These tips were created as a resource for our graduate students who will be defending their theses remotely and their committee members. They are meant to provide some best practices and advice; they are not regulatory or procedural. Before reading through these tips, we recommend you first familiarize yourself with the University of Waterloo process for a remote thesis defence

You can also read about Yichun Huang's remote defence, the first remote defence to take place in the Faculty of Arts. Huang's successful defence "was held on the WebEx platform, and it went off without a hitch".



Tips for students

Before the defence

  • Invite your friends, family, and colleagues to attend! In response to feedback, GSPA has opened up remote defences to external attendees. External attendees are permitted to attend with the caveat that the progress of the defence will not be interrupted if their connectation fails. 
  • Plan your physical space for the defence:
    • Be sure there’s no glare from sunlight or other light behind you, but also ensure that there is enough light so that you can be seen without a shadow. A well-lit space, with the light in front of you, is ideal. 
    • Try to sit in a quiet location without too many distracting things behind or around you.
    • Access to two monitors will make the process a bit easier; you can see your slides on one monitor as you present and still see committee members on another monitor, to see reactions. It may be possible for your television, with an HDMI cable, to be a second monitor.
    • You’ll have an opportunity to test your system prior to your defence. We recommend you carry out this test in the same location that you plan to use on your defence day.
  • When you test your system, consult with your faculty administrator and IT support person to ask for tips or recommendations to enhance the technological experience. Ask them how in-camera parts of the defence will work (e.g. the deliberation portion) and how you will return to the video call once the in-camera session is complete.
    • Ensure you also use this time to become familiar with the system (how to share screens, turn your microphone and camera on/off, etc.).
  • Make sure that your internet can handle the video call. If you're on wifi, consider having the wifi router in the room you're defending in, and asking others to avoid using the wifi during your defence.
  • Charge all of your devices prior to the defence, but have a spare set of batteries (if applicable) just in case. If possible, ensure that all of your devices can be plugged in during the defence.
  • Plan what to wear. Dress as you would for your in-person defence. It will help put you in the right mindset and will help the defence feel more official and celebratory, even if you’re in your kitchen!
  • If you think you might need accommodations for your defence because of a disability, contact AccessAbility Services as soon as possible.
  • If you’ve been in self-isolation or you’ve been social distancing for a while, think about doing a conference call with colleagues a day before the defence - warm up your vocal cords and get used to talking for a long while again.
  • Practice your defence presentation with your supervisor, colleagues, family or friends to get an idea of what it feels like to be presenting on your computer without a physical audience present. 
  • Even though you're likely at home, think ahead about what you will want with you during the defence, such as water and note paper.
  • Relax and rest prior to your defence. Remember, you have made it to this stage, so you are ready for your thesis defence!

During and after the defence

  • Be aware that without a live audience, it’s difficult to know how you’re doing based on audience cues. Try not to read into the faces of your committee too much – or hide the video of the committee while you’re presenting if seeing them makes you nervous.
    • Silence may also seem harder to tolerate in the online environment, but remember to take your time answering questions.
  • When delivering the presentation, sit and be sure that your webcam has a good shot of you from the shoulders up. In a live defence, you would probably be standing, but that won’t work here since you won’t be as clearly visible (you don’t want to suddenly be defending only from the neck down).
  • Remember to look at the camera when you are talking (and not at the screen you are presenting, particularly if you are using two monitors).
  • If the audio or video is lagging, consider having committee members turn off their cameras during your presentation. While you won't be able to see your audience, this can allow for your audio/video to be seen and heard better.
  • Consider using a paper notebook to record the feedback you receive by hand instead of typing it out – this will give you more control over how you’re presenting on the camera, and will prevent unnecessary background noise and the possibility of your screen becoming shaky.
  • Even though your defence is remote, try to ensure you have access to a print version of your thesis with key sections marked with flags or bookmarks. This will allow you to quickly find the relevant sections that the committee would like to discuss.
    • If you can’t get a print version, try to have a digital version on a separate device so you don’t need to flip between your thesis and the video call or presentation.
    • Referring to specific parts of the thesis might be a challenge in a virtual environment. Refer to specific page numbers or figure headings and wait for everyone to be on same page!
  • Keep in mind that things may not go exactly as planned. There may be some glitches, pauses, or audio issues, but that is okay. Everyone is doing their best to make sure that your defence is successful and most of all, everyone is cheering for you!
  • A remote defence might feel a bit anti-climactic. Be sure to find a way to celebrate your success with friends and family after the defence wraps up. This is a huge milestone and an impressive accomplishment. Set up a video call with your close friends, family and colleagues – and celebrate!
    • Here’s some great advice from Leehi Yona (Twitter @LeehiYona): “Zoom in with some friends and change your backgrounds to some of the funky virtual ones (e.g. outer space, on the beach, etc.). Gets a laugh and you can all remotely raise a glass!”
    • After Yichun Huang's defence, the first remote defence in the Faculty of Arts, "all committee members agreed to drink a toast in their own homes in her honour"
    • If everyone on the call is comfortable with the idea, take at least a few planned “pictures” (or screenshots) with your committee so you can remember the moment years down the road! Following your defence, we'd love to see your pictures so that we can celebrate with you, too! You can send your picture to gradventure@uwaterloo.ca and we'll add it to our remote defence celebration page!

Tips for committee members

  • Prior to the defence, consider exchanging contact information with the other committee members, the Chair, and the candidate. This ensures that if your connection (or another member's connection) is lost, you're easily able to get in touch. It can be nerve-wracking for a candidate to be stuck waiting, unsure of what is happening, when a committee member or Chair drops off the video call!
  • If you're able, try to log into the video session 10 or 15 minutes prior to the start of the defence. This provides an opportunity for you to talk casually with the candidate, which can help calm their nerves before the defence begins.
  • It’s difficult for the candidate to know how they’re doing without an audience and a limited ability to read your body language. Consider exaggerating your positive responses with head nods, thumbs ups, or big smiles to help mimic normal positive audience feedback.
    • Based on feedback, candidates appreciate when committee members have their video on. All committee members are encouraged to use their video cameras throughout the entire defence, unless instructed otherwise by the Chair or technical support. 
  • It’s much more difficult to build rapport in a virtual context. Leave a little bit of time at the beginning of the defence for small talk. This will help the candidate feel comfortable with the committee and set them up for success.
  • Don’t multitask during the defence.  We are all tempted to do this in the online environment, but this is not a regular online meeting.  The student defending has spent years anticipating this moment.
  • Keep the meeting link somewhere handy so that it's easy to find the day of the defence.
  • Ensure you have contact information for other committee members, in case there are any technical issues.
  • Remember to keep you microphone muted when you are speaking to avoid unnecessary noise that could distract the candidate.
  • As a committee, unmute your mics at the end and give the candidate an audible round of applause!

Acknowledgements and sources

Many of these tips were provided to us by University of Waterloo students who recently defended remotely, or were borrowed from documents put together by others, including Alyssa Frederick and Ashton Merck, recent PhD students who defended their theses remotely. We are most indebted to the following documents:

Alyssa Frederick, Advice for Defending a PhD Remotely

Ashton Merck, Defending a Dissertation by Videoconference

Duke University Department of Economics, Duke Econ Celebrates First All-Remote Ph.D. Defense

Ethan White (@ethanwhite), “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.”

Viva Survivors (@vivasurvivors) “If you've had a viva over Skype/video, can you please respond with thoughts on what that was like. What were the challenges? What did you have to take into account? What advice would you give others? Will summarise points in post/thread (with attribution) soon. Thanks!”