Five Tips for a Successful Virtual Defense 

With social distancing and stay-at-home orders changing the format of dissertation and thesis defenses, how can defendants prepare for success?

by Sarah Holland

Defending a dissertation or thesis is one of the most nerve-wracking and fulfilling moments of one’s academic career. It’s the final hurdle, the last 10 yards, the .22 miles at the end of a marathon. It’s expected to be done in-person, face-to-face with one’s committee, close family, friends, and colleagues. Social distancing has changed that landscape, forcing all dissertation and thesis defense to go virtual.  

It’s a hard change to accept. Disappointment and grief in the face of a lost experience after years of hard work are normal, expected even. But the show must go on. Your dissertation or thesis must be defended. What do you need to do in order to be successful? 

Carrie Klein—who successfully defended her dissertation to receive a Ph.D in education with a specialization in higher education at the start of virtual defending—noted that setting up the virtual defense, “required a bit of organization beyond a typical defense. With input from the newly appointed Dr. Klein and Professor Zach Schrag, Director of MA Program in History, here are five tips for a successful virtual defense.  

Get the Right Equipment 

Make sure you have the equipment necessary for an online defensestrong internet connection, microphone, webcam, and any other tools that may be needed. If you are worried that you do not have sufficient equipment, notify your committee. It may be possible for them to find loaner equipmentLikewise, Mason is accepting applications for emergency student relief that can be used for equipment and for internet fees.  

Review all your presentation materials beforehand, and make sure everything is Webex-ready. Your computer screen is much smaller than a projector screen, so make sure your guests and committee won’t be squinting to read the materials 

Klein suggested making a PDF of your slides and sending it out beforehand to guests and committee members, as well as linking to the PDF in the virtual room chat before the session started. This way guests can still follow along without needing perfect video connection 

Lastly, get creative. You most likely won’t have access to all the technology and displays you would have had while on campus. Find creative ways to arrange your set-up to recreate your ideal defense space. Stack cardboard boxes or large books to create a podium on which your laptop and other materials can be presented. Use a TV as a display for your PowerPoint slides. Move lamps around for adequate lighting. Set your space up for success.  

Prepare the Virtual Room 

Work with your committee, adviser, and program director to set up a virtual room for your defense. The most critical feature of whatever platform you choose is whether or not participants can see one another. We give important cues when preparing to speak or ask a question, and it becomes much easier to manage a conversation if everyone is visible.  

“One of the toughest things about a defense is answering a question at the right length,” Professor Schrag said. “Committee members usually want an in-depth response, but they may also want the chance to follow up. Maintaining the visual cues (iesomeone leans forward to interject) can help. So I would recommend that committees do what they can to get everyone on video. 

Make sure you have a backup program ready to use. Servers are getting overwhelmed by the sudden increase in web traffic, so have other virtual meeting spaces prepared in that event. Backboard Collaborate Ultra was recommended by Professor Schrag as a Webex alternative; consider having a similar alternative—maybe multiple—just in case. 

In a similar vein, plan for a dissertation room, and a deliberation room.  This way, guests will not have to be removed from the virtual room during deliberation, and are able to support the student once the decision is made, because one of the benefits of a virtual defense is that more people are able to attend 

“Everyone logged on in the beginning, and they were sending me ‘good luck’ and ‘congratulations’ before it all began, so there was some nice comradery,” Klein said, noting that while she had invited a number of people to attend her in-person defense, even more were able to watch due to the defense going virtual. “I was able to chat with people while the committee was deliberating in a separate Webex room, instead of going through it by myself. And then, when Jaime Lester came back in and announced ‘for the first time, Dr. Carrie Klein’ everybody was cheering and typing lots of notes.”  

It will also be helpful to remind guests throughout the presentation to mute their microphones (committee members are the exception). Virtual chat room programs are designed so the person with the loudest audio will appear on the screen, assuming that is the person who is talking. Keeping the mics muted ensures the video and audio will stay with the presenter.   

Run a Test 

Before it’s time to defend, check to make sure all your equipment is functioning and that you know how to use it. Ask a friend, family member, or colleague to join you in the online meeting space that will be used for your defense, as well as in the backup, and test all the features you will need. Make sure you know how to share your screen, how to minimize and maximize the chat, and what the “raise hand” feature looks like from the presenter’s perspective.  

Use this time to find the space in your living arrangement that has the least amount of background noiseAn air vent that doesn’t seem noisy to you might make enough feedback when sent through a microphone to distract listeners. Make sure there is adequate lighting, and don’t rely solely on natural light to illuminate your space.  

On the day of your dissertation defense, open the room ten to fifteen minutes early to make sure everyone—include yourself—has time to set up and make sure everything is working properly prior to beginning the defense. Klein also recommends sharing phone numbers with your committee members, so they have a way to contact you if something goes wrong on their ends.  

Hit Record 

When asked what was one thing she would have done differently, Klein said, “I forgot to press record!”  

Carrie Klein relieved after being called "Doctor" for the first time.

A benefit of the virtual defense is the ability to record the entire proceeding from start to finish. This is an enormous moment for you, the culmination of years of dedication to challenging scholarly work. So be sure to press that record button at the top of the screen. You’ll have your entire presentation preserved, and will have a lasting memory of that magical moment when you’re called a “doctor” for the first time.  

You can also ask your guests to take some photos during the presentation. Not being physically with your committee means that photos may slip your mind. But this is still a memory you’ll want to preserve, even if it’s not exactly what you expected it would be. Ask someone, or maybe a few people, to take screenshots along the way, or ask everyone to share photos of their reactions to the decision announcement. Virtual or not, this is an accomplishment worthy of capturing. And speaking of... 

Celebrate! 

You’ve done it! You’ve made it to the end of this glorious journey! Yes, we are still social distancing, but that doesn't mean you can’t celebrate. Make a boxed cake. Take a three-hour nap. Throw a dance party in your living room. Join your friends for a virtual celebratory happy hour and drink some champagne. You can still celebrate and relish this achievement right now. And start making plans for a big celebration once we #FlattenTheCurve 

Klein, for her part, is planning a big backyard barbecue, and is hopeful for an in-person graduation in the future. While the initial prospect of a virtual defense was disappointing for her, Klein said it was still an exciting and celebratory moment for her and her guests. “Even though it was different from what I had planned, it ended up being a lovely day. I’m excited to see where this hard work will take me.”