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Ethan White
+ Your AuthorsArchive @ethanwhite Assoc Prof of Ecology & Informatics. 🐦+🌳+🖥️+📉. Research + software + education. @weecology & @datacarpentry co-founder. @our_research board member. he/him. Mar. 18, 2020 4 min read

I was part of two remote PhD defenses today that both went really well. Since there are going to be a lot of these in the following months I'm going to share a few thoughts for folks defending or participating in a defense remotely. 1/

First, a big thanks to @UF for quickly suspending all in-person requirements for defenses. I don't think we should have them in the first place, but I really appreciate the quick response to current circumstances. 2/

Zoom was used for both defenses and it worked great for both. This included ~50 folks attending the talk remotely and slides with video. Everything connection wise worked well except for a single committee member with some minor freezing during the private defense. 3/

That said, give yourself time and backups in case things go wrong. Set up the connection early (15+ minutes) and ask the committee to show up early to check everything is working. Have one of more backups including something as simple as a phone based conference call. 4/

Have the someone on the committee other than the defending student setup the Zoom (or other system) call so they can manage the call and the student doesn't need to juggle that on top of everything else. 5/

For the presentation either ask all participants to mute themselves at the start or better yet have whoever is managing the call mute them all centrally. It's easy to forget you aren't muted and we had multiple resulting interruptions. 6/

Presentation audience - leave your video on (barring bandwidth issues). If you've ever given a remote talk the lack of normal audience engagement is really challenging. A bunch of live video faces really helps. 7/

Presentation audience - consider exaggerating your positive responses. With lots of folks everyone is small so clear head nods, thumbs ups, big smiles, can all help mimic normal positive audience feedback. 8/

Presenter - A 2 monitor setup will let you see folks attending the talk plus your slides and notes. Of course if it's easier for you to not see the audience, then definitely take the opportunity of defending remotely to not have to see them. 9/

If there are bandwidth issues you may want to have the audience stop their video. Since the presenter often can't tell if there are connection issues the committee member managing the call should manage this via chat to avoid interrupting the presenter if possible. 10/

Have a plan for how to have the student "step out of the room". I think the best solution (if using Zoom) is to use a breakout room for the committee to talk and then return to the main room when done (above recommendation for committee member setting up Zoom supports this). 11/

Committee Members - Definitely use your video if possible during the private portion of the defense. This is an inherently stressful activity and a lot of the usual positive encouraging social cues get lost with voice only communication. 12/

That said, if you're freezing when asking questions it's probably because of your local wireless/upload bandwidth and so you can probably help this by turning off your video so that you can communicate clearly. 13/

Committee Members - Be kind and supportive. Frankly you should always be doing this, but it's even more important now because everyone is under a ton of extra stress. This doesn't mean you can't probe the work, just do it in a positive way focused on helping the student. 14/

Committee Members - Minimize required changes for the thesis itself. Most of us aren't focusing well right now and revisions are often due on a tight timeline. Clearly distinguish recommendations for changes prior to submitting papers from changes required for the thesis. 15/

Committee Members - Communicate your excitement at a student passing clearly/effusively. This is a big deal even if we're all stressed and can't celebrate it in the usual ways. /16

New MS/PhDs - This may not be how you envisioned the conclusion of years work happening, but that doesn't change that it's a huge accomplishment. Celebrate in whatever (publicly responsible) way you can. E.g., Have a video-based lab celebration 🎉️🍾️ 17/17

Addition 1: Another option for having the student "step out of the room" is to put them "on hold." Thanks to @michaelhoffman for this suggestion.

Addition 2a: When sharing your screen you'll only be able to see ~5 other participants. If they all have their video on that can still be really helpful for helping it feel like an in-person talk, but if you want to see more people...

Addition 2b: ...you can screen share from one computer and join the call from another computer to see all the participants. Thanks to @eatheringtonp for pointing out the single computer limitation I wasn't thinking about.


You can follow @ethanwhite.



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