say, ‘Can you repeat the last sentence?’”

Defending her economics dissertation in June from the bedroom of her apartment in Brookline, Fatima Aqeel kept her phone plugged in the entire time and hoped she wouldn’t meet the fate of the assistant professor from France who, mid-sentence during his remote talk to a group of BU economics faculty and students, disappeared entirely. When all efforts to reach him failed, says Aqeel (GRS’20), “we ended the seminar.” 

Fatima Aqeel sits on steps near her Allston home on July 28. Aqeel rests her hands on her knees, wears a teal blouse and jeans, and smiles.

“I’m just glad we had a long ethernet cord,” says Jordan Chambers, who defended her dissertation, in molecular biology and translational medicine, from her Allston apartment bedroom, with the door shut so her two cats couldn’t wander in. 

She was grateful, Chambers (MED’20) says, that her grandparents, who live in Ohio and wouldn’t have been able to travel to Boston for her presentation—pandemic or no pandemic—were able to attend online, joining her parents, who had been planning to make the trip from their home in North Carolina, but stayed home because of the coronavirus. 

“This is one of the things I would call a silver lining,” says Kyle Pedro (MED’20), who presented his thesis, in microbiology, from the kitchen of his Jamaica Plain apartment. “I could share the link with anyone I wanted. People who were local and might not have been able to take time off to hear me present for an hour, or who might not have been able to travel, could share in this big, momentous day in my life.” 

Pedro’s parents tuned in from northern California. “I tasked my sister with teaching them how to use Zoom,” he says. “She made sure they knew how to use the mute button.”

With PhD candidates flashing their presentation slides on the screen from their bedrooms, kitchens, and living rooms, much of the formality of the dissertation defense is gone—and, a lot of students and faculty say, that’s a good thing.  

Aqeel wore a silk shirt and sweatpants and perched, cross-legged and barefoot, on a chair in her bedroom. “The formality of the defense makes me a little nervous,” she says. “This was more relaxed.” 

“Presenting in person comes with its own challenges,” says Pedro, who wore a button-down shirt over shorts, and like Aqeel, went barefoot. “You’re standing in front of a room full of people. Some people really like that.” He isn’t one of them. “I have a little bit of stage fright,” he says. “That was eased somewhat.” 

Jori Chambers wears a lanyard with her BU ID, a flowery blouse and jeans, and leans against a brick wall. A bench and trees are seen in the background.

The new Zoom dissertation defense is at once impersonal and more personal than the live, on-campus event. Russek says that faculty are going out of their way to extend themselves online during the defense. “Faculty understand that students are isolated,” she says, “and want to be there for them.”  

Chambers says her fiancé, who normally would have been in the audience section of a conference room on the Medical Campus with everyone else, was able to sit right across from her in their bedroom—out of view of the camera and the committee—mouthing encouragement and flashing the thumbs-up while she was delivering her thesis talk in molecular biology and translational medicine. 

At the end of March, Richard Giadone presented his dissertation, in molecular biology and translational medicine, from the living room of his one-bedroom apartment in Cambridge, in the custom-made blue suit and bow tie his mentor, George Murphy , codirector of the Center for Regenerative Medicine (CReM), had bought for him back in December. Giadone (MED’20), who grew up in Dracut, Mass., and graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is the first person in his family to graduate from college, let alone earn a PhD. As is Murphy, a MED associate professor of medicine. Tradition matters, Murphy says. 

“When we heard it was going to be a Zoom defense,” Murphy recalls, “we said, ‘You’re still wearing the suit.’” 

As things turned out, COVID-19 didn’t leave Giadone much time to prepare for his big moment. Two weeks before, on the same day he turned in his 150-page thesis, Murphy had texted him at four am: “I know you have to study for your thesis defense and everything, but we need to help BMC [Boston Medical Center] develop in-house COVID testing.”

With cases of the coronavirus surging in Massachusetts, Murphy and Giadone and a team of other researchers raced to turn CReM into a same-day COVID-19 testing development lab . After close to three hours online for his defense, the newly minted Dr. Giadone, forgetting he was still in his suit, drove to the lab. It was the first day testing samples were available for use. 

“That was my baby,” Giadone says. “I wasn’t going to miss that.” 

Richard Giadone sits on a bench in a blue suit and smiles. Giadone did his Zoom defense, from his living room in Cambridge, wearing the suit and bowtie his mentor bought him.

With the party canceled, Murphy didn’t get to deliver the short speech he had prepared for Giadone. He had planned to open by recalling what he had said to Giadone early in his PhD career, when Giadone had already established himself as a gifted student:

“‘ You’re doing great, and there won’t be a problem with you meeting expectations and being granted your PhD. But…you won’t be remembered. You won’t be legendary. Be legendary.’    

“ So, first of all, who actually says something like that to someone? And even more shockingly, who takes those words to heart and not only fulfills the prophecy, but actually finds a way to exceed it? Richard Giadone .” 

Instead of a party with Murphy and the other members of his lab and his family and friends, Giadone kicked back at home with his girlfriend, who is also a scientist. “We watched a lot of reality TV,” Giadone says. 

Back in Manila, it was after midnight when Vogel’s dissertation committee pronounced him “Dr. Vogel.”

“He knocked it out of the park,” recalls one of his dissertation committee members, Steve Ramirez (CAS’10), a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences. “It was inspiring to see such poise despite the otherwise exceptional circumstances surrounding his defense.” 

“I thanked everyone and just enjoyed the moment,” Vogel says. Now that he had his PhD, he had another hurdle to overcome: getting back to Boston. With the lockdown stretching on in the Philippines, it would take him another two and a half months before he could score a seat on a flight out of Manila.

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Sara Rimer A journalist for more than three decades, Sara Rimer worked at the Miami Herald , Washington Post and, for 26 years, the New York Times , where she was the New England bureau chief, and a national reporter covering education, aging, immigration, and other social justice issues. Her stories on the death penalty’s inequities were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and cited in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision outlawing the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. Her journalism honors include Columbia University’s Meyer Berger award for in-depth human interest reporting. She holds a BA degree in American Studies from the University of Michigan. Profile

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Virtual Defense Resources

The Graduate School has gathered resources on conducting defenses using distance technology. All suggestions may not apply to every defense. Consider your particular situation and consult with your committee frequently during preparation. Please note, original resource content has been adapted to reflect FSU policies or procedures as needed.

Please notify us of additional resources you discover that would be beneficial for this page or simply share any advice from personal experience to the email address provided below.

1.  Planning for Remote Defenses

Adapted from dr. ethan white, associate professor in ecology and informatics at university of florida, view original twitter thread, advice for the presenter.

Presenters should give themselves extra time and have back-up plans in case things do not go as expected. Set up the connection early (15+ minutes) and request committee members connect early to ensure everything is working prior to when the audience is expected (if any).

For the presentation, either ask all participants to mute themselves at the start or have whoever is managing the call mute them all centrally. Participants can easily forget they are not muted and accidentally interrupt the presentation. Use the “hand raise” function for Q&A to avoid voice collisions.

A 2-monitor setup will let the presenter (or committee) see attendees plus slides and notes. Of course, if it is less stressful present without seeing the audience, perhaps take the opportunity of defending remotely to not have to see them. ( View Zoom support for video layouts . See "Gallery View" for larger groups.)

Remember, this may not be the ideal conclusion of years of hard work, but that does not change that it is a huge accomplishment. Celebrate in whatever (publicly responsible) way you can (e.g., have a video-based lab celebration).

Advice for the Committee

  • Have someone on the committee other than the defending student set up and manage (“host”) the Zoom (or other system) call. The student does not need to juggle that on top of presenting and answering questions. Consider designating co-hosts, including the student, when scheduling the meeting so that more than one person can manage.  
  • If there are bandwidth issues, the host may want to have the audience stop their video. Since the presenter often cannot tell if there are connection issues, the committee member managing the call should manage this via chat to avoid interrupting the presenter if possible.  
  • When screen-sharing, only a handful of other participants are visible. If they all have their video on that can still be really helpful for making it feel like an in-person talk.  In order to see more people, screen share from one computer an d join the call from another computer to see all the participants. (See link for Zoom video layouts under "Advice for Presenter" above.)  
  • Have a plan for how to have the student "step out of the room". One good solution (if using Zoom) is to use a breakout room for the committee to talk and then return to the main room when done (above recommendation for committee member setting up Zoom supports this). Another option for having the student "step out of the room" is to put them "on hold."  
  • Definitely use video if possible during the private portion of the defense. This is an inherently stressful activity and a lot of the usual positive/encouraging social cues get lost with voice-only communication. That said, if a committee member is “freezing” during questions, it is probably because of local wireless/upload bandwidth which may be helped by turning off the video.  
  • Be kind and supportive. Frankly committees should always do this, but it is even more important now because everyone is under a ton of extra stress. This doesn't mean committee members cannot probe the work, just do it in a positive way focused on helping the student.  
  • Minimize required changes for the manuscript itself. Many of us are not focusing well right now and revisions are often due on a tight timeline. Clearly distinguish recommendations for changes prior to submitting papers for publication from those required prior to manuscript submission for graduation.  
  • Communicate your excitement at a student passing clearly and effusively. This is a big deal even if everyone is stressed and cannot celebrate in the usual ways.

Advice for the Audience

  • Audience members should mute themselves immediately.  
  • Audience members should participate with video (barring bandwidth issues). Live video faces can help fill the challenging lack of normal audience engagement during a remote talk. That said, video may need to be turned off in the event of wireless/upload bandwidth issues.  
  • Consider exaggerating positive non-verbal responses. With lots of participants, everyone is small on the screen. Clear head nods, thumbs ups, or big smiles can all help mimic normal positive audience feedback.

Download a PDF version of these tips by clicking here.

2.  how to defend your manuscript remotely, adapted from dr. alyssa frederick, postdoctoral scholar at university of california, davis, view original twitter thread, manage expectations.

Set ground rules for your presentation from the very beginning. In a typical defense, you might dive right into your talk. Instead, take a moment to explain how the technology works (e.g., how to mute/unmute; submit written questions). If you have an audience, set the rules clearly . This will help them understand their role and know when it is okay to speak up and how. Describe the format and what the audience can expect (e.g., how long you will present slides; how long you will you leave for Q&A).

Hope that everything works, but expect something will not go as planned. Your internet connection might go out, or a committee member might lose their connection. Explain to the audience in advance how they can reconnect, if needed. You may have to redo a few slides, so prepare for that scenario to help yourself avoid getting flustered if it happens.

After the public part is over, either remove everyone else from the video chat for the committee questioning/exam portion, or start a separate virtual meeting for the questioning part. It can be helpful to have your committee chair manage this part of the defense. The committee chair can serve as moderator by selecting who asks the next question. Then that individual can turn on their microphone and ask the question. They can set that up at the beginning or via an announcement ahead of time.

Plan ahead for how you and your group will celebrate. Celebrate with your roommates, immediate family, or a friend or two (with social distancing!); whatever way is safe for you and for public health. Celebrate virtually with your team, but plan to celebrate in person when things return to normal. It is not the same as if you got to present and celebrate in person, and it is okay to feel grief at the loss of something you worked towards for many years. Wishing you all strength as we adjust to our new reality.  

Find a Suitable Space and Technology

While we are all learning to be more flexible about random children noises and dog barks in the background of professional digital meetings, consider in advance how you will react to that during a high-stakes presentation and whether the additional stress can be avoided. Figure out what will fluster you and adjust accordingly.

Consider the background behind you, and don’t present in front of a window. Will you need a whiteboard or can you draw digitally and share your screen? Will you stand or sit? Is there a quiet space at home? If not, will your university allow you to use a classroom? 

If you are permitted to be on campus and you can practice social distancing, there may be seminar spaces available with decent webcams and remote presentation equipment. On campus, wireless internet can also be more reliable. Consult with your department's IT staff about rules for set up and assistance during this time. Please do not break any COVID-19-related rules set forth to protect public health.

Practice Remotely

  • Once you have a suitable space designated, practice using that space with the exact same technology you will use during your defense. Have your committee chair or someone else test that they can hear you and see your slides. Do a practice run — see if your lab members can provide feedback remotely, just as they would when watching the live event. Speak slowly and remember to pause frequently — audio and video sometimes take a second to catch up.

Format Slides

  • Format your slides for easy viewing online — try to eliminate any transitions or animations because they may be glitchy with overloaded video conferencing platforms. You can save your slides as a PDF to ensure there will be no animation issues. Use bigger font and include less on each slide — the viewing screen is smaller than a regular presentation. Number each of your slides in one of the corners so it is easy for everyone to navigate to the same one if needed. Distribute slides to your committee in case they have any difficulties seeing your screen share.  

3.  Securing Your Defense Against Unwanted Interruptions

Visit the zoom faq's on the fsu its website ( "what are some ways i can secure my zoom meetings" ) for more information on each of these options:  , scheduling options.

  • Generate Meeting ID Automatically
  • Require Registration
  • Require Meeting Password
  • Turn Off Participant Video Upon Entry
  • Mute Participants Upon Entry
  • Disable Join Before Host
  • Enable Waiting Room

In-Meeting Features

  • Designate a Co-host
  • Lock the Meeting
  • Remove a Participant
  • Place Participant on Hold
  • Stop a Participant's Video
  • Set Screen Sharing to Host Only
  • Allow Participants to Chat with Host Only
  • Disable Participant Annotations During Screen Share

Have Additional Resources, Suggestions, or Questions?

Please feel free to contact one of our Manuscript Clearance Advisors.

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Defending Your Dissertation: A Guide

A woman in front of a bookshelf speaking to a laptop

Written by Luke Wink-Moran | Photo by insta_photos

Dissertation defenses are daunting, and no wonder; it’s not a “dissertation discussion,” or a “dissertation dialogue.” The name alone implies that the dissertation you’ve spent the last x number of years working on is subject to attack. And if you don’t feel trepidation for semantic reasons, you might be nervous because you don’t know what to expect. Our imaginations are great at making The Unknown scarier than reality. The good news is that you’ll find in this newsletter article experts who can shed light on what dissertations defenses are really like, and what you can do to prepare for them.

The first thing you should know is that your defense has already begun. It started the minute you began working on your dissertation— maybe even in some of the classes you took beforehand that helped you formulate your ideas. This, according to Dr. Celeste Atkins, is why it’s so important to identify a good mentor early in graduate school.

“To me,” noted Dr. Atkins, who wrote her dissertation on how sociology faculty from traditionally marginalized backgrounds teach about privilege and inequality, “the most important part of the doctoral journey was finding an advisor who understood and supported what I wanted from my education and who was willing to challenge me and push me, while not delaying me.  I would encourage future PhDs to really take the time to get to know the faculty before choosing an advisor and to make sure that the members of their committee work well together.”

Your advisor will be the one who helps you refine arguments and strengthen your work so that by the time it reaches your dissertation committee, it’s ready. Next comes the writing process, which many students have said was the hardest part of their PhD. I’ve included this section on the writing process because this is where you’ll create all the material you’ll present during your defense, so it’s important to navigate it successfully. The writing process is intellectually grueling, it eats time and energy, and it’s where many students find themselves paddling frantically to avoid languishing in the “All-But-Dissertation” doldrums. The writing process is also likely to encroach on other parts of your life. For instance, Dr. Cynthia Trejo wrote her dissertation on college preparation for Latin American students while caring for a twelve-year-old, two adult children, and her aging parents—in the middle of a pandemic. When I asked Dr. Trejo how she did this, she replied:

“I don’t take the privilege of education for granted. My son knew I got up at 4:00 a.m. every morning, even on weekends, even on holidays; and it’s a blessing that he’s seen that work ethic and that dedication and the end result.”

Importantly, Dr. Trejo also exercised regularly and joined several online writing groups at UArizona. She mobilized her support network— her partner, parents, and even friends from high school to help care for her son.

The challenges you face during the writing process can vary by discipline. Jessika Iwanski is an MD/PhD student who in 2022 defended her dissertation on genetic mutations in sarcomeric proteins that lead to severe, neonatal dilated cardiomyopathy. She described her writing experience as “an intricate process of balancing many things at once with a deadline (defense day) that seems to be creeping up faster and faster— finishing up experiments, drafting the dissertation, preparing your presentation, filling out all the necessary documents for your defense and also, for MD/PhD students, beginning to reintegrate into the clinical world (reviewing your clinical knowledge and skill sets)!”

But no matter what your unique challenges are, writing a dissertation can take a toll on your mental health. Almost every student I spoke with said they saw a therapist and found their sessions enormously helpful. They also looked to the people in their lives for support. Dr. Betsy Labiner, who wrote her dissertation on Interiority, Truth, and Violence in Early Modern Drama, recommended, “Keep your loved ones close! This is so hard – the dissertation lends itself to isolation, especially in the final stages. Plus, a huge number of your family and friends simply won’t understand what you’re going through. But they love you and want to help and are great for getting you out of your head and into a space where you can enjoy life even when you feel like your dissertation is a flaming heap of trash.”

While you might sometimes feel like your dissertation is a flaming heap of trash, remember: a) no it’s not, you brilliant scholar, and b) the best dissertations aren’t necessarily perfect dissertations. According to Dr. Trejo, “The best dissertation is a done dissertation.” So don’t get hung up on perfecting every detail of your work. Think of your dissertation as a long-form assignment that you need to finish in order to move onto the next stage of your career. Many students continue revising after graduation and submit their work for publication or other professional objectives.

When you do finish writing your dissertation, it’s time to schedule your defense and invite friends and family to the part of the exam that’s open to the public. When that moment comes, how do you prepare to present your work and field questions about it?

“I reread my dissertation in full in one sitting,” said Dr. Labiner. “During all my time writing it, I’d never read more than one complete chapter at a time! It was a huge confidence boost to read my work in full and realize that I had produced a compelling, engaging, original argument.”

There are many other ways to prepare: create presentation slides and practice presenting them to friends or alone; think of questions you might be asked and answer them; think about what you want to wear or where you might want to sit (if you’re presenting on Zoom) that might give you a confidence boost. Iwanksi practiced presenting with her mentor and reviewed current papers to anticipate what questions her committee might ask.  If you want to really get in the zone, you can emulate Dr. Labiner and do a full dress rehearsal on Zoom the day before your defense.

But no matter what you do, you’ll still be nervous:

“I had a sense of the logistics, the timing, and so on, but I didn’t really have clear expectations outside of the structure. It was a sort of nebulous three hours in which I expected to be nauseatingly terrified,” recalled Dr. Labiner.

“I expected it to be terrifying, with lots of difficult questions and constructive criticism/comments given,” agreed Iwanski.

“I expected it to be very scary,” said Dr. Trejo.

“I expected it to be like I was on trial, and I’d have to defend myself and prove I deserved a PhD,” said Dr Atkins.

And, eventually, inexorably, it will be time to present.  

“It was actually very enjoyable” said Iwanski. “It was more of a celebration of years of work put into this project—not only by me but by my mentor, colleagues, lab members and collaborators! I felt very supported by all my committee members and, rather than it being a rapid fire of questions, it was more of a scientific discussion amongst colleagues who are passionate about heart disease and muscle biology.”

“I was anxious right when I logged on to the Zoom call for it,” said Dr. Labiner, “but I was blown away by the number of family and friends that showed up to support me. I had invited a lot of people who I didn’t at all think would come, but every single person I invited was there! Having about 40 guests – many of them joining from different states and several from different countries! – made me feel so loved and celebrated that my nerves were steadied very quickly. It also helped me go into ‘teaching mode’ about my work, so it felt like getting to lead a seminar on my most favorite literature.”

“In reality, my dissertation defense was similar to presenting at an academic conference,” said Dr. Atkins. “I went over my research in a practiced and organized way, and I fielded questions from the audience.

“It was a celebration and an important benchmark for me,” said Dr. Trejo. “It was a pretty happy day. Like the punctuation at the end of your sentence: this sentence is done; this journey is done. You can start the next sentence.”

If you want to learn more about dissertations in your own discipline, don’t hesitate to reach out to graduates from your program and ask them about their experiences. If you’d like to avail yourself of some of the resources that helped students in this article while they wrote and defended their dissertations, check out these links:

The Graduate Writing Lab

https://thinktank.arizona.edu/writing-center/graduate-writing-lab

The Writing Skills Improvement Program

https://wsip.arizona.edu

Campus Health Counseling and Psych Services

https://caps.arizona.edu

https://www.scribbr.com/

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Corona vs. Kaltenberg: Our first virtual PhD defence

virtual phd defense

In times of crisis, we tap untested resources and resilience. We need creativity to escape a terrible ‘new normal’ and determination to endure the journey. In short, we have to innovate and persevere. On 18 March 2020, for the first time in our history, one of our doctoral students defended her thesis virtually — a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic . In this post, Mary Kaltenberg is joined by one of her supervisors, Neil Foster-McGregor , to discuss the background and outcome of this extraordinary event.

Dr. Mary Kaltenberg

As I was preparing for my in-person defence, the situation of COVID-19 was quickly evolving – first, my elderly parents decided they should not fly from the USA to the Netherlands for the ceremony, then my friends who lived across Europe couldn’t come due to many restrictions, then due to the US Government restricting flights to Europe, I couldn’t attend in person, and finally the university buildings closed three days before my scheduled defence.

I was watching the announcement barring flights to Europe, and the moment that sentence was uttered I messaged Eveline in de Braek , the programme secretary – who makes all things happen – along with my advisors to see if we could do a ‘Zoom defence’. Quickly, UNU-MERIT and Maastricht University were able to figure out a solution, to have all my corona members online with a pro-rector, using the video-call app Zoom .

This wasn’t what I had imagine during all my years as a PhD student – I thought I would defend my thesis in the same dress I defended my proposal and celebrate with my friends and family with a party. But, in times of crisis, we have to act fast and creatively. So, I put a virtual background of where I would have defended, and carried on regardless.

In any other circumstance, I would not recommend it – I would even advise against it. I wanted to be surrounded with my friends, to have the podium in front of me, to have a dinner with the corona members and conversations that can’t be replicated online. But I needed my degree to start a new job this Fall as an Assistant Professor of Economics at Pace University, New York. This called for creativity – hence the zoom defence. We even had a virtual defence party with many of my friends, and people from across the world showed up and we could dance and talk together.

In the coming months, our lives will be completely disrupted. My experience has shown that we are remarkable in our ability to adapt. For the time being, this is what needed to be done. However, virtual life can’t replicate in-person gatherings. A hug, a cheer, and intimate conversations can’t be virtualised. The future is not about complete digitalisation – it’s about integrating the digital world into our physical world.

Prof. Neil Foster-McGregor

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It must have come as a relief, therefore, to hear that her efforts and those of Eveline in de Braek from UNU-MERIT working with the Dean’s College resulted in the possibility of a – indeed, the first – remote PhD defence. When the day of the defence arrived there were uncertainties of a different kind: would the technology function? How would we deal with the pre- and post-defence formalities? How were we going to sign the degree certificate? What degree of formality should we aim for in our attire to sit in our lounge, bedroom, study and stare at a computer screen for an hour or so?

Ultimately, the technology worked well and was flexible enough to allow the procedure to run in a format that was familiar to us all, further helped by the pragmatism of the pro-Rector, Wil Foppen, and the homework on the Zoom platform by the Promoter, Bart Verspagen. (The answer to the question of appropriate attire is still open, however, with a range of more or less formal styles on display – though nobody wore a toga).

The remote defence had at least one advantage over the in-person defence: allowing a couple of members of the degree committee that live on different continents and that wouldn’t have travelled for the defence to be present. Ensuring that this option is available once we return to normality and in-person defences would seem to be an obvious conclusion from this experience (and could also be a small step in helping with attempts to reduce the carbon footprint of the university).

So, are remote PhD defences the way forward in general for PhD defences in Maastricht? Well, the technology is certainly at the stage where it functions well enough, and in this case, it allowed the candidate – Mary – to defend her thesis in reasonable time and move on to the next stage of her life and career, with a position at Pace University in New York awaiting her in the Fall.

Different to my PhD defence in the UK many years ago, locked in a room with two examiners for three hours discussing in detail the thesis, however, the PhD defence in Maastricht is more than a defence, it is also a ceremony and a celebration: an opportunity for family and friends to be present and to congratulate the candidate in person, an opportunity to say farewell to an institution and to colleagues that have endured the tough times and celebrated the good times with you, and an opportunity to say goodbye to a town that has been home for a number of years.

According to proverb, necessity is the mother of invention, but in these extraordinary times it is also a close relative of improvisation. And, in this case, that improvisation played out well and achieved the result that we were aiming for. Overall, there was a great deal of relief that the technology worked, a great deal of satisfaction and pride that Mary was able to successfully defend her thesis and that the extraordinary situation that we face was not able to hold her back.

There was, however, a tinge of sadness that Mary was not able to defend and celebrate in person in front of her family, friends, peers and mentors. That celebration will no doubt take place, and we look forward to welcoming Mary back to Maastricht later in the year to have that celebration.

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Remembrance of a Roadrunner

Ph.D. candidates defend virtually amid COVID-19 pandemic

Ph.D. candidates defend virtually amid COVID-19 pandemic

MAY 6, 2020 — Distance learning didn’t keep UTSA students from completing requirements to complete their doctoral degrees. Six applied demography students in UTSA’s College for Health, Community and Policy have successfully presented and completed their dissertations using the virtual online tools necessary because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Jeongsoo Kim was the first doctoral candidate in his cohort to defend his dissertation using the virtual format shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic forced San Antonio to enact stay-at-home orders.

Kim recalled, “Not many people are familiar with the applications available to do the video calls. In the traditional way of defending a dissertation normally between 10 to 15 people will attend, and only approximately eight students were present along with the committee on that day.”

Johnelle Sparks, professor and chair of the Department of Demography explained that the departmental tradition is for students to give their dissertation defense presentation with faculty and students colleagues present and for the noncommittee members to celebrate with the student until the committee finishes deliberations.

“These students had to miss out on that and were left alone online while the committee met for deliberations. It was really heartwarming to see how many of their student colleagues, friends and family attended the virtual dissertation defenses, and they were able to stay online to continue giving support prior to the committee returning and congratulating them on successfully defending the dissertation and becoming doctors,” said Sparks.

Kim said he’s thankful for the experience. “It challenged me to think of a more efficient way to deliver my research without eye contact,” he said. “When you present in person, the attention is focused on the presenter versus presenting online members focused on the content material.

“The way you show your research takes a front seat, and the committee is really engaged on how the content is presented. I feel the quality of the work shines resulting in a better presentation, and you have the opportunity to expand your technological knowledge and use different online tools to present your work,” he added. 

Prior to working on and receiving his doctoral degree from UTSA, Kim was working as a fund manager in a national pension system in his native South Korea.

“Working in the pension system managing accounts for the future generations made me realize how much the population in my country is decreasing and specializing in how to reduce the pressure on the future generations became my priority.”

At UTSA, Kim’s field of study has focused on how fertility and population are defined by changes in fertility and longer life expectancy.

“Receiving a doctor of philosophy in applied demography for me means to have a more accurate navigation to find a hidden meaning of life from birth to death,” Kim said.

“Learning how to analyze large data from the census to enormous online data leads me to find a way to narrow the gap between uncertain current life and the future. I hope to draw a clear map of population aging, now that I have completed my degree,” he added.

— Ingrid Wright

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Advice for Remote Dissertation/Thesis Defenses

The Graduate School has provided  emergency policy for remote defenses . In addition to these policies, we offer some advice for all defense participants. We know that these are challenging times, and we hope that this guidance helps students and their committee members prepare for successful defenses.

  • Don’t multitask during the defense.  We are all tempted to do this in the online environment, but this is not a regular online meeting.  The student defending has spent years in anticipation of this event. 
  • Remember that there is often a little bit of lag time in sound on a video conference, so be particularly attentive to giving people time to respond and to not speak over people. 
  • Be sure that the place you are sitting avoids glare, shadows, or an overly cluttered backdrop.
  • Use headphones, if possible, to reduce any potential background noise.
  • Exaggerate your enthusiasm.  What would be a positive nod in a face-to-face environment won’t come through as clearly in the online environment.

In advance of the defense

  • Advisors should consult with the student to select the video conferencing program (WebEx or Zoom) to be used, but advisors should create and share the invitation to join.  At the time of the defense, you should be the point person for any technology difficulties.  Please do not leave this to the student, even if you are sure the student is more adept at technology than you are.
  • You should be the “host” of the meeting.  Be sure that you know how to allow the student to share slides and control the presentation.
  • Consider offering a “test run” with your student to ensure that the technology works and that they are comfortable using it to present their findings and answer questions.
  • Be sure you have a back-up phone number for all required participants in case there is a problem with the technology.   While Graduate School policy does not allow for participation via phone,  being able to reach participants by phone can help troubleshoot a solution.
  • In particular, determine how you will have the student “step out of the room.” This can be accomplished by having the committee all move to a breakout room then return to the main room when they are done with their discussion, or putting the student on “hold” during the discussion. 
  • With the increased number of people using Zoom as a meeting and presentation platform, there are a number of emerging security concerns. It is important to take security precautions before and during the defense to prevent intrusion. Please see  this guide to Security Settings for Zoom Meetings  from DIT. For more privacy and security information about Zoom visit  zoom.us/security .

At the defense

  • Check in with the student and committee members before the defense begins.  Let everyone know you will be in the virtual room at least 15 minutes before the scheduled start time and that you will check with each required participant to ensure that the audio and video are working effectively.
  • Give everyone on the committee and the student a chance to introduce themselves, just as you would in a live defense (this is also a final check that all the audio/visuals work).  Graduate School rules require that the dean’s representative be introduced.
  • After introductions, make the agenda and/or rules for the defense clear before the student begins to present.  Let all participants—including public participants—know the order of events (presentation, public questions, etc.), what will and will not be public (and how you will shift from public to private), and how the student will “step out” and return to the room during and after the committee’s discussion.  Ideally, share these with the student and the committee in advance.  Also, consider putting a brief, written version of the agenda/rules in the chat window so that any public members joining the conference know the rules.
  • Suggest that everyone mute their microphones during the student’s presentation.
  • If bandwidth becomes an issue, you might suggest that people who are not required participants turn off their video except when they are speaking.   Remember that audio-only participation by committee members and the student is not permitted.
  • During the public question-and-answer period, consider some way to ensure that the questioning happens equitably; you might consider asking people to go in a certain order or asking people to put questions in the chat feature so that all questions can be asked in a relatively orderly manner. There is a “hand raise” function on most platforms.
  • Make sure you know how to use the chosen video conferencing site (WebEx, Zoom).  Download and test it in advance. 
  • Practice in the video conference environment.  You would have practiced anyway, but it is important to practice in this different environment, not just in front of your mirror. The Graduate School Writing Center is available to help you do a trial run on whatever videoconferencing site your committee will use; contact us at  [email protected]
  • Share your slides with your advisor before the start of the defense.  Ensuring someone else has them and could potentially share them if necessary is a good back up plan.
  • Check with your advisor about the process for you “stepping out” of the room during the committee’s discussion.
  • Be sure there’s no glare from sunlight or other light behind you, but also ensure that there is enough light so that you can be seen without a shadow. 
  • Try to sit in a quiet location without too many distracting things behind you.
  • Access to two monitors will make the process a bit easier; you can see your slides on one monitor as you present and still see committee members on another monitor, to see reactions.  (Hint:  it may be possible for your television, with an HDMI cable, to be a second monitor)
  • If someone you live with is attending the defense, plan for them to use a separate computer or phone, with a separate webcam; ideally, they should also be in a separate room or at least distant enough from you to not cause feedback from microphones and speakers.
  • Invite colleagues and friends. This is still a public event and still the apex of your graduate work.  You may not be able to go out and celebrate, but having friends and colleagues present who can help you rehash all the highlights later will keep the defense from feeling anticlimactic.
  • When delivering the presentation, sit and be sure that your webcam has a good shot of you from the shoulders up. In a live defense, you would probably be standing, but that won’t work here since you won’t be as clearly visible (you don’t want to suddenly be defending only from the neck down). 
  • Even though you are sitting and you are communicating via videoconference, your gestures and nonverbal communication still matter. Think about how you will emphasize or punctuate some of your main points in your delivery, for instance. Gestures may work, or pragmatic pauses may work too.  But, just as in a face-to-face talk, practice to avoid all those verbal fillers—um, ah, you know—that clog your communication.
  • Remember to look at the camera when you are talking (and not at the screen you are presenting, particularly if you are using two monitors).
  • All committee members are responsible for ensuring that they know how to use the chosen video conferencing platform in advance of the defense.  Do a test run, and consult  DIT tech support  with questions.
  • The dean’s representative is responsible for ensuring that the requirements for remote participation are met and that the remote participation was uninterrupted or, if interrupted, that the defense was paused until all remote participations were fully restored.

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The Generation of Virtual Defenders

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Hundreds of recent PhD and master's defenders have taken their defenses to the virtual world. Here is just some words from a few of them: (Top, from left) Manisit Das, Ehsan Fereyduni, Fiona Kearns, Colleen Bove, (bottom, from left) Ceri Weber, Katie Hills-Kimball, Ally Boyington, and Oliver Harris. Photos courtesy of recent virtual defenders.

Thesis defenses, a cornerstone of any advanced degree, are filled with emotions no matter what the circumstances. However, for hundreds of students planning to defend their master's or PhD theses in early 2020, another challenge was placed upon them: planning a completely virtual defense. Owing to COVID-19, social distancing requirements lead to thesis deliberations behind computer screens, champagne bottles to be popped outside at least six feet away from one or two close friends or family members, and more obvious technological concerns than trying to get a projector to work. Anxiety about thesis content became overwhelmed by sharing streaming links around the world or the rise of “zoom-bombers” finding their way in to wreak havoc by hacking into thesis defenses. However, with such anxiety, new avenues of science communication were also suddenly open. These recent PhDs had to very quickly alter presentations, consider the possibility of not hearing the audience laugh at their jokes, and think also about sharing their presentation with a wider, more interdisciplinary audience than they ever imagined within the walls of their own department.

Below, eight recent PhDs and two professors reflect on their experiences with virtual defenses. Some, such as Manisit Das and Ehsan Fereyduni used the virtual platform to open their defense around to world as far as India and Iran. Others, like Fiona Kearns and Colleen Bove, took this unforeseen event as an opportunity to take their science communication to the next level, in fields as wide as computational chemistry to coral reefs. Far too many, like Ceri Weber faced the unprecedented events of “zoom-bombing” but took a stand on social media and beyond to make sure that these assaults would not happen to any other hopeful virtual defenders. Channeling the voice of many graduate students, Katie Hills-Kimball, Ally Boyington, and Oliver Harris reflect on the grief felt, the pressure of defending in such an uncertain time, and the sometimes funny challenges that holding your defense in your living room may bring. Additionally, Prof. Leaf Huang, who has been a professor for over forty years, and Prof. Ou Chen, who is now just having his first cohort of PhD students ever graduate, reflect on how virtual defenses have affected them.

First Impression

What was your first reaction to being told you or your student had to defend virtually.

I was definitely initially upset.

Ally (Emory University, Organic Chemistry, Advisor: Nathan Jui): I was definitely initially upset. This is a milestone that I had been envisioning for so long, and it felt like it was being taken away from me. I was also upset that family and friends who were supposed to travel to attend the in-person defense were not going to be able to.

Ehsan (University of Florida, Organic Chemistry, Advisor: Alexander J. Grenning): I was 4 days away from my defense date when I was informed that I should do my defense completely online. I was not too worried about the format of the presentation, but about the unpredictable events like Wi-Fi disconnection and power outages.

Colleen (UNC Chapel Hill, Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program, Advisor: Karl Castillo): I am a pretty nervous public speaker but filling the room with friendly faces always made it easier so that was tough to process. I also only had about 3 days to make sure my presentation was more friendly for digital-only viewing, which was stressful.

Fiona (University of South Florida, Computational Chemistry, Advisor: Henry Lee Woodcock): The PhD experience is very stressful. Understandably, I have been daydreaming about this day for years. Grief turned to guilt when my husband, a doctor, would come home day after day reporting more “COVID-likely” patients in his hospital. Now I felt sad and guilty for feeling sad because there were people out there truly suffering with the disease and the “stay home” measurements were meant to save lives. I decided if I had to have my defense online, I would drum up as many viewers, from as many different backgrounds, as possible. I wanted to tackle one last PhD science communication challenge!

Katie (Brown University, Chemistry, Advisor: Ou Chen): I was really upset when I found out that I would have to defend virtually. I continuously pictured the moment where I would get my turn to stand up in front of all the people that supported, mentored, and cared about me and feel proud and joyful for having “made it.”

Manisit (UNC Chapel Hill, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Advisor: Leaf Huang): Originally, I intended to have a traditional in-person defense, coupled with a streaming link because my parents and friends from India and other parts of the world couldn't make it to the defense physically. I was initially disappointed when I realized I had to defend virtually wholly, but in the end, many of my friends, colleagues, and folks who I interact with via social media joined and supported my defense.

Leaf (Professor, UNC Chapel Hill): I have been a professor for 43 years, and this is the first time that my own student had to do the defense in the virtual world. I was somewhat uncertain if the attendance will be good, but Manisit had over 70 people in attendance. I also found the tech support from our school was excellent.

Ou (Professor, Brown University): I feel disappointed and especially sorry for my students who will defend virtually, like Katie, who had family and friends traveling in for the defense. My immediate action was to check with my students who plan to graduate this spring (my first batch of PhD students in my career) and see if they still want to stick with their defense date and graduation time.

What Technical Challenges Arose as You Planned Your Virtual Defense? What Platforms Were in Place to Support You as You Planned Your Virtual Defense?

Ally: I was actually most nervous about the fact that I live in an apartment so I can't always be in control of the noise level. The apartment is a 100-year-old house with creaky wood floors, and I'm on the first floor, so I actually sent an email to my neighbors asking them to be extra-conscientious about loud shoes or moving furniture during the hour of my defense.

Katie: My department gave instructions how to download Zoom and set up an event, but there were concerns about “zoom-bombing.” To prevent this, I set my advisor as a co-host and followed guidelines online to secure my defense.

Fiona: I decided to use FacebookLive and YouTubeLive. I know my parents know how to use Facebook. YouTube is great because you then have the video saved, people can watch later, and (assuming you're happy with the defense) you have the video saved and can use it to help build a future teaching portfolio.

What Technical Challenge Arose during Your Virtual Defense and How Did You or Your Team Face Them?

My lab mates (who I designated as the co-hosts) were frantically trying to shut them [the zoom-bombers] down as I tried to present.

Ceri (Duke University, Cell Biology, Advisor: Blanche Capel): My defense was zoom-bombed. Initially, we thought it was just someone having trouble with the microphone, but everyone should have been muted. The audio disruptions kept happening during my advisor's introduction too. Once I began to speak, the individuals started actually saying things to me like repeating words I had just said, playing music, and eventually threatening me. My lab mates (who I designated as the co-hosts) were frantically trying to shut them [the zoom-bombers] down as I tried to present. They locked the room so no one could enter and had to manually eliminate individuals with suspicious names or who kept speaking. After about 10 min, the disruptions stopped, and I was able to finish presenting undisturbed. My lab mates are heroes!

Colleen: I was not able to mute participants who did not mute themselves, and I think that was distracting for people signing in. Questions were a little awkward, but I had someone read out questions people typed into the chat function for me to answer, which worked well enough.

These three are highly intelligent people, but they are not computational chemists, so there were still some gaps I needed to close. Slide by slide I asked myself: is there some way I could quickly help them understand what I'm trying to say here?

Manisit: I assigned one of my friends as a co-host for the meeting in case someone inadvertently unmuted their microphone and to help with reading questions or comments from the chat. Zoom also has a breakout room feature, which I used to seamlessly transition from public to the private part of the defense, and eventually to walk out while my committee members discussed in my absence.

What Considerations Did You Take to Alter Your Presentation Considering that There Could Potentially Be Many Backgrounds Present in the Audience?

Fiona: To construct the presentation, I thought a lot about my parents and my husband. My mother has been a nurse for over 35 years, my father has a bachelor's degree in oceanography and has taught science at many grade levels, my husband is a medical doctor. Out of all of my audience members, I wanted to talk to them. They have helped me get to where I am, they deserve to know what I have made from their love and support. These three are highly intelligent people, but they are not computational chemists, so there were still some gaps I needed to close. Slide by slide I asked myself: is there some way I could quickly help them understand what I'm trying to say here?

Ally: I ended up not changing it too much because I wanted it to be as much of a normal defense as possible, but I wanted to make it as clear as possible to non-scientists and non-organic chemists what the over-arching goal of my work has been. No one else in my family is a scientist so I really wanted my passion for my work to come across.

Katie: I worked on my introduction a bit more since I could potentially have more people that aren't a part of my department at the defense.

Ceri: I wanted to create a presentation that would be engaging, easy to follow, and accessible to my family, friends, and honestly anyone who wanted to watch. I tried to maximize visuals and animations, so that there was always something happening on the screen for my audience to watch and pay attention to. Instead of getting into the details of an experiment, I wanted to focus on why we did it, what it told us, and what that led us to do next.

Colleen: After we opened it up to more people, I did decide to make a few more adjustments to how I described my research and the implications. Luckily, studying coral reefs does have the advantage of being a topic a lot of people have at least some experience with!

Manisit : I tried to emphasize the big picture and, while I went deep into the data, also explained what that results meant in the scope of the work and why we should care about it. There were a few features available on Zoom to interact with the audience, such as conducting polls, although I haven't used it.

Presentation

What was different about presenting for a completely online audience compared with traditional in-person presentations.

Oliver (Drexel University, Engineering, Advisor: Maureen Tang) : Another challenge is that attention spans might be stretched more thinly when attending a virtual thesis defense. As a presenter the body language of audience members is often how I gauge how engaged my audience is. When presenting virtually, it is impossible to make the same sort of determinations about your audience's interest level.

Ally: My energy had to be much higher so that the talk was still engaging. It was great to get so many questions from people after the talk from all different parts of the country and all different fields. I also appreciated everyone who sent me a message or tweet afterward to congratulate me!

Colleen: I like to make people laugh in my presentation, it keeps my nerves down and lets me know people are with me, but this was missing from my virtual audience. I also had to make more of an effort to describe the content on my slides without just pointing like I would normally.

Fiona: To regain some interaction, I asked my viewers on Facebook to post selfies and “react” to the stream, to help me have some element of feedback. But still, the interaction between presenter and audience is gone with an online defense. However, the one thing that was undoubtedly the same between traditional/physical presentations and the online presentation was the presentation jitters!

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Fereyduni streamed his defense across the world. Here is a photo of his family in Iran watching him embrace his milestone defense to become a PhD. Photo courtesy of Fereyduni.

Do You Think There Is a Future for Virtual Defenses?

Fiona: Maybe funding grants can be awarded to students who would like to stream their defense online. Additionally, like poster competitions or the 3MT competitions, maybe students can compete to have professional streaming support for their theses. Either way I think we should try to keep an element of online/virtual defenses because it is indeed wonderful to be connected over such a large distance; it only took a crisis to help us see that.

I think that virtual defenses, and maybe soon virtual conference presentations, will become a part of the next generation of open-science tools.

Oliver: I think that virtual defenses, and maybe soon virtual conference presentations, will become a part of the next generation of open-science tools. Additionally, I think moving forward, virtual presentations, seminars, will become more prevalent for economic reasons. The long-term effects of the outbreak are unknowable, but the economic impact is already clear, and universities, journals, funders, etc. will have to adapt to a new landscape of travel and science communication.

Katie : In the future, I think it would be cool to sort of combine the traditional defense with the virtual one so that the presenters could have their entire support system (near and far) present at the defense.

Ehsan: I think that it would be great if we could provide virtual access to the public portion of PhD defenses. Some people may have a valid argument that they have unpublished results that they don't like to be released publicly. But at the very least this can be an option for those who like to do it.

Ceri: Assuming the link is secure, people from around the world can watch a seminar and ask questions. After my defense, several experts in my field emailed my advisor to talk about my work, which was really exciting! Local schools and classes can join in too. Science should be shared with the community, and this is a great way to achieve that. Maybe we can start including more committee members outside of our departments and universities.

Final Thoughts

How are you feeling about the whole process now (by the way, congratulations).

Ally: Now that it’s done I feel really positive about the way that it went. I'm am still bummed out that I didn't get to see family and friends in person that were supposed to travel, and disappointed that graduation is canceled, but it will definitely make a unique story to say that I defended my PhD from my living room.

Fiona : I travel often to Austria for research and I have lifelong friends there now. Because I moved to a fully online defense, my friends and advisors in Austria were able to watch it. One adviser, someone who has opened his lab to me—a foreigner—with continuous, gracious, hospitality, emailed me after my defense: “ In these times of quarantine it was wonderful to be connected over this large distance .” Science and technology can connect people, and what a better moment to share science than at the end of a master's or PhD degree.

Ehsan : We all probably have had experiences with the online meetings but delivering my whole 5-year PhD journey in a 1-hour presentation followed by almost 2-hour Q&A with my PhD committee members all completely online was a unique experience. I hope hiring managers and recruiters now and in the future have special considerations for this class that graduated in these unprecedented circumstances.

What Advice Would You Give to Students or Professors as They Prepare for the Virtual Defense Experience?

Manisit: I advise practicing the talk with colleagues and friends, because talking for a long time before a screen can be super awkward at times! If you can, also join the meeting using a secondary screen, and encourage people to keep their video on if they are comfortable; this can be a great way to substitute audience interaction. Recently, there had been issues of online harassment with publicly posted links, so definitely improve security so that the meeting can be conducted without interruptions while sharing good science with the world!

Ou: Based on my experience from teaching virtually, my suggestion would be slow down your presentation and maybe take a couple of short stops during the defense. Since now you are watching your screen but not your audience, and without any movements during the presentation, it could be easy to go faster and faster.

Leaf: I still think the defense should be done in person if possible, but if anyone cannot attend in person, virtual attendance will be an excellent alternative.

Katie: This has been a very emotional time around the world, and I think it is reasonable that focus cannot be solely given to thesis preparation considering the current events, and that should be taken into consideration and you should allow yourself to feel and be human.

Colleen : The advice I have for people preparing for something similar is go into it treating it as the same as the “in-person” mentally, because no matter how many people are actually in the room, it is still an amazing accomplishment and you should still be proud. I will say that the lack of an actual celebration was tough for me since I had always planned to celebrate with family, friends, and peers. Take time to process it all and it is okay to be a little disappointed, but at the end of the day it counts and is still a massive achievement!

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Preparing for a PhD Defense

Table of contents, preparing to start, nominate a faculty member to serve as chair for your defense, selecting a defense date, international students and work visas, registration categories for defense, dissertation writing and guidelines, preparing your dissertation for defense, registering your dissertation for the final oral exam, know the rituals.

  • Use PowerPoint

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Items to Bring to the Defense

The Closed Examination

Address Questions with Confidence

Student Status

Final corrected copies of the dissertation, publishing your final dissertation, binding your final dissertation, before defense.

Before you can start your thesis you must:

  • Complete all courses, exams, and research requirements
  • Meet with your advisory committee to ensure that everyone agrees that the work is ready to defend
  • Decide on a date for the defense
  • Inform your graduate administrator that you have started the process to prepare for your defense

A chair is appointed for each PhD oral defense to monitor and promote fairness and rigor in the conduct of the defense. To help eliminate pre-established judgments on the candidate’s work, the chair should be from a different program/department than the student. For more information about chair responsibilities, read the instructions for the chair .

You must identify a faculty member to serve as chair for your defense. The chair must be:

  • A current full-time faculty member at assistant professor rank or higher
  • Outside the department offering the degree program, or outside your advisor's department (interdisciplinary degree programs only)
  • Someone who has not had prior involvement in your research

The selection of the chair is subject to the approval of the department/program, th Arts, Sciences and Engineering dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, and the University dean of graduate studies.

The chair must be physically present during the entire defense, including the public oral presentation (if applicable) and the questioning session. The chair is welcome to read and comment on the dissertation and/or the defense presentation, but this is not required. The chair does not need to be an expert in your research area.

It is your responsibility to get a copy of the final dissertation to the chair at least one week prior to the defense.

You should begin scheduling the actual defense date three months in advance to ensure that your advisor, committee members, and chair are able to be present and that rooms are available on the date and time selected.  

Defenses can be held on any day the University’s Graduate Studies Office is open (not weekends, evenings, holidays, or the days between Christmas and New Year’s). Check the  academic calendar  for important dates and deadlines.

Use the  PhD calendar  to determine the deadline dates for getting your paperwork to the Office of Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs and department committee.

When all committee members and your chair agree to a specific date and time for the defense, inform your graduate administrator as soon as you possibly can, but no later than six weeks prior to your defense date . Your graduate administrator will advise you of any program-specific requirements for the defense as well as work with you to prepare for your thesis defense. They will also help you determine who will schedule the room for your thesis defense.

You should provide your committee members at least two weeks to read and comment on your dissertation before the date you need to register your dissertation.

Participating Via Video Conferencing

While you, your advisor, and the chair must all be physically present in the room for the defense, other committee members are allowed to participate in the defense remotely via Skype or other video conferencing technology so long as all committee members agree to the arrangement. This must also be approved by the AS&E dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs and the University dean of graduate studies before the dissertation is registered for defense.

Someone other than you and your committee must handle the IT setup and be on standby for any problems. If anyone involved finds that remote participation is interfering with the defense, he or she can request that the defense be rescheduled.

We strongly recommend that international students meet with an  International Services Office (ISO)  representative as soon as permission to start writing is granted. The ISO will provide information on visa options, documentation, and timelines for applying for a visa for employment in the United States.

You will register for one of the following categories while preparing your defense:

  • 999: Dissertation —Indicates the PhD student has completed all of the requirements for the degree except the dissertation and is in residence as a full-time student
  • 995 : Continuation of Enrollment —Indicates the PhD student has completed all of the requirements for the degree except the dissertation and is not in residence as a full-time student

See the registration page for more information about these categories.

The Preparing Your Doctoral Dissertation manual is a great resource to help you bring your dissertation up to the required standard of organization, appearance, and format for the University of Rochester. Before preparing the defense copy of your dissertation, check the contents of the manual carefully to help avoid mistakes that can be time-consuming and costly to correct.

Before beginning your dissertation, you should consult with your advisor for your department or program’s preferred style guide (APA, MLA, Chicago).

Including material produced by other authors in your dissertation can serve a legitimate research purpose, but you want to avoid copyright infringement in the process. For detailed instructions on avoiding copyright infringement, please see ProQuest’s  Copyright Guide .

The University requires that you provide copies of the dissertation to your committee members and exam chair. You should check with your committee members to see if they prefer printed or electronic copies (or both). Printed copies do not need to be printed on heavyweight, expensive paper unless there is the need to do so for figures and images. 

Printing and binding a dissertation can be expensive. You can use the Copy Center or FedEx Office to print and bind your dissertation.

In order to register your dissertation, you or your graduate administrator will need to create a record on the Graduate Studies PhD Completion website . This record will include:

  • Degree information
  • Past degrees
  • Contact information
  • The defense version of your dissertation as a PDF
  • Other relevant documents

The version of your dissertation attached to your online record is considered the registration copy.

When your PhD completion record is finalized, committee members will receive emails with links to access your record and approve your dissertation to progress to defense. You’ll need to provide copies of the dissertation identical to the registration copy to all members of your committee, including the chair, at least two weeks before the record is finalized. Everyone but the chair is required to comment or sign off on the dissertation before it is submitted.

There may be deadlines for registering your dissertation specific to your program. Consult with your graduate administrator to ascertain those deadlines and follow them carefully.

After all committee members have provided their approval, your thesis will be reviewed by your faculty director/department chair, the AS&E dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, and the office of the University dean of graduate studies. When all of these officials have approved your committee and dissertation for defense, your dissertation is considered registered. You will be able to track these approvals in your online record and will receive a confirmation email when approvals are complete.

The GEPA Office and the AS&E dean of graduate education and postdoctoral affairs, as well as the University Graduate Studies Office, may make corrections to the PDF of your dissertation. This annotated copy of your dissertation, along with the original version, will be stored in the PhD completion website. You are not allow to distribute updated versions of your dissertation prior to the defense, but be sure to incorporate any corrections before uploading your final dissertation to ProQuest®. 

After the defense, if the committee has required major revisions to be approved by one or more of its members, it is your responsibility to provide them with the corrected final version for their approval.  They will be asked to submit written confirmation of that approval to the University Graduate Studies Office. Failure to do so could delay conferral of your degree.

After the defense, you will receive additional instructions by email for completion of all PhD degree requirements.

It is important to walk into the defense knowing that your committee wants you to pass. Even if criticism is harsh, it is meant to be constructive. The defense is not solely an opportunity for the committee to compliment and congratulate you for the work you have done. It is also meant to challenge you and force you to consider tough questions.

The Defense

The best way to prepare for your defense is to regularly attend the defenses of your colleagues throughout your graduate program, not just several weeks prior to your own defense.

You can also talk to people in your department who already defended to find out what their defenses were like. You should also speak with your advisor to get a sense of his/her specific expectations of a defense.

Guidelines for Presentations

Use PowerPoint or Other Software to Create Slides

You should prepare a presentation of the research that comprises the thesis. Your slides should encapsulate the work and focus on its most salient contributions. In preparing, ask yourself these questions: “What do I want people to know about my thesis? What is the most important information that I can present and talk about?”

Here are some basic tips:

  • Use text large enough to be read by the audience (especially text from figures)
  • Ensure graphics and tables are clear
  • Don’t clutter your slides—if necessary, have things come up on mouse clicks
  • Use spell check and proofread your slides
  • Practice your presentation with your peers
  • Work on pronunciation, if required
  • Time your presentation to ensure it will fit the allotted time while allowing time for questions

If your defense includes a public lecture, we recommended that you do a trial run a day or two before in the room that has been booked for your lecture. This will allow you to familiarize yourself with the space and the equipment and to address any problems that arise during the trial run. 

Plan your public lecture to allow enough time for questions. Present enough information so that the audience understands what you did, why you did it, what the implications are, and what your suggestions are for future research.

Friends and family are welcome to attend your public lecture. Faculty and students in the audience are given the opportunity to ask questions.

Plan to dress professionally for the defense in the same way you would if presenting a paper at a conference or for a job interview. You will be standing for a long time on the day of your defense. You might want to keep this in mind when selecting the shoes you will wear for your defense.

Essentials for your public lecture include:

  • Your presentation
  • A laser pointer
  • A copy of your dissertation
  • A pen or pencil
  • A bottle of water 

You will be asked to leave the room while your committee reviews your program of study, and decides whether:

  • The thesis is acceptable/not acceptable
  • Whether members will ask sequential questions or whether each member will be allotted a specific time period for questioning

The person to start the questioning is designated. You will be called back into the examining room and questioning will begin. After all questions have been addressed, you will be asked to leave the room while your committee decides the outcome of the exam. You will be asked to return to the room to be informed of the outcome by the chair of your exam committee.

  • Listen  to the entire question no matter how long it takes the faculty member or student to ask it (take notes if necessary).
  • Pause and think  about the question before answering.
  • Rephrase  the question.
  • Answer  the question to the best of your ability; if you do not know the answer, remain calm and say so in a professional way.
  • Remember  that no one will know the ins and outs of the thesis and your research materials as well as you.  You  are the foremost expert in the thesis topic and  YOU know the research involved. Be positive!

Possible outcomes include:

  • Acceptable with minor or no revisions (no further approval required)
  • Acceptable with major revisions in content or format (in this case, one or more committee members must be responsible for overseeing and approving the major revisions before the final copies are submitted)
  • Not acceptable

After the Defense

You can submit the final corrected copies of your dissertation as soon as you address any remaining comments that were brought up during the defense or noted in the registration copy of your dissertation, which will be returned to you usually within a few days before or after the defense. You can take up to one semester following the defense to address any comments, during which you can remain a full-time student. Your degree conferral date will depend on when you submit the final corrected copies of your dissertation.

The day after your defense, you will receive an email from the University dean of graduate studies that provides instructions on how to:

  • Submit the final corrected copies of your dissertation through ProQuest
  • Provide authorization for the release of your dissertation through UR Research
  • Complete a mandatory online exit survey
  • Verify to the University dean of graduate studies’ office that the dissertation has been submitted

The University of Rochester requires all doctoral candidates to deposit their dissertations for publication with ProQuest Dissertation Publishing and with the University libraries. Hard copies are not required. The library receives an electronic copy of the dissertation from ProQuest, but students must give the University permission to obtain it.

For questions regarding publishing through ProQuest, contact Author Relations at [email protected] or (800) 521-0600 ext. 77020.

Check with your graduate administrator to see if your department wants a bound copy of your dissertation, and, if so, how the cost of binding is covered.

If you want a bound copy for yourself or your family, you can purchase one through ProQuest .

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Zoom Boom: Gerontology Department Moves Online to Conduct 5 Virtual PhD Dissertation Defenses in 4 Days

virtual phd defense

The new dissertation defense (pets welcome): Clockwise from top left PhD candidate Hayley Gleason defending her dissertation, professor Edward Miller, associate professor Kathrin Boerner, PhD student Molly Wylie, LeadingAge LTSS Center @Mass Boston co-director Robyn Stone and Brandeis University professor Christine Bishop.

Years of work, study and preparation came down to this final step: Defending PhD dissertations to a series of faces on a computer screen.

Conversing with images of people, arranged like tiles on an electronic board, had become a suddenly familiar experience for millions of people as Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms replaced live gatherings amid the growing coronavirus threat. No doubt many PhD dissertation defenses took place that way as campuses shut down across the country in March.

But the UMass Boston Gerontology Department’s busy schedule put that virtual work-around to a serious test: Five remote dissertation defenses in a span of four days. Three of them took place through the morning and early afternoon of a single day.

PhD candidates Andrea Daddato, Danielle Waldron and Hayley Gleason all defended their dissertations on March 31. Yijung Kim followed on April 2 and Haowei Wang defended the following day. All were successful.

“This was really a remarkable feat for the Gerontology PhD program,” said department Chair Jeffrey Burr. “We had never tried anything like it. The dedication and coordination among doctoral students, faculty and staff made it possible.”

Preparation for virtual defenses required new considerations. What specific location would be best to use during a dissertation defense? What about child-care adjustments? Who’s going to make sure the dog doesn’t barge in? Most importantly: Where was the strongest, most reliable wifi connection located?

Kim went to the kitchen in her home. Gleason chose her dining room. Daddato decided her home office was best. Waldron considered a friend’s vacant apartment for the quiet but worried about wifi reliability so opted for her childhood home instead.

“The sentiment of finishing my academic career in the same place where my love for learning began is a something I’ll always cherish,” said Waldron.

Danielle Waldron prepares for her dissertation defense.

Danielle Waldron appeared relaxed before her dissertation defense bean.

Daddato, Waldron and Gleason conducted a practice Zoom meeting four days in advance of their “Defense Tuesday,” when they all would experience the real thing. It was a chance to try out the platform and get helpful feedback from each other.

Wang went to Zoom to experiment with different audio options and camera angles ahead of her event. Kim tested different equipment and – realizing there would be no opportunity to pop champagne corks after the real event – got a can of sparkling wine to enjoy at the end of her defense.

All the candidates said they appreciated the support of their dissertation committee members. But they also thanked staff members who became particularly important in making sure the virtual defenses went off without any glitches – Michele Campbell, Diem Pham, Martin Hansen-Verma and Chris Brindley.

When their days finally arrived, the five said they felt no  more nervous than they would have expected to be in a conventional, live dissertation defense. It became a very similar experience, but not entirely the same.

“In some ways I was less anxious because I could not see other people,” said Kim. “But I also lacked all the social cues of a presentation — how my voice sounds, whether I am pacing myself right, if everyone else looks bored.”

Wang was comfortable through her presentation, when she could speak uninterrupted. “But I felt nervous in the Q&A session because I could not have direct eye contact with the one who raised a question,” she said.

Remote dissertation defenses meant there was no opportunity for friends or family to attend the big events on campus. But the online format also made it possible for more people who would have been unable to attend live to watch and experience the virtual event.

“This was an aspect of the virtual defense that ended up being a real positive,” said Gleason. “My parents and two of my aunts were able to listen in to my defense, which they would not have been able to do if it had been in-person. They really enjoyed being a part of it.”

Wang said she was surprised by the number of people on his Zoom connection, though some had to jump on and off. One friend got up early in California to catch her defense.

Said Daddato: “It was so nice to see friends who I hadn’t seen in a while on the call.” Professor Edward Miller, a co-chair of her dissertation committee, said he felt there were more people in attendance during her remote event than are usually present for in-person defenses.

Now Daddato also has a recording of her dissertation defense that she plans to share with other friends and family members who were unable to join the live Zoom event.

The PhD candidates said they were grateful there was a virtual option available in an emergency to complete their dissertation defenses, though most hoped for a return to conventional live events eventually. They said a hybrid of a live defense captured by Zoom, allowing more people to watch, was perhaps the best option for the future.

But they all made it through the final step of the program, with a story to tell for the rest of their lives.

“It was a unique experience that I will brag about in the future,” said Wang.

April 17, 2020

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Andrea Daddato , Danielle Waldron , gerontology , Haowei Wang , Hayley Gleason , Phd , Student Research , UMass Boston , Yijung Kim

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    Set ground rules for your presentation from the very beginning. In a conventional defence, you might dive right into your talk. If you are presenting remotely, take a moment to explain how the ...

  2. PhD Defence Process: A Comprehensive Guide for 2024

    The PhD defence, also known as the viva voce or oral examination, is a pivotal moment in the life of a doctoral candidate. PhD defence is not merely a ritualistic ceremony; rather, it serves as a platform for scholars to present, defend, and elucidate the findings and implications of their research. The defence is the crucible where ideas are ...

  3. The rise of the remote Ph.D. defense

    She cheers up when sees and hears that many of her friends -- including one from Australia, where it's 1 a.m. -- are tuned in to her defense via Zoom. Looking at the rising conference participant count on the bottom of her screen, however, Rasmussen grows nervous again. There are dozens of people here -- some 75 at one point.

  4. Remote PhD Defense: Lessons Learned

    My PhD defense was something I was envisioning for many years throughout graduate school, where I would dress up in a fancy suit, demonstrate my abilities as an academic researcher, and celebrate with handshakes and hugs from people who have watched me grow. ... When I first heard I had to switch to a virtual defense, like many others, I was a ...

  5. Defending a PhD thesis on Zoom

    Like so much else in life, a rite of passage for doctoral students has gone virtual during COVID-19: the PhD defense, in which students present their research and field questions from faculty before receiving a degree. You enter this event as a student. You leave as a newly minted PhD.

  6. How to Defend Your Dissertation, Virtually

    Here, Nitasha shares her experience and advice for holding a successful virtual dissertation defense. Prepare Well in Advance. Online meeting setup and structure: Several days before your defense is scheduled, talk to your dissertation committee chair and decide your conferencing platform and how to structure the meeting. One of my committee ...

  7. Virtual Defense: Top 5 Online Thesis Defense Tips

    It is important that you carefully read and understand the structure, protocol, and requirements well in advance to help you plan your thesis defense skillfully. Here we present top 5 tips for effective thesis defense remotely. 1. Perfect Your Pre-Defense Preparation. Universities and institutes have revamped their thesis submission and defense ...

  8. Defending from Home: Navigating a Remote PhD Defense

    The current global pandemic has hastened the arrival of one reality of modern grad school: the remote PhD defense. Until recently, grad students may have had a committee member or two attend their defense remotely or live-streamed their defense for out-of-town friends and family, but 100% virtual PhD defenses were relatively rare. Navigating a remote

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    Like so many other aspects of the COVID-19-imposed virtual world, the online PhD defense presents obstacles along with some unexpected benefits. There are, of course, worries about connectivity and technical glitches. "There is always one faculty member who will shout on chat, 'Will everyone please turn off their microphones,'" Russek ...

  10. A Guide for Graduate Dragons on Acing Virtual Presentations and Defenses

    A Guide for Graduate Dragons on Acing Virtual Presentations and Defenses. May 1, 2020. Please visit the 'Drexel's Response to Coronavirus' website for the latest public health advisories. From a presentation in the recent annual Drexel Emerging Graduate Scholars (DEGS) Conference to an end-of-year thesis defense, there is one thing that ...

  11. Virtual Defense Resources

    After the public part is over, either remove everyone else from the video chat for the committee questioning/exam portion, or start a separate virtual meeting for the questioning part. It can be helpful to have your committee chair manage this part of the defense. The committee chair can serve as moderator by selecting who asks the next question.

  12. Defending Your Dissertation: A Guide

    She described her writing experience as "an intricate process of balancing many things at once with a deadline (defense day) that seems to be creeping up faster and faster— finishing up experiments, drafting the dissertation, preparing your presentation, filling out all the necessary documents for your defense and also, for MD/PhD students ...

  13. Corona vs. Kaltenberg: Our first virtual PhD defence

    Corona vs. Kaltenberg: Our first virtual PhD defence. In times of crisis, we tap untested resources and resilience. We need creativity to escape a terrible 'new normal' and determination to endure the journey. In short, we have to innovate and persevere. On 18 March 2020, for the first time in our history, one of our doctoral students ...

  14. Ph.D. candidates defend virtually amid COVID-19 pandemic

    Jeongsoo Kim was the first doctoral candidate in his cohort to defend his dissertation using the virtual format shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic forced San Antonio to enact stay-at-home orders. Kim recalled, "Not many people are familiar with the applications available to do the video calls.

  15. Advice for Remote Dissertation/Thesis Defenses

    The University's current guidelines instructing all employees to telework and avoid coming to campus directly impacts thesis and dissertation defenses. The Graduate School has provided emergency policy for remote defenses.In addition to these policies, we offer some advice for all defense participants. We know that these are challenging times, and we hope that this guidance helps students ...

  16. PDF Guidelines for HST Virtual Defenses

    Virtual HST PhD Thesis Defenses HST PhD defenses held during the spring and summer 2020 should be conducted online. Identify a Host: The host could be someone on the committee, or someone who will be present throughout the entire defense, but NOT the defending student. If you would like a staff member from the Academic Office

  17. The Generation of Virtual Defenders

    Thesis defenses, a cornerstone of any advanced degree, are filled with emotions no matter what the circumstances. However, for hundreds of students planning to defend their master's or PhD theses in early 2020, another challenge was placed upon them: planning a completely virtual defense. Owing to COVID-19, social distancing requirements lead to thesis deliberations behind computer screens ...

  18. Preparing for a PhD Defense

    Nominate a Faculty Member to Serve as Chair for Your Defense. A chair is appointed for each PhD oral defense to monitor and promote fairness and rigor in the conduct of the defense. To help eliminate pre-established judgments on the candidate's work, the chair should be from a different program/department than the student.

  19. Zoom Boom: Gerontology Department Moves Online to Conduct 5 Virtual PhD

    The PhD candidates said they were grateful there was a virtual option available in an emergency to complete their dissertation defenses, though most hoped for a return to conventional live events eventually. They said a hybrid of a live defense captured by Zoom, allowing more people to watch, was perhaps the best option for the future.

  20. David Bau PhD Defense

    Dissection of Deep Neural Networks - David Bau's PhD Defense at MIT, August 24 2021Do deep networks contain concepts?One of the great challenges of neural ne...

  21. Data Semantics Lab

    Successful (and virtual) PhD defense by Cogan Shimizu. Adila Krisnadhi, Cogan Shimizu, Raghava Mutharaju, at ISWC 2019 in Auckland, New Zealand. DaSeLab October 2019. Rama Chittella Master Thesis Defense, July 2019. DaSeLab April 2018. Lu Zhou Ph.D. Proposal Defense, April 2019.

  22. Virtual PhD Defense of Steven Jens Jorgensen

    Steven Jens Jorgensen from the University of Texas at Austin presents his PhD dissertation work, "Towards Deploying Legged Humanoids in Human Environments."A...

  23. Virtual PhD defence on Tuesday (Canada) : r/PhD

    Virtual PhD defence on Tuesday (Canada) I'm terrified, and feel like I'm already starting to BLANK, well before the date. I've read chapters of my thesis and each one has 2-4 typos per chapter. Yikes. I have to do a 45 minute presentation before, which I'm not scared for at all since its virtual. I can easily read my notes.

  24. Dissertation Defense

    PhD Dissertation Proposal Defense - Environmental Science & Policy. Mar 29, 2024, 2:30 - 4:30 PM . Hybrid Potomac Science Center 3102 ... Place: Virtual meeting & IABR 1004. For full Thesis Defense Announcement Click Here. Understand. Innovate. Succeed. 4400 University Dr. ...

  25. Camille Moyer

    Camille Moyer, - Applied Mathematics, PhD Defense Friday, April 5 12:00 PM AZ/MST WXLR A307 Virtual Meeting Link: https://asu.zoom.us/j/5816037703?omn=86863119128

  26. Protesters interrupt Biden, Obama, Clinton at $25 million New York

    President Joe Biden and his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, headlined a star-studded fundraiser with former President Bill Clinton on Thursday, offering a robust defense of the White House's ...