I served as a neutral chair for an online doctoral defense recently and thought it might be helpful to share my experience. This may be helpful to others who serve as neutral chairs or for graduate students or examiners who are wondering about the process for an online oral defense. I also want to note that this may not be the process for all examining committees, but this may provide some ideas.
I connected to the meeting room (using Zoom) about 15 minutes prior to the start of the exam. When I arrived, the student and their supervisor were already in the virtual room and having a conversation. There was also a graduate program administrator who was there to make sure everyone could connect properly, and the student could share a slide presentation. Next, we discussed what would happen during the deliberation part of the exam and decided the student would go into a breakout room and then return to the main room after the deliberations. We tested this out to make sure the student could easily move to and from the breakout room. By this time all the examiners were present, and we were ready to begin the exam. The graduate program administrator logged out of the session and provided me with a contact number for any issues during the exam. I also provided my contact number to everyone in the event of any connectivity issues.
Example of an Oral Exam Sequence:
- Description of Process for Exam – I described the sequence of events that would take place during the exam (e.g., introductions, student presentation, two rounds of questioning, followed by a third optional round and then our deliberations).
- Introductions – I called on each person, one-at-a-time to provide an introduction. Each of the examiners, the student, and myself (neutral chair) provided a brief introduction with name and role. This was a good opportunity to make sure all examiners and students were turning their microphones on/ off properly. I also intentionally made sure the student was not the last one to provide an introduction as I wanted to give the student a break between providing the introduction and then moving the presentation.
- Student Presentation – The student started by providing a presentation up to 15 min. in length. The student shared the presentation screen so we could all see the slides. I asked the examiners to mute their mic during the presentation and with the option to turn off their video as well.
- First Round of Questioning – Following the presentation, we started the first round of questioning. Each examiner, starting with the most external first, asked a question. The students had up to 10 min. to respond to the question and during that time frame the examiner could also ask follow-up questions. During the questioning I asked the examiner asking the question and student to leave their video ON. However, during the questioning, I suggested the other examiners could turn OFF their video. This way, the student could focus on looking at one person on the screen instead of a gallery when answering the questions. I also indicated that I would turn my camera back ON closer to the 10 min. point as a visual cue, so the examiner would know it’s time to wrap up their questioning for this round and reserve additional questions for the next round. This visual cue seemed to work quite well and kept the exam timeline on track.
- Break – after the first round of questioning, we took a five-minute break. I asked all the examiners and student to mute their microphone and turn off their video. We agreed on the return time. I asked everyone to turn ON their camera to indicate they were ready to start the second round.
- Second Round of Questioning – We repeated the same process as the first round of questioning. Once this round was complete, I offered the examiners an opportunity to ask any additional questions. I asked the examiners to let me know if they had any further questions so I could allocate the remaining time appropriately for the third round.
- Deliberation – After the rounds of question were complete, I explained that I would open the breakout room for the student. I explained to everyone that we would have deliberations and when we finish, there would be a message in the breakout room indicating the room would be closing. I set the breakout room to provide a 15 second time for transition back to the main room. When the student was ready and understood what would be happening, I opened the breakout room. The student then moved into the room. Visually, I could see the student was now in the room and only the examiners and myself (neutral chair) remained in the main room. During the deliberations, the examiners turned ON their videos and microphone. I explained the voting process and how the examiners could privately send me their examination results. At the conclusion and when all the examiners were ready, I explained the student would be returning in about 15 seconds.
- Closing – The student returned back to the main room and all the examiners turned on their Videos/microphones and provided commentary and feedback. Once this was complete, I thanked everyone and closed the meeting room.