Tips & Tricks: Virtual thesis defense and submission

Tips & Tricks: Virtual thesis defense and submission

Rice's virtual defenders

With the world moving online, the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies revamped the process for thesis defense announcements and thesis submission, and students and thesis committees quickly moved to an online defense process. Defenses are moving forward as while our scholars are maintaining the social distancing recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.

Newly minted doctor Anna Babushkina of BioSciences was the first at Rice to present her thesis to a partially remote committee due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It was a lot at first,” she said. “Everything happened in such a short timespan. My defense was happening early Monday, and I think the first time I had heard of Zoom was Friday afternoon.”

Facing the unknown and making a mental adjustment to the new method, she said, was the hardest part, but her fears about the technology quickly dissolved. “It was easy! Zoom was not that hard to figure out,” she said.

Edward Valentin of History defended his thesis entirely remotely, and said the process was very smooth. Valentin, Babushkina, and graduate program administrators Lydia Westbrook and Rachael Eaton below give their advice for getting ready for Zoom defenses, both from the student and administrative perspective.

1. Set up a pre-defense meeting & troubleshoot with your committee.
“One thing that really helped was that I met with my program administrator, Lydia Westbrook and my adviser, Caleb McDaniel, to do a test run of all the technology, experimenting with the microphone and the virtual breakout room,” said Valentin.

Westbrook noted the meeting was also helpful in outlining how the defense structure would be laid out - when time for questioning comes in, how questions would be received, and when the breakout room will be utilized. See her thorough example here. It’s also a good time to decide if the defense will be recorded. “I recommend a pre-meeting to other students and administrators, and I’m insisting on them for our other defenses this semester,” she said.

After the pre-meeting is a good time to check in with your committee and ensure they have everything they need before your defense. Is their internet adequate? Do they have Zoom downloaded? Does their microphone work well?

2. Practice your defense in Zoom before you send out a zoom link with your announcement.
“Make a test meeting, invite your friends and try to play with the mic and video,” said Babushkina. “I tried logging in from my computer and my phone at the same time and realized it was not going to work, so troubleshooting was helpful to figure those things out.”

Be sure to look at the Zoom tutorials offered by Rice, and reach out to OIT if you get stuck. They have a list of best practices and training to get you up to speed.

When sending your announcement, remember that your virtual room is pretty big! “What was nice was people not at Rice interested in what I do being able to check in and see my defense,” said Valentin. “There were 24 people watching and they couldn’t necessarily have all fit in one room.”

3. Your preparation may be a mix of old and new techniques.
“Test that you have a reliable internet connection before your defense starts,” recommends Valentin. “Test to make sure the camera angle is right. If you’re sharing your screen, become comfortable with that, and really practice muting microphones because it’s kind of like the reply-all button. Have good microphone discipline.”

Think about other forms of preparation as well. Assign co-hosts to help manage microphones for you. Plan your professional attire. Do practice runs with your peers and get their feedback. Be aware of your body language and how that translates to an online audience. Do you need a glass of water nearby? Will you use headphones?

4. Utilize the tools available to make the virtual more “real”.
“There is a feature in Zoom that allows you to share an application screen, plugin HDMI, etc.,” said Babushkina. “There is also a feature in PowerPoint which allows you to have a laser on screen like a real laser, using your mouse,” she added. Think about the things you have “IRL” that need to translate into a virtual environment. Test all of these tools out in your practice session with friends, and keep track of which ones you like!

Worried about uninvited guests? Utilize a meeting password, set screen sharing to "host only", and disable the following: file transfer, "join before host" option, and "allow removed participants to rejoin" option. See more tips from Zoom on this topic here, and more on security from OIT here.

5. Make sure your meeting has enough time scheduled.
All Rice students have been provisioned to Zoom Pro. Verify that this is the case by looking at your account settings by clicking on your initials on the top right of your zoom app. If you find that your meetings tend to cut off after a set period of time, reach out to the Office of Information Technology so they can help troubleshoot. Your meeting can have a programmed length of time, so to be on the safe side, make sure you have enough time built in for introductions, your defense, the committee breakout, questions, and of course - celebration!

6. Assign co-hosts, and ask for help when you need it.
Whoever hosts the meeting, be sure that the presenter is assigned as a co-host, so they can share their screen and control video and microphone muting as needed. Westbrook notes that co-hosts must be using their NetID to be assigned hosting duties. Make sure your co-hosts know what is expected of them and when they should jump in.

Do you need help the day of? Utilize your program administrator. “It was so helpful having admins in the room at the same time, because we could do multiple things at once and test from different accounts and computers,” said Babushkina.

7. Check-in with everyone when you start the meeting, set any ground rules.
Make sure everyone can see and hear you. If someone has trouble, encourage them to speak up. Remember to lay any ground rules that you previously decided on in your pre-meeting. Who should be allowed to ask questions, and should those be held until the end? Should questions be asked only utilizing the chat feature, the raise your hand feature, or will you open the floor, so to speak? Remember to be patient with questions. There may be a lag, or people may be formulating their thoughts.

8. Utilize the breakout room.
During the meeting, the hosts can create “breakout rooms” within Zoom, so that the committee can confer while the student waits in the main area, or manage the defense in the same way that it is done traditionally during the meeting. This avoids having to have to separate meetings running. Practice with this tool during your pre-meeting.

9. It’s going to be OK.
It might seem intimidating, but you’ve got your ducks in a row.

“I would encourage students to expect that there may be some technical hiccups but to focus on defense preparation,” said Biosciences graduate administrator Rachael Eaton. “Know that the committee and audience are sympathetic to the added challenges of holding the defense remotely. Try not to let the technical stuff frazzle you, everyone is in the same boat and will be understanding. Everything will be OK.”

10. Celebrate!
Congratulations, doctor! Take the time to celebrate your accomplishment - it’s well-deserved. Know that your GPS ducks are coming. And because you can’t immediately walk to Valhalla, keep some scissors nearby to cut your tie - and maybe keep some champagne chilling in the fridge.

Additional Resources:
Getting started with Zoom
Zoom Meeting Privacy & Security
Best Practices for Video Conferencing
Zoom Tutorials
Rice Video Conferencing Options and Instructions
Tips & Tricks: Teachers Educating on Zoom