The COVID-19 pandemic has changed much about the way we work, study, and conduct research, including the transition of dissertation defenses to online platforms. We asked recent Ph.D. graduates about their experiences with this new way of completing the final step of their program, and how they might advise future Ph.D. candidates to prepare for it. Whether using Zoom or BlueJeans—the university’s primary video-conferencing platform—these new graduates share firsthand insights on everything from web connectivity to choosing the right space from which to present.
How did you adjust preparing for your defense when you learned it would take place virtually?
I had to make sure that I could use BlueJeans to run my talk and have my mentor as my talk’s moderator so that we didn’t get any trolls and so that the audience could be adequately silenced to minimize lag. I also mentally prepared to have to troubleshoot any problems with my mentor and without the help of any IT people who would have helped set up the talk in the physical space. I had to get over the fact that my family wouldn’t be there, and that my fiancé would have to keep our new puppy from barking and so wouldn’t get to hear the talk in person. Being alone was the hardest part.
—Christina May, Neuroscience
I bought a new plant because I knew it would be in the frame.
Probably the biggest adjustment was simply realizing that my home would be on camera. I bought a new plant because I knew it would be in the frame. There were also a lot of logistics around figuring out how to recreate the private committee discussion before announcing to the official online conference room whether I had passed.
—Angie Baecker, Asian Languages and Cultures
I prepared (handwritten and scanned) slides; I had originally been preparing to give a chalk talk on the blackboard. Since math is often more effectively explained when things are also being written out in real-time (and this is also common disciplinary practice) I looked into options for live annotation in a virtual environment.
—Feng Zhu, Mathematics
I just rehearsed the virtual meeting with a friend to make sure there wouldn’t be any technical difficulties. Everything else was the same.
—Dawei Huang, Computer Science and Engineering
Was there anything unexpected you encountered during your virtual defense?
The day before my defense, I tried sharing my screen and it crashed my aging computer. I fortunately was able to borrow another laptop. I also found out while setting up that you can only use Presenter Mode in BlueJeans if you have two monitors. I was able to borrow one at the last minute. With one monitor only, you cannot share your screen and use Presenter Mode at the same time. The actual defense went smoothly after that.
—Jesse Contreras, Epidemiology
I’d recommend setting a moderator other than you who can mute everyone’s microphones
PowerPoint crashed during the Zoom presentation. It’s a lot of drain on the computer all at once.
—Annie Blais, Educational Studies
Some people didn’t mute their microphones, and I couldn’t access the mute-all button while in slide-sharing mode. That made things difficult. I’d recommend setting a moderator other than you who can mute everyone’s microphones.
—Brittany Clawson, Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology
One of my committee members was disconnected for a few minutes. At the beginning we were all on two separate BlueJeans meetings, three on mine and three on another.
—Joachim Angster, Music Performance
Were there any aspects of your defense made better or easier by being online?
My aunts, uncles, and cousins in India, Canada, and across the U.S. could see my defense. Even our scientific collaborators in Northern Italy were able to attend virtually. The room I had originally booked for an in-person defense prior to COVID-19 only fit 60 people, but online we had over 80 attendees. It was really nice to share that moment with people who wouldn’t normally be able to be there.
—Samir Nath, Cellular and Molecular Biology
The room I had originally booked for an in-person defense prior to COVID-19 only fit 60 people, but online we had over 80 attendees.
I felt much less pressure to perform in front of an audience. I liked being able to sit, rather than stand, and present. I also had much more control over the presentation; a few non—defense talks I’ve given in the past had all sorts of logistical challenges related to slide advancers, etc., which were not present virtually. Overall, I much preferred a virtual defense to an in-person defense.
—David Martel, Biomedical Engineering
More people were welcome to watch. I had a mentor from Chile join!
—Alexa Ellis, Education and Psychology
I think responding to questions was simpler, because there was not the back and forth with audience members, you were able to just answer and move onto the next question.
—Nicole Ryan Mechanical Engineering and Natural Resources and Environment
What advice would you give to a fellow student preparing for their own virtual defense?
Make sure to have the settings automatically mute and turn off video for audience members. When you share your screen, don’t keep your webcam turned on, it eats into your bandwidth and can cause streaming issues. You can have your webcam on before and after for questions. I would have people type their questions into the chat instead of asking them out loud. It’s also very important to have someone who can notify you if your connection is interrupted; I just watched a friend of mine defend and his connection failed and he wouldn’t have realized it if someone with him hadn’t notified him.
—Brittany Rodriguez, Biomedical Engineering
I would have people type their questions into the chat instead of asking them out loud.
A virtual defense may not be what you envisioned, but make the most of it! You still have reached a tremendous milestone, so please recognize that. I would also encourage setting up a family/friend celebration after your defense.
—Clare Kuisell, Nursing
Preparation of the file is likely going to be the same as an in-person defense, so just make sure you have a good command of BlueJeans features (e.g., muting the audience as the host). I had 10 days from when my defense was scheduled to the defense date, and did a test session with my family a couple of days before my defense for just a few minutes to try sharing the screen, muting the audience, etc. This helped me avoid unpleasant surprises during the actual defense. I recommend to not worry too much beyond this and proceed as you normally would with your preparation.
—Saman Moniri, Chemical Engineering
I recommend connecting one’s laptop via Ethernet to mitigate the risk of internet disruptions and considering the lighting of one’s setup (e.g., avoid backlighting).
—Eduardo Martinez, Philosophy
Note: Responses have been lightly edited for consistency and readability.