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Eight Tips for Defending Your Thesis Remotely


Dr. Zachary M. Wilmot, Associate Editor

October 2022

The defense of a thesis or dissertation marks the completion of a master’s or doctoral degree for most students. Thesis defenses tend to be highly stressful, and the necessity of conducting them online due to the COVID-19 pandemic has only made this process even more nerve-wracking. Fortunately, with a little bit of extra preparation, remote defenses can not only be stress-free, but even enjoyable. Follow these tips to make sure that you are ready to present and defend the crowning achievement of your graduate school career.

1. Understand your work inside and out.

Even if your defense is being conducted remotely, above all else, what matters most is that your research is sound, that you are able to present it in a clear manner, and that you can answer any questions your committee or audience might have about your research. The very first step for preparing yourself for any defense, either remote or in-person, is to make sure that you are very familiar with the work you have done and can anticipate the kinds of questions you may be asked.

Even if you are tired of editing your thesis or dissertation, make sure to read it over in full at least once shortly before your defense; depending on how long you have been working on it, you may have forgotten about some of the parts you completed first. As you read, write down any questions you think you might be asked, and come up with good answers to them. If you are almost positive that a specific question will be asked, you can even create a special slide to answer that question and put it at the end of your presentation.

By making sure that you are familiar with entirety of the research you are presenting, you will both be more confident and better able to answer questions.

2. Make your slides as clear and engaging as possible.

When defending academic work in person, the audience splits its attention between the presenter and their slides. When defending remotely, the audience will focus more, if not all, of their attention on the slides. This makes it difficult to communicate using gestures and body language, so if you are defending remotely, you need to make sure that your slides are as engaging and clear as possible.

Make sure to carefully proofread your slides, and use a consistent, simple, plain font that is not bolded or italicized. Use large font sizes and avoid cluttering your slides with detailed information. Remember that you want your slides to only show the most important parts of your research, and they should not include everything you want to say; you can fill in the details in your oral presentation. Instead of using lots of text, use lots of images alongside short bullet points. To make sure your slides are as clear as possible, organize each one around a clear finding, idea, or theme.

Because your slides are going to be the primary way your audience visually interacts with your defense, you should ensure that they are error-free and easy to understand.

3. Script your presentation.

To ensure that you are as prepared as possible for your defense, make sure that you write out your presentation beforehand. This includes determining what you will say about each slide, as well as writing down the overarching points that you need to make sure you discuss. Do not read off of your slides; instead, write a short script for every slide that covers everything you want to say about it. Because your audience will not be able to clearly see your gestures and body language, they will be more focused on your slides and words than they might otherwise be. This makes it especially important to be able to speak in a clear and organized manner. While some degree of improvisation will make your presentation more natural, writing a script that you can elaborate on if needed will make your presentation clearer. Doing this may also help reduce any anxiety you may have about defending, since if all else fails you can simply read from your script.

4. Practice talking to a computer screen.

When giving talks in person, you receive constant feedback from the audience in the form of facial cues and body language, such as attentive stares, laughter, nods, and raised eyebrows. Remotely, you will not be able to see your audience or their reactions, and so will not have any immediate feedback during your presentation. This lack of real-time feedback can be disorienting, so make sure to practice your presentation not only in front of others, but also in front of a computer screen with no one else around. This will help get you used to speaking to a virtual audience without relying on audience cues to guide your presentation. If it helps, during your defense you can also try to imagine yourself receiving positive feedback from your audience, which may boost your confidence.

5. Check that your software and hardware is working properly.

Technology—especially software—is notoriously unreliable, and the last thing you want is for your software or hardware to stop working on the day of your defense. In case of surprise internet outages, it may be best to have a backup location for your defense prepared. The day before your defense, make sure that your video conference software, camera, and microphone are all functioning and that your sound and video outputs are clear. Doing this will ensure that you have time to fix any unexpected software or hardware problems in a timely fashion. On the day of your defense, ensure that your internet connection is strong and reliable, and if it is not, then try moving to your backup location.

When you begin your presentation, it is also a good idea to set expectations about the technology, as many people in your audience may not be familiar with video conference etiquette or the software being used. If you have been having technical difficulties, let your committee and audience know that up front, and explain to them how (and when) they can ask questions. This will help ensure that your presentation goes as smoothly as possible.

6. Carefully prepare your presentation space.

When defending in person, you have little or no choice in your venue. Remotely, you have the freedom to defend from anywhere, but it is best to choose a location with a door that can be firmly closed, that has adequate lighting, and that is tidy and distraction-free. Even though it might be difficult for you audience to see the room behind you, it is important that it looks professional; consider sitting or standing in front of a blank wall or in front of a bookshelf.

In addition, make sure that there is not a window or a light behind you, as this can interfere with the ability of the audience to see you. If possible, try to sit facing a window or light source.

When the moment of your defense arrives, remember to firmly close the door to the room in which you are presenting, and consider locking it. This will both minimize noises interrupting your presentation and also prevent others from entering the room unannounced. Lastly, make sure that you are dressed professionally; you should dress exactly like you would if you were having an in-person defense.

7. Double check all of your paperwork.

Though the successful defense represents the culmination of one’s degree, nothing is over until all the paperwork is signed and approved. Navigating academia’s bureaucracy is difficult enough when done in person, and making sure all of the paperwork is completed correctly and on time is even harder when it has to be done remotely. Before the day of your defense, and ideally at least a week before it, make sure to check your school’s website to determine what forms you will need to complete before and after the defense, and make sure that your committee understands what they will need to do to ensure that you receive your degree on time.

8. Remember that your committee wants you to succeed.

A thesis or dissertation defense is stressful, whether it is in person or remote. It can be easy to be overwhelmed by the pressure you face going into a defense, but remember that your committee wants you to succeed almost as much as you do. Having students who have successfully defended their dissertations and theses is important for faculty members to build their careers. This means that if your committee has told you that you are ready to defend, they mean it; they would not have let you advance this far if they did not think you could do it. Draw confidence from their confidence in you, and know that you can successfully defend your work, even if you have to do it in front of a screen.

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