Hello again! Hopefully you have read and enjoyed my previous post - How to conference part 1 - if not you might want to check that out first (although you should be able to follow this one fine if you don’t). These posts are aimed at new PhD students – the uninitiated – planning their first conference attendance. I hope my experiences of attending conferences as a PhD student will give you an idea of what to expect from conferences big or small. In the last post I talked about how conferences can be tiring and stressful but also a lot of fun (and a bit like a free holiday). I also discussed the differences between big and small conferences, highlighting how they serve different purposes.
Here I want to discuss the types of presentation that you can typically deliver at conferences. I had planned to also discuss funding sources and diversity challenges, but I will reserve those for my next post…
Poster and oral presentations
Oral presentations tend to be widely perceived as carrying greater prestige than poster presentations. To me, this perception (or assumption) is unfortunate, as ultimately what should matter most is the substantive quality of the oral or poster presentation. Put simply, a good poster presentation will always be a far more effective means to convey your research than a bad oral presentation! While oral and poster presentations do serve different purposes (and you should aim to present you work orally at some point during your PhD), I aim to show you that the value of a poster presentation should not be underestimated.
Posters are great opportunities to learn how to distill your complete research story into a simple and engaging format which (should) take about five minutes to read through. The skills you learn in preparing effective posters directly translate to the preparation of effective slides for oral presentations and figures for journal papers. Presenting a poster is also a much less daunting task than delivering an oral presentation. Therefore, posters offer an opportunity to find your feet and grow comfortable presenting your research to the community (including that big-name professor in your field).
As you will immediately notice during your first poster session (whether you present or not), posters give you an opportunity to directly engage and converse at length with a few people who are genuinely interested in your research. While oral presentations may give you a larger audience, ask yourself - what proportion of the room would be giving your talk their undivided attention? I can recall far more times that I have had lengthy and more constructive conversations with other researchers (PhD students, post-docs and more established academics) during poster sessions than in the breaks/dinners/evening sessions following my oral presentations. I have found that it is these exchanges that are more likely to form the foundations of a professional relationship rather than a very rushed exchange in the course of a Q+A session that follows an oral presentation. I value these conversations very highly, so much so that I now choose to prepare present a poster (or multiple posters if I have enough to share!) regardless of whether I will be presenting an oral presentation at a conference. However, I do ensure the poster covers different material to the presentation – even if it covers in more detail the experimental techniques used in the research that I will present orally.
As a last note on posters, I highly recommend looking at examples of posters and infographics on websites like Pinterest for creative inspiration. Many posters follow a largely similar tried, tested and (in my opinion) sterile format. Science is a creative discipline so allow your creative side to flourish in your poster’s design! When looking at examples of good posters and infographics, pay attention to the balance of text and figures, the font sizes used in for each element, the colour schemes used, and how the arrangement of the various elements guides the reader through the story.
So, if posters are so great, why bother with an oral presentation? I would say there are three key points to oral presentations for PhD students. Firstly, they are an opportunity to broadcast your research to a wider audience – which may include that academic you were hoping to land a postdoc with. Secondly, they give you experience in delivering formal presentations – a vital skill regardless of your post-PhD career path. Lastly, oral presentations are perhaps the most efficient way for the latest scientific knowledge to be communicated to the community. Therefore, delivering oral presentations and participating in the debate is part of the scientific process.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees on the size of your audience, on whether that academic you wanted to notice you decided to join your session, on how many in the audience may have decided to take a quick nap, and on how many in the audience are checking their emails/social media. Most of these points are beyond your control and not worth worrying about. On several occasions I have read blogs/heard of people recommending introducing yourself to that-academic-you-hope-to-be-a-future-employer in a break before your talk so you can tell them where and when your talk is. If this sounds rather daunting, then try having your supervisor introduce you first and the leave you to take it from there.
For oral presentations, there are many blogs and articles on the web with tips on how to prepare your slides, how to practice your presentation and how to manage the stress (I promise the stress goes away with time!). I would like to finish this post with just one key tip regarding oral presentations – check carefully how much time you have for your presentation (which will probably include time for questions) and stick to time! Conferences are plagued by people over-running their allotted time and frequently it is the more well-established academics who can be the worse culprits – this is not an example to follow!
I hope all of that was useful, comments and critiques are always welcome. Next time I will finish this series of posts about conferences by talking about money matters and diversity. See you then!