PharmSci Alum Shares Tips to a Successful Virtual Defense

Kalistyn Burley

Kalistyn Burley, a now PharmSci Alum, was prepared to defend her dissertation in person in April. Instead, Burley had a completely virtual experience and defended her dissertation through a computer screen in her own home.

We took some time to chat with Kalistyn to see what advice she could provide for students that are having to defend virtually. 

Q: What was something that you wish you would have known before your defense? 

A: It will be different than you imagined, but you can still celebrate with all your friends and family.  My husband organized a zoom happy hour celebration that evening with a bunch of our closest friends.  I still had champagne, but I did not have to share it. 

Q: Did you have any technical difficulties? 

A: Yes!  I intended to use my TV as a secondary monitor (to view the audience) but ended up having issues with the sound and microphone settings.  Also, there were two points during my talk where the doorbell rang repeatedly and my dog barked.  It turned out to be flower and champagne delivery!  Additionally, I had some notifications pop up on my screen during the presentation and was concerned that it might be distracting for the audience.   It really helped to have my husband in the room as the “tech” guy to deal with all the distractions.  He used his headphones to watch my talk on his laptop and was able to reassure me that my notifications weren’t visible to the virtual attendees.  He also called me out for mindlessly taking off my shoes and hugging my knees during the questions.  For some folks, it might be better to stand while speaking so as to preserve the formality of the presentation.

Q: Did you test everything out before your talk? 

A: I did a practice presentation, which I recommend – however, no matter your preparation, something is bound to go wrong. I recommend to be prepared to just roll with it!

Q: Was there anything that was really frustrating during your defense? 

A: I was disappointed, at first, when I realized that I would likely need to defend remotely.  However, I was also thankful that I was able to carry on as scheduled and that folks who would not have otherwise been able to attend (due to travel restrictions or work) were able to join in for the Zoom meeting.  Presenting on Zoom also made it easy to record and share with others!   Both my parents work in “essential services” up in northern California and it would have been challenging for them to travel and attend an in-person defense given the current climate.  My mom is an ER nurse and was scheduled to work the days before and after my defense date; using Zoom, she and my dad were able to readily join the meeting from home!  We set up some practice Zoom meetings with them ahead of time to sort out any technical issues on their end.

Q: What is some advice you’d give someone who is getting ready to defend virtually? 

A: For me, it was really important to be able to see some of the audience members’ faces.  During my practice talk, I sometimes felt as though I was talking to myself, which made it harder to engage with the audience.  Along those lines, I think it becomes particularly important to carefully craft and animate your slides.  The content of your slides will take up a large proportion of their computer screen, so it’s critical not to overwhelm the audience with too much information at once.  Also, when sharing your screen, be sure to only share the application or program containing your slides (eg. PowerPoint, web browser).  That way, the audience won’t be able to see any notifications or other distractions that might pop up on your computer.  

Audience Tip: make sure to unmute and clap at the end!  This will give the presenter a sense of completion.  

Q: What are your plans for the future? 

A: I have started a job at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in San Diego as a Computational Chemist.  I had a virtual onboarding last Monday and I am now working remotely!  We use Zoom a lot.

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