Advice for Remote Dissertation/Thesis Defenses
March 23, 2020
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 and their committee members prepare for successful defenses.
For all participants (including “public” participants)
- 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.
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.
For the Student Defending
In advance of the defense
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
- 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.
- Plan your physical space for the defense:
- 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.
At the defense
- 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).
For Committee Members
- 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.
For the Dean’s Representative
- 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.