Quality Leadership Matters Blog


Some Tips for Virtual Defenses by Jayson Richardson & John Pijanowski

April 27th, 2020 by


Some Tips for Virtual Defenses by Jayson Richardson and John Pijanowski

At our respective institutions, we have been holding virtual doctoral defenses for a few years now. As such, we wanted to share a few tips on how to make the process run smoothly while creating an engaging atmosphere where your students feel supported and faculty feel engaged. Moreover, we just want to reduce the stress of the unknown by sharing lessons learned from our mutual experiences. Although our defenses are held in Zoom and Collaborate Ultra, the tips also apply to other video conferencing platforms as well. Reach out if you have any questions!

Tips for Committee Chair

  • Set the agenda at the beginning of the meeting. Tell everyone the order in which things will happen. For example, will you start by sending the student out of the Zoom room? When and how can guests participate? When do guests have to leave? How will the ‘leaving’ process work? Most video conferencing programs offer a breakout room or waiting room feature which is a way to have closed conversations between the committee members so that the guest and the candidate are not present. By putting non-committee members in a breakout room or waiting room, they will not be able to see or hear the committee’s deliberations, but they will be able to talk with each other while they wait.
  • Start the meeting by setting the tone and giving practical guidelines such as:
  1. Use the mute feature when not talking.
  2. Use headphones to reduce feedback problems.
  3. Use the chat feature to provide useful links as you think of them. If the platform you are using is new to the participants it is helpful to provide a brief walkthrough of how to click over to the chat feature to make it visible.
  4. Use the reactions feature to agree with a question or ask participants to use a physical thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate agreement or disagreement. It is helpful to ask participants to practice using reaction features during the introductions so they become comfortable using them.
  5. Tell the committee members and guests about accommodations. For example, both Zoom and Collaborate Ultra have a closed caption feature that is not too shabby and can be toggled on by the attendee so it will only appear on their screen.
  • Start the meeting with introductions. This also allows you to check audio and video.
  • It may be necessary to inform the external reviewer and outside member(s) about any nuances of your doctoral program. Using this time helps to not only break the ice with someone you may not know, but it lays out what is expected in the program. For example, if your doctorate takes on a predefined, three-chapter action research approach, talk about that approach briefly so everyone is on the same page. This is also a good time to share with everyone present the directions that were given to the student for how the defense will proceed.
  • It is useful to establish if the student will be given the opportunity to present without interruption. If it is the norm to ask questions during the presentation, identify how that will happen. For example, will committee members use the hand-raising feature, physically signal with their hands in their video, or simply turn on their audio to interrupt?
  • Sharing a presentation while video conferencing takes up screen space and squeezes out the face-to-face video. The chair and student should discuss this in advance and make a pedagogical decision about how much is gained by the presentation of slides and how much is lost in the social interaction of the speaker with their audience. Nevertheless, sending the slide deck (or the link, if stored in the cloud) in advance allows the committee and other attendees to make their own choices about where to focus their attention.
  • Some universities have set up a system with the graduate school to remotely handle paper flow and signatures. If your university does not have procedures in place, now is the time to ask those questions and establish remote signature procedures.
  • The best part of any dissertation defense is that moment of congratulations at the end of a successful defense. While we miss out on that big handshake moment in a virtual defense, one benefit of being online is that the student will be able to watch the recording and see their own face when they hear themselves being called “Doctor” for the first time – assuming you remember to record that part of the defense. At the very least, do a screenshot so the student can share it on social media!
Tips for Students

  • Tell the chair in advance if guests will attend. Most universities have a procedure to allow for this. If a public posting is required and a location must be noted, then either put the chairs’ office or provide electronic contact information for the chair so folks can request the link.
  • Send a reminder to the committee detailing the time and Zoom room location about a day in advance. Remember, faculty members are notorious for misplacing emails!
  • If you opt to do a slide deck presentation, here are some practical tips:
  1. Keep it short. The defense is a time to talk with you and learn about your work. Staring at a slide too long creates distance with your audience. Remember, everyone in the room has already read the manuscript.
  2. Think about how you can reduce text, improve visuals, and engage the audience. Also, remember that fonts might appear smaller when screen sharing, so ensure you use a larger font than you normally would. Avoid decorative fonts or fancy backgrounds. Keep it simple and clean.
  3. Work with your chair to determine the time limit and the limit to the number of slides. Having this predetermined really helps with the flow.
  4. Let your audience know in advance how long the presentation will take.
Technology Tips

  • Don’t publically share the Zoom link but instead provide the link to each member of the committee and the candidate to share with individual guests and ask that they copy the chair on each of those invitation emails so that the chair knows who and how many to expect.
  • Chairs should be in the room 20-30 minutes early to allow the candidate to join early, test the audio, and test any visuals that may be shared. This will help reduce the stress of fumbling with new technology while committee members are waiting to start.
  • Enable waiting rooms. This means that the committee will stay in the main room while the chair sends the candidate and any guests to the waiting room. If you are uncertain how to send folks to the waiting room, you can also create a breakout room (just one) and manually place the candidate (and guests) in that room. Breakout rooms are an available option in Zoom and Collaborate Ultra, and in Microsoft Teams (through a fairly clunky workaround).
  • Set up Zoom so participants are automatically muted when they enter.
  • The chair should monitor participants to ensure only one speaker is active while all others are muted. The chair (being the host) has full control over each participant. Protip: Click on the participant button on the bottom of the screen to get a pop out. Keep that popout present on the side of the screen (or better yet, a second monitor). This allows you to see who is muted, who has sound coming through, and who is in the room. This gives you quick access to mute participants who forget to do it themselves. It also allows you to see if there are late attendees in the waiting room.
  • If you plan to record the session, toggle off the recording when the committee deliberates. Those conversations are private.
  • Remember that the chat log can be downloaded – even the private chats. So, use this space with care.

For any dissertation committee, the key to a successful defense is teamwork. This teamwork ethos extends into the virtual defense as well – but more so. Things may go wrong and people may get flustered. As such, practice the process with a committee member so there is more than one person in the room who understands the technology. The dissertation defense is a huge milestone in a student’s life. By removing ambiguity, by preparing all involved for the process, and by familiarizing yourself with the technical side of being virtual, you can make this experience feel pretty close to the defences we have come to know and love.



Jayson W. Richardson, Associate Professor, University of Kentucky, jayson.richardson@uky.edu



John C. Pijanowski, Professor, University of Arkansas,  jpijanow@uark.edu

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