Confinement in science #8: Defending a PhD from home.

In Belgium, defending a PhD usually involves two major steps: a preliminary defense behind closed doors and a public defense, where colleagues, family, friends and the general public are invited. A few weeks ago it was (more than) time for me to publicly defend. As this was during an intense lockdown, there was no other option but to organize the public defense entirely from home.

At first, I didn’t ponder this a lot, besides thinking it will be fine and that there will actually be some advantages (people from further way can join; I have less organization work…). Of course there are some obvious drawbacks (no personal interactions, no reception and party). What I realized only late is the technical component. Like probably almost everyone else, I’ve had numerous online meetings by then including even remotely teaching computer labs. So, naively I thought, I’ll manage this online defense as well. Little did I know.

It’s one thing to have an online work meeting, where, if something goes wrong, you’ll excuse yourself and try again. Defending your PhD online means there is already quite some stress and pressure, so you really want to minimize any technical difficulties. Also, it occurred to me only after sending invites, that the advantage of remote participation may lead to more people joining than normally would. In fact, I got pretty scared then that too many would connect causing a total collapse of the video conference call.

So, choosing a communication platform, organizing technical help for the session, testing everything beforehand and realizing it somehow suddenly doesn’t work anymore, asking neighbors for spare headsets, begging for the construction site next door to be quiet, having jury members dress up only halfway, … – Whatever you do, one thing is almost guaranteed, I guess: it will not work perfectly!


Just after finishing my initial presentation my laptop overheated and shut down. So, I’ve already had the third* major adrenaline rush before the jury even asked a single question. In the end, it all went relatively well, I think, and we even had a little virtual reception in the evening.

I hope you won’t have to defend online only, but if you do, my advice would be: prepare well of course, but on the day focus on yourself and your science and anticipate that it likely won’t go exactly as planned. Hopefully your jury and audience will be sympathetic, as mine were.


*another one in the morning when yet another test with the software failed and another one when the defense finally started…

Written by Henrik Christiansen