This April, Jackson School of Geosciences Ph.D. candidates had to quickly adjust their dissertation plans. Instead of gathering with committee members behind the closed doors of a conference room, they would be presenting from home, connecting with their committee over the social conferencing program Zoom.
None of the three candidates in the first cohort to defend remotely ever imagined having to present their research this way. Nevertheless, they met the challenge. The former candidates, Allison Lawman, Chelsea Mackaman-Lofland and Suyu Fu, are now fully-fledged doctors of philosophy in geosciences.
The experience of defending a dissertation remotely is something that Ph.D. candidates around the world are now grappling with. We spoke with the three candidates to get their advice on the “Dos and Dont’s” of conducting a successful virtual defense.
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 dissertation committee. Invite friends, family, colleagues and potential collaborators. Mackaman-Lofland even 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.
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). It was their job to manage meeting attendees. For Lawman, at the beginning of her defense, she asked her advisor to give a brief outline of Zoom etiquette – from muting mics, to holding questions to the end – so that she could focus on the science.
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. It’s also a good chance to check in and 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.”
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
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.
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.”