Dr. Zoom: Newly Minted Ph.D.’s Share the Dos and Don’ts of Remote Dissertation Defense

Lawman Zoomdefense Screenshot
A screenshot from Allison Lawman’s remote dissertation.

On April 10, 2020, the first cohort of Jackson School doctoral candidates to defend their dissertations remotely gave their presentations over Zoom. The students that made up the cohort were Allison Lawman, Chelsea Mackaman-Lofland, and Suyu Fu. 

We spoke with the three candidates — each now fully-fledged doctors of philosophy—about best practices for conducting a successful virtual doctoral defense.  


DO – Invite everyone. 

 For many people, a remote dissertation is easier to attend than an in-person one. Take advantage of that and share the invitation outside of your thesis committee. Invite friends, family, colleagues and even potential collaborators. Mackaman-Lofland invited people involved with postdoc positions that she applied for.  

“It was really nice to be able to invite people that I would like to work with,” she said.  


DO – Let someone else manage the meeting. 

 You need to focus on your presentation and answering questions. Make a plan for other people to handle the logistics. Mackaman-Lofland had two meeting co-hosts, her advisor and her roommate (who could easily alert her to any technical difficulties), which were responsible for managing attendees. At the start of her defense, Lawman had her advisor give a brief outline of Zoom etiquette – from muting mics, to holding questions to the end – so that she could focus on the science.  


DON’T – Let your first run be your only run. 

Call a friend or mentor and practice your presentation. Make sure your equipment works and that you know how to access breakout rooms. Call each and every attendee to make sure they can access Zoom – and also see how they’re doing.  

 I scheduled independent Zoom meetings with my external committee members to make sure it let them into the meeting, and we could talk and hear each other,” Lawman said. “We had that natural opportunity to catch-up and see each other.”  


DO – Read this article.  

 Mackaman-Lofland said that a short article in Nature — aptly titled “How to Defend a PhD Remotely”— helped her prepare her slides and her space. You can read it here: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00971-z 


DON’T  – Use one Zoom meeting room for everything.  

 Take advantage of Zoom breakout rooms. These virtual rooms allow some members to leave the larger group without having to start a new meeting. Use a breakout room to take questions from your committee, and to wait while they make their final decision. Fu said he left the Zoom meeting during deliberation because, at the time, he was unfamiliar with breakout rooms. He recommends that other students familiarize themselves with how they work to keep meetings more seamless.   


DO – Take a screenshot of the Zoom meeting room 

It’s a memento from your big day and a reminder of everyone who attended.  

 “That meant a lot to me personally,” Mackaman-Lofland said. “I’ll probably include that as a figure in my thesis acknowledgements.”   


What other tips should we add to the list? Send an email to Monica Kortsha, mkortsha@jsg.utexas.edu