Attending EB in April? Be sure to check this blog post out to make the most of the conference!

 

By Debalin Sarangi

https://www.unl.edu/gradstudies/current/news/step-step-approach-attending-conferences

 

A journey of a thousand miles
begins with a single step

Lao Tzu’s words have helped me understand that my career is made up of many steps. And attending conferences is one step I have taken in graduate school. Presenting my research helps me along my career journey, and the best time to start is now!

Conferences are the best way to showcase research in front of a group of people from my discipline. They’re also a great tool for keeping my research on the front burner along with the demands of coursework, teaching assistantship, writing, social activities, and family obligations. While it’s easy to put research off because it’s not urgent like coursework or teaching, attending a conference (and all the preparation that goes with it) gives me a deadline for work related to my research.

To help me sort out the many steps involved in attending a conference or professional annual meeting, I like to divide the process into three stages: (1) Before the Conference, (2) During the Conference, and (3) After the Conference. Here’s the checklist I use to help me get the most out of conferences and advice for what you can do:

Before the Conference

  • Identify your goal. This is the first step. Ask yourself: Why are you attending this conference? What do you want to gain from this experience?
  • Note important dates. Once you’ve decided to attend the conference, mark all the important dates in your calendar: the registration deadline, when to make your hotel reservation, the deadline for submitting your abstract, etc.
  • Talk to your supervisor and course instructors. You may need to talk to your supervisor about your research results or which part of your research you’re going to present. You can also discuss which conference-related expenses need to be covered by you and which may be covered by your supervisor. If you’re going to a conference in the middle of the semester and might miss class or exams, contact instructors well in advance to inform them of the conflict.
  • Apply for a graduate student travel grant. There are a number of on- and off-campus funding sources to cover the expenses of attending a conference. Funding opportunities may be listed on your department’s website; a few external travel awards are on the graduate studies webpage. Many society meetings have travel grants available for students to attend, so check those as well.
  • Apply for a student award. Most conferences will announce student recognition awards like Best Graduate Student Poster, Outstanding Graduate Student, Best Paper, etc. If you think you could win one, go for it! Awards enrich the CV and may help get you more recognition or even a position in the future.
  • Make reservations early. When attending a conference, you may need to reserve plane tickets, rent a car, or borrow a Nebraska state vehicle from the university. By making these reservations as early as possible, you avoid the eleventh hour rush before the conference. Stay at the conference hotel to be in the middle of conference activities, and try to share a room with another graduate student to save money and meet someone new.
  • Prepare your presentation. If you’re planning a poster or an oral presentation, edit them several times to be concise and attractive. To help you edit, think about the best presentations you’ve seen and what made them the best. Then try to do that!
  • Practice, practice, practice! When you’re done preparing your poster or presentation, brainstorm potential questions you might be asked. Schedule practice sessions with your supervisor, friends, and fellow students—their recommendations help improve the presentation.

During the Conference

  • Check the agenda. After checking in, take a quick look at the agenda and schedule, marking which speakers and sessions you’d like to attend.
  • Volunteer. Some society meetings offer opportunities for volunteering. This is a great opportunity to meet prestigious individuals in your field! Also, registration fees are sometimes waived for students who volunteer—so make sure to check with the organizer ahead of time!
  • Know your presentation. If you’re presenting something, it’s important to know your audience, the medium you’re presenting in, and your content. You shouldn’t memorize your talk, but practice it—out loud—many times. Have copies of your talk to give to people interested in your research. Remember to include your name, contact information, and the university name on the handout as well—the handout can work like a business card, and the person who gets it will remember who you are!
  • Document your presentation. Ask a friend to take some photos or videos during your presentation (if allowed) for you to use on your website or in your e-portfolio, during your graduate defense, or as part of your application packet when you apply to jobs.
  • Build your network. The greatest value of a conference is the people you meet. Plan out whom you’d like to meet and what to talk about. Try to meet some big names in your field, but also talk to people from different universities, industries, etc. I recommend having business cards made before the conference—it looks more professional than writing your name on scratch paper!
  • Connect over meals. Conferences are great places to make friends from different universities and learn about research going on in the different parts of the world. Try to attend some of the meals scheduled by the conference to meet new people.
  • Don’t overbook yourself. Enjoy a balance of fun and scholarly events. To be at your best, schedule breaks and take time to recharge. Take time to look through the notes you take to process what you have learned and what you still need to learn.

After the Conference

  • Make a post-conference facility visit. Some meetings and conferences offer post-conference tours of industry or university lab facilities, or of local museums. These visits are another great way to network in your field.
  • Take a tour. Apart from work, conferences offer the opportunity to see something new. If your conference is in Rio de Janeiro, take a trip up to Christ the Redeemer. If your conference is in New York City, check out Times Square.
  • Submit your receipts. Keep itemized receipts of all your expenses and submit them to your department for reimbursement if you have university funding for your trip. Be sure to follow the university rules! For example, UNL won’t reimburse movies, alcohol, or expenses for non-university travelers.
  • Keep notes. Always write down key points from the conference. This will helps you prepare for the next conference and help you remember who you met and which panels you attended.
  • Stay in touch with your new contacts. Whether you use LinkedIn to connect with your new contacts or you send a personal email, reach out to the people you’ve just met. When you have questions later that a contact can answer or you’re up for a job at their institution, these contacts can help you in your career.

Participating in conferences and professional meetings are great steps that combine the scholarly and social aspects of your work. These experiences will enrich your CV and provide you with a valuable professional network that will help you along your career journey.

Are you giving an oral presentation at Experimental Biology or elsewhere? Check out this comprehensive list of tips to make your best presentation yet!

By Susanne Ulm

How To Improve The Presentation Skills Of PhD Students

Hey PhD student! Do you enjoy giving presentations? Probably not. Improving the presentation skills can reduce your public speaking anxiety and increase the joy of giving talks.

Nothing paralyses PhD students more than having to present at a conference. But nobody teaches us how to give a speech. Supervisors and PI focus mainly on science, not on making the presentation skills of PhD students better.

It’s a scary task and our scientific career depends on how well we talk in public. Fortunately, improving your presentation skills is possible if you know how.

Let me share some simple advice with you to improve your presentation skills.

A good speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest6.’ – Winston Churchill

Presentation Skills Of PhD Students 101

When I started my PhD I didn’t really have a clue what it meant to be a PhD student or even finish my degree, although there are many things you should know before starting a PhD.

I learned that doing a PhD means you constantly challenge yourself and improve your skills. Apart from managing your PhD research project and science writing, you are also faced with the big challenge to present your research to a wider audience by holding scientific talks.

Giving talks at group meetings and conferences is a common task in academia. Unfortunately, the presentation skills of PhD students are poor.

Let’s be honest, most of us don’t like speaking in public because we all fear to completely embarrass ourselves.

You might be presenting in front of a handful of your lab members. You might be showing the highlights of your PhD to 500 people at an international conference.

What’s sure is that you’ll get that funny feeling in your stomach and lack some oxygen. Don’t worry. Practice and good advice will turn you from a passing out presenter into the Obama of scientific presentations.

Here are some tips to improve the presentation skills of PhD students. It’s time to tame that scary monster of public speaking.

1. How To Prepare For A Talk

Most PhD students are nervous in front of an audience.

 ‘There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars.’ – Mark Twain5

You are nervous and I’m nervous. Guess what? Giving a talk makes everybody nervous. Giving a talk makes everybody scared. Even experienced speakers never overcome this fear. However, they have learned to cope with the anxiety and so can you!

Don’t Panic And Think Positive

There are plenty of public speaking tricks. Many presentation skills of PhD students can be improved. But nothing beats good old fashioned preparation.

If you prepare yourself well for a talk you’ll be unstoppable.

The first step of your preparation is to accept your destiny. Only by changing a bit of wording you can completely turn around your attitude: DON’T say: ‘I have to present a talk’, DO say: ‘I’m allowed to / I get the chance to present a talk’.1

It might also help to find a purpose for your talk. Your presentation might:

  • Tell the audience about your topic.
  • Raise awareness.
  • Address important issues about your research field.
  • Acknowledge someone’s work.
  • Be at a conference in a cool country.
  • Improve your presentation skills.

You can even dedicate your presentation to someone you love or admire.

If you are still overwhelmed by your task of ‘holding a talk’ make a plan and divide this big project into many smaller steps. Don’t worry if these steps seem ridiculously small like choosing your outfit for the talk.

As soon as you have created your plan, work from one step to another without thinking of more than one step at a time.

Start Your Preparation 

As a general rule, the more time you have for preparing a talk the better it will be. Try not to push everything until the very last minute. But don’t over do it.

The best thing is to create specific times in your schedule for your talk preparation and stick to them. You should aim to have your slides 95% finished 3 days before your talk. The goal is to have a few days to rehearse your talk and change little details in your slides.

Some people can prepare whole talks in their head before writing anything down. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work for most of us. With the usage of computer it is easy to start in between.

Generating Ideas For Your Talk

Writing your ideas down often helps clarifying your thinking and focuses you on your task. In a normal state your mind is full of different emotions and thoughts so writing helps putting your thoughts into a right logical order.

Don’t worry if your ideas seem silly at the beginning. Try to capture everything that comes to your mind. Editing yourself is always easier than sitting in front of a blank page and trying to come up with perfect ideas.

Often the ideas hit you at unexpected places and times. I usually have a small notebook with me where I can scribble down ideas. Smart phone addicts can use Evernote free.

In addition, inspirations are everywhere:

  • Things you read on the internet or in magazines.
  • People you talk to.
  • Your own experiences
  • A random conversation you overhear on the bus.
  • Movies
  • Music

The list will be endless if you keep an open mind. If you don’t know exactly where to start just start anywhere. Additional ideas will follow later. The hardest step is the first step.

Know Your Audience 

Knowing your audience and their background has a high impact on the quality and structure of your talk.

The amount of introduction required for your field, each technique and each problem will depend on how much the audience knows about your topic.

You should know your audience

If your audience comes from a broad range of backgrounds you will have to introduce your field of research saying what it is about and why it is important to do research in your field. Don’t take for granted that they know the techniques you used. Your audience will appreciate a basic description.

If most of your audience consists of scientists in your field you can skip introducing it and spend more time on the novelty of your research.

A great speaker gets the attention of the audience very quickly at the beginning with either a personal story or with addressing an issue the audience faces.

Think about problems or fears these people have and answer their ‘So what?’ question. Which questions might your audience raise? This will help you understand their mindset and see your presentation from their perspective.

You can’t give to school children the same presentation as you hold in front of scientists. If you can’t bring something your audience can relate to it will be very difficult to build up a connection and people will stop listening to you. So at the end your message won’t get heard.

‘The success of your presentation will be judged not by the knowledge you send but by what the listener receives.’ – Lily Walters4

Learn From Others

Keep calm and always remember you are not the first person walking that path! Have you already attended talks?

Talks can come in different forms: journal club, seminar series, annual society talk, conference talk, even a guest speech at the last wedding you attended is a talk. You can learn the most from either great or bad speakers.

Which ones did you really enjoy? What exactly made these talks great? What were the mistakes in awful research presentations? Why were these talks so bad that you wished yourself somewhere else?

Now be honest to yourself: Do you make similar mistakes when you are nervous?Only by analysing these talks you might already get hints on improving your presentation style.

If you can’t remember enough talks you can find presentations nearly everywhere:

  • Often local libraries or event websites of your city advertise public talks.
  • If you work at a university you will usually find talk announcements in your email newsletter.
  • The most time-independent and largest source is the internet. For example, you can find lots of speakers on TED (technology, entertainment, design). TED organises non-profit conferences to ‘ideas worth spreading’. Its speakers come from different backgrounds and are given up to 20 minutes to describe their projects. YouTube offers more opportunities for observing talks.

How To Prepare Slides For Your Talk

Collecting ideas in slides can produce a chaotic presentation. Do you want a more organized way to create your slides? Start from the end. It goes like this:

  • First of all you need to think about the main message of your talkIf you had to sum up your talk in one or two sentences, what would you say?
  • Create the acknowledgement slide. It helps to fill up at least one slide and avoid the paralysis by a blank page.
  • Create the conclusions slide. Here you should list no more than 3 take-home messages. You could also include no more than 3 things to improve, aka future lines of research.
  • Decide which results you want to show. Create the slides with the images of your results.
  • Create the slides with the methods that people need to hear to understand how you reached your results.
  • Create the introduction slides. In these first slides of your talk you motivate the audience to listen, show the importance of your research and explain the choice of methods that will come later in your talk. The type of introduction slides depends on your audience. Sometimes you will need to introduce your whole field of research, other times just the narrow problem you are tackling.
  • Create the title slide.

Title Page

It’s easy to underestimate how important the very first slide is. However, the title page represents the first impression of you. Your audience will see this slide for the longest time.

It’s important to check the spelling and make sure you add some details apart from the title, such as institution, your name, your email address and funding sources.

Put in your title as many keywords as possible so people can guess what your talk is about. But make it short enough so people can remember most of it after they finished reading it.

Tips For Making Better Slides

You might be able to understand your data easily but for the audience you are often the expert in your field. Even a scientific audience can get overwhelmed by your data very quickly.

Here are 12 tips to simplify your slides:

  • Slides are not books, so avoid having too many lines of text that you will read out loud. If you write everything on your slides and you don’t add anything extra in your speech, why are you giving the talk anyway? Just print the slides as handouts and save your audience from hearing you recite them.
  • It might sound too simple but the best thing is to put only facts on your slides you want to mention during your talk. Often speakers show extensive overviews so the audience can taste the whole story. However, these slides tend to overwhelm and confuse the audience. If you really can’t live without such a slide you should say: ‘I’m using this slide to give a quick glance of the pathways/mechanisms BUT I won’t go too much into detail.’
  • Bullet points are often easier to read than full sentences. Avoid using more than 5 bullet points on each slide. People can remember facts best in 3s so 3 bullet points per slide are the sweet spot.
  • It’s best to avoid repetitions: If you compare two experiments don’t explain both in detail. Instead, explain the 1st experiment in more detail and while explaining the 2nd experiment concentrate on the differences to the 1st one. Otherwise people get bored and stop listening.
  • Make the graphs and charts simple and not too detailed. Often people don’t like numbers and so it’s best to use only the data that emphasise your story. You can think of using colors or percentages (or both) instead of numbers. For instance, if you want to show that number A is 20% increased versus number B, then use a 20% in green.
  • As general estimate of time used for a talk: 1 slide = 1 minute of your talk. So if you have 10 slides including the title page you will probably talk around 10 minutes because you can explain some slides quickly while others need more time. Forget about talking faster to squeeze more slides in the same time.
  • What you write on your slides should only support what you say and not the other way around.
  • Avoid using abbreviations; even if you explain them at the beginning it won’t mean your audience still remembers them 5 minutes later.
  • While presenting data avoid saying ‘It shows a tendency’. Always remember, your results are either significant OR not significant. However, there is the exception when you present preliminary data. Then you can use the term if you have planned further experiments to clarify your results.
  • If necessary raise rhetorical questions or ask questions to keep your audience concentrated.
  • The more complex your topic is the more important is the use of analogies and metaphors instead of jargon definitions. Therefore, it’s again very crucial to know your audience members and their backgroundknowledge.
  • You might also use humour to explain a problem. However, stay away from making fun of anything else than yourself! Otherwise you might experience the depressing, long awkward silence after a bad joke.

Pictures

I love pictures and I’m sure so do you. As a matter of fact, we all love pictures! Therefore, it’s always good to use some pictures to attract your audience.

Use pictures while explaining a difficult topic: A picture is often worth a thousand words.

If you are presenting pictures or figures that are not yours please make sure you cite the source.

As a tip: If you want to present data from a paper have a closer look on the website that published the paper. There, you can often download the specific picture as PowerPoint slide (with references already included).

It’s convenient to test your slides with a projector and not only on your computer screen. Colours may vary much on a projector screen and it might be difficult to see some colors.

Summarise 

On average the audience only grasps less than 30% of your data. Therefore you should summarise or repeat some data if necessary. You could say: ‘ This experiment shows…which is in contrast to the earlier experiment that showed…’.

During talks I often imagine explaining the topic to a child which loses attention rather quickly and thus repetitions in between are necessary to keep up the interest.

If your data is excessive give a summary for each main chapter in between. Don’t mention it on a separate slide because often only one summary sentence is enough, such as ‘To sum up / Taken together / So far these data show that….’.

Keeping your summaries short also prevents you from overdoing repetitions which might make your presentation boring.

At the end of your presentation you should present you ‘take-away’ message for your audience.

‘If I had only sixty seconds on the stage, what would I absolutely have to say to get my message across.’ – Jeff Dewar

This message can take up to 2 slides. During your summary try to avoid repeating too many results and generalise as much as possible.

If you have trouble creating a summary of your talk: Think about your main message and from there explain briefly the facts that support this idea with sentences like ‘The protein is important because…’ and ‘The role of x is still controversial….’.

Acknowledgements

Acknowledgements are important as they show your audience that you don’t take more credit than you should. Again, as we love pictures, a group photo would be nice. Otherwise, tell the audience full names of contributors and what they shared.

This doesn’t have to take up too much time and one short sentence for each person is plenty. It’s often enough to say: ‘I would like to thank x for providing/ contributing to the x data’.

Tips To Create Slides Faster

Microsoft PowerPoint SmartArt allows you to create flow charts, lists and arrange pictures in an easy and quick way.

I also keep a ‘talks’ folder which includes all my talks and their first drafts. This type of folder is very useful to find inspiration and you could use slides as templates or re-use them completely.

Most scientists use older slides as starting points. If you don’t have slides of your own yet, ask colleagues for their slides as source of inspiration.

In fact you should also try to store slides from other people. If you attended a presentation and you liked something of it – a plot, an image or a description – ask kindly for the slides. Tell the speaker in advance that you are going to use only image A and that he/she will be duly cited.

How To Be A Confident Presenter 

We are often afraid that people will notice we are scared to death. We think they will discover our fears by the tone, or by the accelerated breathing, or by our sweaty foreheads.

Luckily there are several things we can do to gain confidence and become a comfortable speaker and to rock our scientific talks.

Giving presentations is a stressful situation for most people because after all public speaking is NOT a talent but a learned skill (only practice makes perfect). To transform yourself into a confident speaker you should try to fake it until you finally become it.

To achieve presentation nirvana there are 4 tips:

  • Prepare and rehearse your presentation. A good preparation boosts your self-confidence in general.
  • Know what you are presenting. Don’t invent anything. Don’t present something you are not 100% sure how it was done. Don’t present anything that you do not believe in.
  • Talk to the audience. Don’t just spit out memorized ideas.
  • Improve your behavior. As you give your presentation the audience not only listens to you but also analyses your non-verbal communication. Don’t worry, everyone communicates this way.

Practice Your Talk

Even the best notes and slides are worth nothing if you can’t remember what you wanted to say because you didn’t prepare well enough. Therefore, practice makes perfect.

You should practise your talk on your own and with an audience.

If you practise your talk 30 times it might be too much. You could try to cut your repetitions gradually from one talk to another until you reached a healthy number below 10 times.

Giving your talk in front of an audience (your group members) helps to get honest feedback. Let them shoot at the design of the slides, the content, your articulation, your rhythm and anything they think will improve your presentation.

I have problems with learning a lot of sentences. For me it’s easier to remember the main facts only.

Memorizing your talk as bullet points also gives your brain a chance to talk in a ‘normal’ way during your presentation. If you prepare your slides wisely they will guide you through what you want to say and remind you to keep track.

Learning full sentences often ends up sounding like you are reading from a book and if you forget only a few words you will panic.

If you tend to lose track of time practice your talk repeatedly with a timer. After several iterations you will fine-tune your message so it fits in the time you have for your talk.

On the day of your presentation simply keep a watch in front of you or near the projector. In addition, PowerPoint allows to move to the next slide after the same amount of time you did while practicing at home.1

Enough of the preparation part: Now let’s see which presentation skills for PhD students are necessary on the day of the talk.

2. How To Give A Talk

 ‘The only person who listens to every word of your speech is you.’ – Unknown

Arrive Early

You should arrive early to have enough time to talk with the chair of your session. Th chair of a session is the boss running the show.

Introduce yourself to the chair and advise on the pronunciation of your name and provide a short bio, so she/he can introduce you. Don’t forget to hand over your slides.

Ask the chair to test your slides on the computer used for the presentations. Check that the projector displays colors, transitions and videos flawlessly.

If during the presentation some slides don’t show up as they should, don’t panic! Simply tell the audience at the right time about the faulty slide by mentioning what they should see and move on. Don’t dwell on it because things like that happen all the time!

If you are unsure about anything, like the length of time for question, you can ask the chair in advance. Thereby you avoid looking confused and panic during your talk because of unexpected things, such as the chair stopping you to answer questions.

Also, arriving early will give you a chance to get used to the room itself and its surroundings. Go on stage and visualize yourself at the time of the presentation. Once you go up the stage for real, it will feel familiar and less intimidating.

You will also have a quiet moment to find a place where you prefer to stay. Everyone should see you, so don’t hide behind the projector. Hiding also makes it more difficult for your audience to understand you clearly.

I also arrive early because it allows me to talk to people who arrive early as well. It often helps to ease my tension and makes me realize that the audience consists of normal people and not of monsters waiting for my mistakes.

Extra tip to reduce panic: Ask something at one of the talks before yours. Doing so gives you the feeling that ‘you have already talked in public that day’. This helps to start your talk more relaxed.

Things To Bring To Your Presentation

  • The most important thing to bring along is of course yourself. Don’t worry, your presentation will be over soon!
  • Take a water bottle with you, just in case. It’s nothing worse than having a cough attack in between.
  • Your notes but only BEFORE the talk. I tend to repeat some passages in my mind before the talk and not remembering some things can create panic. So I keep my notes handy. But try to avoid using your notes during your talk. Otherwise you tend to stick to them too much and don’t talk freely to the audience. Also, having your notes nearby will help in case of a total blackout.
  • The laser pointer enables you to point out things in detail.

Body Language 

Non-verbal communication determines how people feel and think about each other. It’s one of the most important presentation skills of PhD students (and any presenter!). You can give the wrong first impression with the wrong body language.

In general every one of us may send out 2 different kind of ‘messages’:

  • Expression of power (body language: You take up the space of the room you are in and basically open up your posture).
  • The feeling of powerless (body language: You close-up, wrap yourself up and make yourself small).

When you feel powerful you will show a powerful body language.

Can you remember one of your biggest achievements? How did you feel? You probably felt powerful and showed a better body language.

Powerful people are more confident, optimistic and more laid back in response to stress. This is reflected by their hormone levels with high testosterone and low cortisol levels.

BUT when it comes to power it goes both ways.

You don’t have to feel powerful to become it. If you pretend to be powerful you will more likely start to feel it and become powerful.

Only 2 minutes of keeping a powerful pose are enough to make your hormone levels switch significantly. This tiny tweak of 2 minutes ‘power posing’ can lead to big changes in body language.

Other Tips To Improve Body Language

  • With gestures it’s like many things in life: not too much and not too less. Try to find a middle point where you avoid overly dramatic hand gestures or keeping your arms as still as if they are dead. If you tend to get stiff try to loosen up a bit and if you are often overexcited make an effort to relax. After all, everything will be over soon anyway.
  • Take your time to breath properly in between and don’t rush through the talk as if it is a race.
  • The most important thing: Smile! Be friendly while talking. Also, smiling relaxes your body because it goes both ways: We smile when we are happy but when we force ourselves to smile we start feeling happy.
  • If you get shaky hands avoid using a laser pointer. Instead you can use words like ‘In the upper left corner of the figure we see…’. If you do have to use a pointer use two hands, one for the pointer and the other one to hold your wrist; this will reduce the shaking.

Additional Tip For Women: If you usually don’t wear high heels avoid wearing them during your talk or make sure you practise walking in them for some days in advance. Otherwise you tend to lean your body too much forward, which looks awkward for the audience.

Be Honest To Yourself And The Audience 

Do you have any rituals before a talk? Ignore your urges to do them before your next talk. Your body associates these rituals with the scary situation of giving a presentation. This gives your mind time to create panic and fear. The next time simply ‘shock’ yourself and just do it!

Especially in stress situations like holding a presentation be true to yourself. So don’t try to copy someone who is the opposite of you. Your audience will recognize this falseness and won’t trust you and your competence very much.

‘Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.’ – Judy Garland

It’s also good to know your minor faults. If you know you usually talk too fast during talks make the conscious decision to speak slower than it might feel right for you. In contrast, if you tend to speak slower try to speak faster than it feels correct for your own instincts.

I tend to speak quietly, so I try to speak louder.

Should You Allow Questions During Your Talk?

You can say if you prefer questions in between or at the end of your talk. The decision fully depends on you and your preferences.

I say at the beginning of my talks: ‘If you have at any point problems understanding me please let me know’. Being upfront gives my audience the chance to raise awareness and I won’t get paranoid by questioning myself all the time.

You can point when exactly you want to answer any questions by asking at specific moments: ‘Are there any questions so far?’

If you are very nervous it might be better to get the talk over and done with and leave the questions until the end.

Keep in mind that allowing questions during your talk will make your presentation last longer. If the chair of the session is strict with the time allotted to each talk you might find yourself out of time before you presented your most interesting findings.

Nobody Is Perfect

Now imagine you are in the middle of your talk and everything runs smoothly.

Suddenly you have a blackout and can’t remember how you started your sentence.

You have to re-start a sentence and you feel the panic rise. You are somehow sure the audience thinks you are a complete idiot.

If you tend to have these feelings completely IGNORE them! Most people either don’t realize your mistake or are likely to look over it.

While being in a stressful situation we tend to lose track of reality and that’s why we panic because of a lot of minor things. In these fearful moments suddenly seconds seem like minutes or even hours.

It’s important that you don’t push yourself too hard by saying: ‘I want this talk to be perfect’. This goal is impossible to reach and you will likely start to panic during your talk when you make even minor mistakes, for example miss-spell a word or say a sentence in a wrong order.

The audience usually knows what you are going through and understand that you are nervous. Remember, it’s ok to make some mistakes.

‘If you present yourself as perfect – we will not believe you and we will hate you. We like you when we see that you are imperfect like we are.’ – Unknown

My personal goal of each talk is: ‘I want to be better than the last time’. This task takes the pressure of being perfect and at the same time it prevents myself from treating the talk lightly.

Audience/Eye Contact

If you can’t look at people directly during your presentation you can look at the horizon line just above the heads.  OR better: Look randomly at people without analysing their expressions.

Make sure you look at every ‘section’ of the room from time to time (e.g. left side/ middle/right side). So no one within your audience feels left out.

3. Questions & Answers Time

After your talk comes one of the most scary moments for PhD students: Questions and Answers.

Depending on the audience, leave at least 10 minutes for questions at the end of your talk.

If you are too shy looking people directly into the eyes, concentrate on a point between their eyes. People don’t realise the difference and still think you keep eye contact.

The best advice for answering questions is to understand them in first place.

If you don’t understand a question double-check before talking about something the person didn’t want to know. In that case you may be very blunt by asking: ‘Do you mean….? Are you asking about this or that….?’. These questions might also give you some additional time to think about your answer.

It’s good to repeat the question even if you understand it. In this way everybody in the audience can hear it and you double-check that you understood it.

Don’t panic if you don’t have an answer to every question. Even the best expert can’t know everything.

Instead of saying: ‘I don’t know’, acknowledge the question by saying: ‘That’s an interesting point of view, I haven’t really thought of this aspect yet’.

Another standard reply you must memorise is: ‘We haven’t looked into that yet, but it is [on our to-do list / one of our future lines of research / the next idea we want to explore]’.

questions and answers

You could try to give the person who asked the tricky question an option for an answer. For example, if you have the data somewhere on your computer you could say: ‘Unfortunately I don’t have time looking for the data now but I could look it up after the talk if you could spare some minutes afterwards’.

This trick of suggesting to discuss further after the talk works like a charm when the person asking gets too pushy. You reassure her/him that you will consider the ideas and you also leave room for somebody else to ask more questions.

Don’t take questions too personal. Even if it seems they make your research look silly. Even if the tone and attitude of who is asking seems too aggressive. Stay cool. Be polite. You don’t want to start a cat fight in front of the audience.

Most of the times people don’t mean anything bad with their questions. There is nothing some minutes of clarification after your talk can’t smooth.

4. After Your Talk

‘There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave. The one you practised, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.’ – Dale Carnegie

You made it to the end of your presentation. Congratulations!! This deserves a celebration.

talk is over

You finished it without passing out. You didn’t look like a fool.

Now people understand your research and think of you as a promising PhD student.

But your work is not over yet. There are a few things you must do after your presentation:

  •  The first thing you should do is to relax. Be proud of yourself that you made it. Enjoy it!
  • People might come up to you in person and have extra questions. This might not necessarily mean they are picky, maybe they were simply to shy asking questions in front of others.
  • The time after your talk offers you a good chance to do networking by exchanging contact details, discuss experimental settings or setting up possible collaborations. Have some business cards at hand!
  • After the stress is over and the audience is gone, find a moment of quiet and analyse yourselfWhich things could you do better the next time? You can also ask a colleague for some feedback. Don’t be too harsh to yourself and don’t overestimate every tiny mistake. Don’t take criticism too hard or be offended if someone didn’t like your presentation at all. Different presentation styles exist and therefore you can ignore unhelpful feedback.
  • If you haven’t done it yet, it’s time to socialise at the scientific conference.

In a tiny nutshell, if you want to improve the presentation skills of PhD students:

Prepare your talk well and keep things simple.

It’s important to create a relationship with your audience by understanding their background and knowing their needs.

While presenting, be confident and don’t panic in between because everyone makes mistakes, even the most experiences speakers.

Be yourself, be who you are and your audience will feel comfortable.

Finally, enjoy.

 

‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ – Carl W. Buechner

Do you have a poster presentation at the upcoming Experimental Biology meeting? Check this blog out to see why poster presentations are great for trainees!

 

By John Finn

http://phdskills.blogspot.com/2013/05/six-reasons-why-phd-students-should.html

Six reasons why PhD students should make poster presentations

When visiting other institutions, I love learning about people’s research  by reading their posters. Here’s a picture of the wall outside my own office…
Are research posters a good use of time and effort? I’ve been intending to write a post about posters since PhDSkills began…so here it is! I’ve been putting it off because there is so much to talk about, and this will be the first of several posts on posters. Here, I outline six advantages of posters.

I think that early-career researchers are much more able to disseminate information via posters than many of  their senior colleagues. This was very apparent to me at a recent conference, where I witnessed a 6-foot tall poster (it was more like wallpaper) with size 12 font – the authors (three senior researchers) seemed to have simply copied and pasted an entire research report into a poster format. This poster attracted the attention of everyone at the conference – but no-one noticed its research content!

I am a keen advocate of poster presentations for PhD students (and all researchers) for a number of reasons.

  1. Posters clarify thinking. This is probably the most important function of a poster, especially at the early stages of a PhD or any research project. The creation of a poster is a form of writing, and like all writing, forces the writer to focus on clarifying and expressing a clear message. This is probably one of the most important functions of a poster for PhD students, as it is probably one of your first public dissemination of your work. This is a great opportunity to focus some energy on thinking about: What is my main message? What are my priority arguments or pieces of evidence? Why are they important to my target audience? How can I best present my main message?
  2. Posters are an effective dissemination tool. When well-designed, posters can be an excellent way of disseminating research information. This doesn’t have to be at a conference! As in the picture above, the use of posters in your own research institution are a great way of informing others about your research. These ‘others’ are not just visitors from somewhere else! You will be amazed at how little your colleagues know about your research – a poster can be the easiest way method to address this. When your colleagues know more about your research, they can better discuss it, offer new perspectives and perhaps spark up new collaborations and projects – which can mean a new research article or a new job.
  3. Posters will help you travel the world. Many researchers can only justify their attendance at a conference or workshop if they are making an oral or poster presentation. For early-stage researchers, a poster presentation can be less threatening than an oral presentation at a conference. Many conferences now allocate a 3- or 5-minute oral presentation for poster presenters to advertise their wares – I think that these are really effective. Use this time to generate an emotional attachment to your work (a short relevant anecdote, the importance of your work, relevance to policy, unexpected results etc.) to attract visits to your poster, rather than trying to cram all your results into 3 minutes.
  4. Poster sessions can sometimes be more rewarding than oral presentations.The most rewarding conferences are those where you have made good links with other researchers or stakeholders with an interest in your work, and vice versa. Oral presentations are generally a one-to-many flow of information, with the exception of the questions at the end. This question time can generate great questions, but the discussion is always a little stilted when in front of a crowd. In contrast, poster sessions where you stand by your poster and engage passers-by can allow you to engage in more extended one-to-one discussion with people who are interested in your work.
  5. Posters can complement your online profile. There are numerous online repositories of posters, and more conferences are now uploading posters (not just related abstracts) to poster galleries. This can help you use Twitter, Facebook or other social media to link to and promote the content of your poster. Similarly, you can include a QR code on your poster to link to your blog or other relevant online resource. I occasionally practice what I preach, and used a QR code on a poster for the first time recently, (bottom left of poster below) to link to the abstract of a journal article on which the poster was based.
  6. Posters can help extend your network. See points 2, 3, 4 and 5.

PhD Skill: The ability to create effective poster presentations is an important research skill. Make a poster about your research today – even if it just to describe what you intend to do in your research. There are at least six reasons why this is to your advantage!
There are LOTS of great online poster resources, and I’m going to collate some of them in a future post. If I had to pick one, it would be ‘Designing conference posters’ by Colin Purrington.

Attending Experimental Biology in San Diego? Check out these tips for effective conference networking!

By Carolyn Beans

http://blogs.nature.com/naturejobs/2013/06/20/networking-tips-for-graduate-students/

At my first academic conference I didn’t introduce myself to anyone. As a first year graduate student I directed every bit of bravery toward my talk, which left nothing extra for approaching the scientists I admired.

At the next conference I fully intended to introduce myself to every evolutionary biologist in sight. But at every coffee break and social mixer most professors were locked in conversation with each other. To talk with these scientists, I needed to break in on the conversation—a seemingly impossible task.

I found, however, that with a few tricks and a lot of preparation, introductions at conferences become much less intimidating. Here are some lessons I’ve learned over the years, which I wish someone had told me before I headed out to my first big meetings.

1) Jump in on the conversation—Even though you may feel awkward, silly, or rude, you must join in on conversations. The first time I approached a scientist at a social mixer, I waited for what felt like 20 minutes for her to turn from her colleague and acknowledge me. I actually considered backing away slowly and then making a run for it. In reality, the wait was probably about 20 seconds. Ten minutes later she invited me to give my first guest lecture.

2) Have an opening ready—Immediately launching into your elevator talk seems unnatural. Instead, open with a question or observation about a scientist’s work. Then he or she will inevitably ask what you study. Cue elevator talk.

3) Get over insecurities about your work—Maybe you hate your elevator talk because your research isn’t going well. No one is more empathetic about failed experiments and underwhelming results than professors who have endured decades of them.

4) Practice ahead—Practice introducing yourself and transitioning into your elevator talk with your fellow graduate students before heading to the conference.

5) Use connections—If you can’t bring yourself to break into a conversation, ask a professor you do know to make the introductions.

6) Email ahead—Check out the program as the conference approaches to see who is presenting. If there is a professor you are especially eager to talk with, then email him or her to ask about setting up a time to meet. You can also use social media to connect with many delegates. Emailing ahead eliminates that uncomfortable introduction period. Also, for large conferences, scheduling a meeting ensures that you actually find the person you’re looking for.

7) Book a room nearby—Networking can be tiring for even the most extroverted conference attendee. Last summer I stayed in dorms located a solid twenty-minute walk from the conference venue. When networking fatigue set in, there was nowhere to escape unless I wanted to miss out on a good portion of the afternoon. When a classmate and I confessed our exhaustion to our professor, she suggested that next time (if we could afford the expense), we should book a hotel room close by. This gives you a place to break away for a quick 10-minute recharge without missing much of the action. There you can take a few deep breaths and enjoy some silence. Or, if you’re like me, you’ll want to listen to some music to pump you up for more. My personal favorite songs for conference confidence boosting are ‘Lady Don’t Tek No’ by Lyrics Born and ‘As Cool As I Am’ by Dar Williams.

So at your next conference, prepare ahead, book a recharge room, blast some tunes, and then go meet your future postdoc adviser.

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A Twitter argument about how many hours academics should work prompted Lucy Foulkes to seek out advice for early career researchers

 

Taken from https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2018/feb/13/how-to-be-an-academic-without-working-60-hours-a-week

Last week a tweet about academics’ working hours went viral:

I tell my graduate students and post-docs that if they’re working 60 hours per week, they’re working less than the full professors, and less than their peers. https://twitter.com/jayvanbavel/status/960209154148315137 

It clearly hit a nerve on academic Twitter. Many argued that they didn’t work these hours, and critically, they would never want to push this idea on junior colleagues. This hit home with me. During my PhD and postdoc, for a number of reasons, I almost exclusively “just” worked office hours. Now at the start of a lectureship, I feel a massive expectation from the wider academic system that my working hours will have to change. Reading all the responses on Twitter was genuinely eye-opening: I just had no idea that so many successful academics clock in at 40-45 hours a week. If I didn’t know this, maybe other early career researchers (ECRs) didn’t either. So I contacted lots of people who responded to the tweet to answer a simple question: How can you be a productive academic without working long hours? Here I’ve collated the responses to create more helpful – and more realistic – advice for ECRs.

Working outside office hours doesn’t mean working 60 hours a week

Many people agreed that they worked in the evening or at weekends, some occasionally, some regularly. However, what was clear was that, typically, people work at these times because they are not at their desk during office hours, and so overall they spent a similar amount of time working.

I had to be a bit flexible when my kids were little … but I tried really hard not to change the number of hours I worked in a typical day.
Jenni Rodd, reader in experimental psychology, UCL

Others said they started later in the day because they preferred to work in the evening or at night. Critically, people often seem to be working long hours because they work (and send emails) outside of office hours, but this doesn’t mean they are working round the clock.

Periods of working longer hours are temporary

Most people said they occasionally worked longer hours. For some, this varied week to week, such as Philipp Berens (group leader in ophthalmic research, University of Tübingen):

If something really important has to be finished, I occasionally work a few hours on the weekend or evenings (less than once a week).

For others, it varied at different life or career stages, such as working longer hours before having children or in the build-up before getting a promotion. Everyone has periods where they work long hours, but this didn’t happen every day throughout their career. And it is perhaps this notion – the idea of relentlessly working long hours – that is such a toxic message to send out. Few students would be intimidated by a career that involves temporary periods of hard graft; implying that this happens all the time is what is so unhelpful and inaccurate.

Maximise your efficiency

Since I have never worked long hours, I’m always interested to learn how people work effectively within limited time frames. Many people I contacted mentioned strategies for dealing with email, often checking it less frequently: “If I really need to concentrate I just close my email tab on my internet browser for a few hours,”said Nichola Raihani, professor of evolution and behaviour at UCL, “I probably check and reply to emails about 4/5 times per day.” Others scheduled time for intensive tasks:

I use my online calendar to schedule out my time, I make sure I blank out time for thinking and writing (often the first things that can disappear from your planning) and I protect that time fiercely. I try to load all my meetings into a few days a week so that I have better windows for analysis and writing.
Victoria Simms, lecturer in psychology, Ulster University

I put a timer on Google that beeps after 40 minutes (or a timer on your phone). I then only allow myself to focus on that one single task for the entire 40 minutes….I do not let myself open other windows than the one I’m working on, even if it’s to check a reference- I make a note to do it at another time in the current document.
Charlotte Brand, postdoc in human behaviour and evolution, University of Exeter

Many people said that having a family at home made them more focused at work, such as Kathryn Asbury, senior lecturer in psychology in education, University of York:

If I have promised to be home for bedtime stories at seven, then that really focuses the mind when there are tasks that need to be finished (and there always are).

The specific strategy varied across individuals, but what seemed essential to working fewer hours was learning how to maximise productivity in the time you had.

Personal working schedules shouldn’t be pushed on others

Some academics choose and are able to work long hours, often because they enjoy it. But for many, external circumstances dictate the hours they can work, and sending the message that this precludes an academic career is damaging. One senior lecturer in humanities said this:

A long-hours culture excludes everyone with caring responsibilities, illnesses, and disabilities, which could be any one of us at any time during our lives.

Everyone agreed that, whatever your own circumstances, the expectation to work long hours should not pushed upon students or other colleagues. “I think I am very explicit to them that I never expect [students and postdocs] to put in time outside the normal hours, unless they want to themselves,” said Joost Dessing, lecturer in psychology, Queen’s University Belfast. “If they get the enjoyment out of work as I did, they may want to come in extra hours, but this is never my expectation.”

A better message for ECRs

All academics work hard, but not all of them work long hours, and it’s a mistake to conflate the two. There’s a hundred reasons why someone can’t or doesn’t want to work 60 hours a week, and this shouldn’t rule out a productive academic career. So this is the message to people starting out: you are going to work hard, no doubt, and sometimes that will mean working long hours – but not always. I’ll end with one of my favourite comments:

Having a happy, relatively secure time in academia whilst working the kind of hours that allow for a healthy work-life balance is clearly possible, because there are lots of us that do just that.
Elli Leadbetter, reader in biological sciences, Royal Holloway

Skills and knowledge gained from relevant work experience — and not credentials — are what will open doors and create opportunities for graduate degree holders, write Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood.

Jennifer Polk and L. Maren Wood

Taken from https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/02/14/how-phd-students-can-find-jobs-outside-academe-appropriate-their-discipline

We hear this question a lot from graduate students, postdocs and other recent Ph.D.s. They ask it because they are looking for a list of industries, organizations or job titles that suit their education and training. When it comes to work beyond the professoriate, we have no list of job titles or companies that we can point to and say, “Here’s where [insert discipline here] Ph.D.s are wanted.” You have to find your own opportunity, and it could be in any number of different areas.

A Ph.D. is a required credential to secure work as an assistant professor at many institutions of higher education. And there are highly specialized careers for STEM Ph.D.s, where doctoral-level technical and subject matter expertise is required. The same isn’t true of other jobs: a great many Ph.D.s go on to careers where the degree itself does not matter. What matters most to employers is whether a candidate can do the work they need done.

Employers evaluate candidates with a wide variety of work experiences and educational backgrounds during the hiring process. Through earning a Ph.D., running a lab, teaching university-level courses, participating in institutional committees, organizing conferences and applying for grants and awards, academics develop a broad skill set. That skill set includes strong writing, research and analytical chops that are rooted in academic disciplines. Depending on your field, you may develop technical or process knowledge that nonacademic employers need. Think of the social scientists businesses recruit to work as data scientists or UX designers, for example.

But the Ph.D. in and of itself rarely matters. Skills and knowledge gained from relevant work experience — and not credentials — are what will open doors and create opportunities for graduate degree holders.

Note that when we say “knowledge,” we don’t necessarily mean academic subject matter expertise. For many Ph.D.s, their scholarship does not directly relate to their nonfaculty career. Ryan Raver works as a product manager at a pharmaceutical company. He leverages his knowledge of biomedical science when communicating with scientists, marketers and vendors, but he seldom uses his academic expertise on his job. Keriann McGoogan does not draw on her dissertation research topic (lemurs) while at work at Pearson Canada. She does call upon her experience with academic writing, research and university-level teaching in her job as an acquisitions editor.

Both Raver and McGoogan found that they needed to supplement the skills and knowledge they developed while earning their Ph.D.s before they could successfully transition to work beyond the professoriate. While in graduate school, Raver took business courses and ran a small business so that he had a solid understanding of management practices to combine with his science background. McGoogan took night courses to learn about the publishing industry and then worked as an intern before landing her first paid position in publishing.

Raver and McGoogan leveraged their experience to help them land meaningful, rewarding jobs after their Ph.D.s. But here’s a key point: they did not secure those positions because of their graduate education. To build a successful, meaningful career beyond the professoriate, every Ph.D. must learn how to leverage their own distinct combination of knowledge, skills and abilities. While there is no long list of “Ph.D. jobs,” a very long list of jobs is held by individuals who happen to have Ph.D.s.

The good news is that there are many places where you can leverage your education. Speaking to Ph.D.s who work outside academe can help you learn what your skills are, where they are in demand and how to effectively communicate your value to potential employers.

Here are two useful questions you can ask yourself instead of “What can I do with my Ph.D. in my specific discipline?”

What Energizes Me About the Work I’m Doing Now?

Often when academics answer this question, they say, “I love teaching!” or “I am passionate about [insert subfield here].” That’s fine, but when it comes to leveraging your experience for work beyond the professoriate, think deeper. What is it you love most about teaching? One of us, Maren, loved teaching, but the aspects of teaching she found most engaging and rewarding were mentoring others and helping them achieve their goals. Those are interests shared by people who are successful managers, coaches, consultants and more.

Maren loved public speaking and delivering workshops during her Ph.D. studies and later as an instructor. Now working outside a university, she still speaks and presents, only to a different audience about different topics. Public speaking is a skill that is transferable to a wide range of employment contexts.

Maybe it isn’t your academic work that is energizing. What are you doing when you’re feeling most energized or successful? Is it volunteering at a nonprofit? Doing your own podcast? Think about what it is you’re excited to be doing. Follow that.

The other of us, Jen, co-hosted a podcast and was a music blogger for a few years during her doctorate — activities she found highly engaging. While on campus, she most enjoyed running tutorials, which usually involved facilitating discussions among small groups of students. And she loved doing archival research and discovering answers to questions. It is thus not shocking that her postacademic career includes a significant amount of public engagement (blogging, Twitter), facilitating panel discussions, and individual and group coaching. Another history Ph.D. might hate this work, but for Jen, it’s awesome.

Now think about the parts of academic work you find least energizing. For Maren, those tasks included grading. She does not want to edit other people’s work. Jen isn’t interested in academic publishing. Tasks that drag you down are those that you want to avoid as much as possible in your next role. So for our work together now, Jen edits our writing while Maren conducts research.

What Are My Skills and Competencies, and What Will Employers Pay Me to Do?

You won’t be paid to do everything you love, and that’s OK. You can find other ways to engage your passions and interests. Rather than thinking of yourself as a historian, literary scholar or chemist, think about your key skills and core competencies. A key skill might be public speaking; the related core competency is oral communication. We recommend reading Robin Kessler and Linda Strasburg’s Competency-Based Resumesto become familiar with competencies versus skills.

Make a list of the things you do in the day, from answering student emails to editing your friend’s footnotes. Do this for a couple of weeks, and you’ll see you do quite a bit. That will help you reimagine yourself as a professional with skills in addition to being a scholar with deep subject-matter expertise. Then, organize the things you do into clusters of skills and competencies. Cross out all the things you hate doing and highlight the ones that energize you.

Next, learn about organizations and industries in the city where you live or want to live.

Read organization websites. Use LinkedIn to find employees that work there and review the skills and competencies they highlight in their profiles. Read job advertisements posted by companies of interest. Don’t worry about applying for these jobs — you’re just doing research at this stage.

Then, reread your list. What skills do you have that employers want? What is your value to them? How can your skills and abilities help an organization be more successful?

Although your Ph.D. won’t necessarily open doors for you, many industries need people with your skill set. Seek out companies of interest, speak to people who have jobs that sound interesting, ask for help. Reach out to Ph.D.s who are working in nonfaculty careers and ask them for advice in making the transition. Check out our career panels to get started.

Organizations across industries and sectors are looking for talented individuals, and Ph.D.s have skills that are in demand. But, again, it’s these skills, not the credential, that matter. In other words, it’s you, and not your degree, that will be of interest to employers. So figure out who you are as a professional and then build a list of jobs, organizations and industries that match your skills and interests.

photo_85228_landscape_650x433

By Gundula Bosch

Taken from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-01853-1

Under pressure to turn out productive lab members quickly, many PhD programmes in the biomedical sciences have shortened their courses, squeezing out opportunities for putting research into its wider context. Consequently, most PhD curricula are unlikely to nurture the big thinkers and creative problem-solvers that society needs.

That means students are taught every detail of a microbe’s life cycle but little about the life scientific. They need to be taught to recognize how errors can occur. Trainees should evaluate case studies derived from flawed real research, or use interdisciplinary detective games to find logical fallacies in the literature. Above all, students must be shown the scientific process as it is — with its limitations and potential pitfalls as well as its fun side, such as serendipitous discoveries and hilarious blunders.

This is exactly the gap that I am trying to fill at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where a new graduate science programme is entering its second year. Microbiologist Arturo Casadevall and I began pushing for reform in early 2015, citing the need to put the philosophy back into the doctorate of philosophy: that is, the ‘Ph’ back into the PhD. We call our programme R3, which means that our students learn to apply rigour to their design and conduct of experiments; view their work through the lens of social responsibility; and to think critically, communicate better, and thus improve reproducibility. Although we are aware of many innovative individual courses developed along these lines, we are striving for more-comprehensive reform.

Our offerings are different from others at the graduate level. We have critical-thinking assignments in which students analyse errors in reasoning in a New York Times opinion piece about ‘big sugar’, and the ethical implications of the arguments made in a New Yorker piece by surgeon Atul Gawande entitled ‘The Mistrust of Science’. Our courses on rigorous research, scientific integrity, logic, and mathematical and programming skills are integrated into students’ laboratory and fieldwork. Those studying the influenza virus, for example, work with real-life patient data sets and wrestle with the challenges of applied statistics.

A new curriculum starts by winning allies. Both students and faculty members must see value in moving off the standard track. We used informal interviews and focus groups to identify areas in which students and faculty members saw gaps in their training. Recurring themes included the inability to apply theoretical knowledge in statistical tests in the laboratory, frequent mistakes in choosing an appropriate set of experimental controls, and significant difficulty in explaining work to non-experts.

Introducing our programme to colleagues in the Johns Hopkins life-sciences departments was even more sensitive. I was startled by the oft-expressed opinion that scientific productivity depended more on rote knowledge than on competence in critical thinking. Several principal investigators were uneasy about students committing more time to less conventional forms of education. The best way to gain their support was coffee: we repeatedly met lab heads to understand their concerns.

With the pilot so new, we could not provide data on students’ performance, but we could address faculty members’ scepticism. Some colleagues were apprehensive that students would take fewer courses in specialized content to make room for interdisciplinary courses on ethics, epistemology and quantitative skills. In particular, they worried that the R3 programme could lengthen the time required for students to complete their degree, leave them insufficiently knowledgeable in their subject areas and make them less productive in the lab.

We made the case that better critical thinking and fewer mandatory discipline-specific classes might actually position students to be more productive. We convinced several professors to try the new system and participate in structured evaluations on whether R3 courses contributed to students’ performance.

So far, we have built 5 new courses from scratch and have enrolled 85 students from nearly a dozen departments and divisions. The courses cover the anatomy of errors and misconduct in scientific practice and teach students how to dissect the scientific literature. An interdisciplinary discussion series encourages broad and critical thinking about science. Our students learn to consider societal consequences of research advances, such as the ability to genetically alter sperm and eggs.

Discussions about the bigger-picture problems of the scientific enterprise get students to reflect on the limits of science, and where science’s ability to do something competes with what scientists should do from a moral point of view. In addition, we have seminars and workshops on professional skills, particularly leadership skills through effective communication, teaching and mentoring.

It is still early days for assessment. So far, however, trainees have repeatedly emphasized that gaining a broader perspective has been helpful. In future, we will collect information about the impact that the R3 approach has on graduates’ career choices and achievements.

We believe that researchers who are educated more broadly will do science more thoughtfully, with the result that other scientists, and society at large, will be able to rely on this work for a better, more rational world. Science should strive to be self-improving, not just self-correcting.

 

Nature 554, 277 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01853-1