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 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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