How to defend a PhD remotely

Alyssa Frederick

Taken from

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

I had to do this remotely, because after handing in my thesis on digestive physiology at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), I moved to the other end of California. There, I started a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at the Bodega Marine Laboratory (BML), part of the University of California, Davis.

I was in a conference room in my new institution in Bodega Bay, California. My principal investigator and one other member of the thesis-review committee watched the defence from UCI, along with a small group of students and faculty members. One of the committee members was also watching remotely, while on sabbatical in the United Kingdom. I shared the video link publicly, and my friends and family were able to watch from other parts of California and from Pennsylvania, Colorado and Florida. Even my husband and new baby tuned in from our home.

My defence comprised a slide presentation lasting around 45 minutes, followed by public questions. Then we closed the meeting to everyone except myself and my committee members for private questions.Coronavirus latest: global infections cross half-million mark

I wrote this article to help graduate students and their principal investigators navigate remote defences, something that might become more common as we all adjust to the current coronavirus outbreak.

Many other issues need to be negotiated if you are defending your thesis remotely — I’ve listed the challenges and questions I faced below. I can’t promise that all this advice will be appropriate for your situation, so pick the pieces that work best for you. And remember that we’re all still adjusting to academia during a pandemic, so be patient with colleagues and administrative staff.

Check the rules

Ask your department about paperwork and what will fulfil its rules. Will you need a notarized signature on your PhD forms, for example? Can you file a signature electronically, and can your committee members sign digitally?

Manage expectations

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 technology works — for example, how people can mute or unmute themselves, and how they can submit questions. Set clear rules to help audience members understand their role and know when it’s OK to speak up. Describe the format and what your audience can expect — how long you will present slides for and how much time you will leave for a question-and-answer session.

Hope that everything works, but expect something to go wrong. On the morning of my defence, the wind kept knocking out the power at home; I had to drive to the BML, where I had booked a meeting room, hours earlier than expected to charge my laptop. Even with the best-laid plans, your Internet connection might drop out, or a committee member might get disconnected. Explain how your viewers can reconnect if they need to, and practise redoing a few slides so that you don’t get flustered if it happens.

After the public part is over, either kick everyone out of the video chat during the committee questioning and exam section, or start a separate virtual meeting. In either case, find a moderator (in my case, my principal investigator) and ask them to choose who gets to ask the next question. They can tell each individual to turn on their microphone at the right time, make sure everyone can hear each other, and try to avoid crosstalk and feedback.

Find suitable space and technology

As coronavirus-related restrictions continue, people involved in digital meetings might be more flexible when it comes to disruptions such as children shouting in the background, but these things might still cause stress during a high-stakes presentation. Work out what will fluster you and adjust accordingly. I presented in a conference room because I knew the threat of being interrupted by my baby and dogs would be too distracting.

Consider your backdrop — don’t present in front of a glaring window, for example. 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, and if not, can you create one with the help of family or others you live with?

If your university permits you to be on campus while practising social distancing, there might be seminar spaces available to you with decent webcams, Wi-Fi and remote-presentation equipment.

Standard Zoom accounts allow only 40-minute meetings, but my university gave me a licensed-user account so that I could host a longer one. Webex is one of many other videoconferencing tools. Ask your IT staff what’s available to you. Be patient — they will probably be dealing with many videoconferencing requests.

Practise remotely

Once you have a suitable space designated, practise using it and the same technology you will use during your thesis defence. Have your principal investigator or someone else test that they can hear you and see your slides. Ask whether your lab members can help by providing feedback and asking questions remotely, just as others will during the actual event. Speak slowly and remember to pause — audio and video sometimes take a second to catch up.

Format slides

Format your slides for easy viewing online, and try to eliminate transitions or animations because they might be glitchy. I saved my slides as a PDF because there would be no animation issues that way, and I could send it to all thesis-committee members without formatting problems. It’s best to use a large font so that there is less text on each slide — the viewing screen will be smaller than in a regular talk. Distribute slides to your committee in case members have difficulties seeing what you are sharing on screen, and number each slide so that it’s easy for everyone to navigate to the same one if needed.

Celebrate well

My former lab had a celebration when I successfully defended my thesis, and I was able to join that using video chat. That might not be possible these days for anyone about to defend their thesis remotely. Celebrate with your room-mates or family, or a friend or two, keeping in mind social-distancing guidelines and public safety, and plan to celebrate in person with your team when the coronavirus crisis is behind us. When I tweeted about my experience, a suggestion from one respondent, Leehi Yona, resonated with me: “Zoom in with some friends and change your backgrounds to some of the funky virtual ones (e.g. outer space, on the beach, etc.). Gets a laugh and you can all remotely raise a glass!”

These are difficult times, so be kind to yourself and others if a remote thesis defense doesn’t go perfectly. Congratulations on finishing your degree!

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Dr. Arul M. Chinnaiyan elected to the National Academy of Sciences in honor of outstanding contributions to cancer research

S.P. Hicks Endowed Professor of Pathology
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for Translational Pathology
Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute
American Cancer Society Research Professor
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