Article taken from:

By: Elisabeth Pain

Late one night, cell biologist Prachee Avasthi was poring over data that had come in earlier that day, when she came across a result she describes as “exceedingly rare and unfathomable”: A gene that her lab was already investigating was a key player in another cellular process they had recently become interested in. “I tried but couldn’t contain my excitement,” says Avasthi, a principal investigator (PI) at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City. So she posted about it on Slack, the electronic communication and collaboration tool her team uses. Even though she didn’t expect anyone to see it at that late hour, she was just happy to convey her excitement there, knowing that she and her lab members would “share some happy moments of awe and disbelief the next day.”

This lab community, however, was a few years in the making. When Avasthi started out as an assistant professor in 2015, she was surprised at how isolating the position could feel. As a trainee, “you are in somebody’s lab, and you have a cohort of other classmates, and more importantly you have that adviser who, if you make a big discovery or thought of a great new idea, is someone that you can tell that is as excited about it as you are,” she says. But when you become a PI, all of a sudden, “that vanishes.” Back in her early days as a PI, there were many times when she was “bursting with excitement,” only to wonder, “Who do I tell?” (In 2016, this question prompted Avasthi to create a Slack community of new PIs that now has more than 950 members from around the world.)

Many new PIs experience similarly unexpected bumps in the road as they transition from trainee to head honcho. The features of the job that many aspiring academics look forward to—such as having the freedom to pursue your own ideas, running your lab how you want, and gaining more recognition—come with new responsibilities and challenges, including some that are unforeseen. To address this gap, both for new PIs and for trainees who are considering whether they want to pursue the PI path, Science Careers talked with Avasthi and three other scientists about the unexpected challenges of starting their labs and what they learned along the way.

Taking—and ceding—control

“You have this idea that once you are the boss, you can do what you want and whenever you want,” Avasthi recalls thinking when she was a trainee. But once she started her new role as a PI, she quickly found that was not quite the case. Between her current teaching responsibilities, meetings, and other commitments, “this is the least amount of control over my schedule that I’ve ever had,” Avasthi says. One of her coping strategies is working from home when she needs to really focus on digging into some new data or writing a paper or grant application.

The responsibility that comes with authority also informs her approach to managing her research program. As a postdoc, “if I had an idea in my head and I was beyond excited, I could just drop everything and do it,” she says. But as a PI, she has to think carefully about reprioritizing experiments. “You don’t want to hijack people in their productivity by changing gears all the time,” she says. You have to “take into account how much pressure you are putting on people and let them have a chance to decide for themselves.”

That mindset has also helped her deal with the “huge amount of decision fatigue” that comes with having “one million decisions [all] waiting on you”—another aspect of the job that Avasthi hadn’t anticipated as a trainee. She has learned to rely more and more on her trainees to make minor decisions for the lab, such as choosing what reagents to order, which allows her to “spend my time doing things that only I can do,” such as writing major grant proposals.

In becoming a PI, “there are certain things that were different” from what she expected, Avasthi says. But they aren’t all challenges. All in all, she says, being a PI “has been even better than I hoped.”

Managing management

When systems biologist Johannes Jaeger started as a PI at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, he was all about the science. “I was extremely excited to be able to do my own stuff with so many resources,” he recalls. But, he continues, “I was completely unprepared in terms of how to manage a group.”

Early on, Jaeger made a few management decisions that he would come to regret. In one case, he hired a trainee based on their technical expertise, even though he had some misgivings about whether they would be a good match for his personality and advising style. He thought that the trainee’s knowledge would outweigh the “fit” factor. And the researcher did help push the lab forward—but they also proved difficult to work with and disruptive to the lab, Jaeger says. The lesson, he says, is that when it comes to hiring lab members, CVs can’t tell the whole story.

With time, Jaeger realized that not only was he unprepared for the managerial aspects of running a multidisciplinary lab—such as getting researchers with different backgrounds to collaborate and understand each other; overseeing the budget; and making sure that reagents for experiments were ordered, scientific equipment was maintained, and computational infrastructure was kept up-to-date—he didn’t enjoy being completely absorbed by them. Rather than feeling like he was doing research, it felt “almost like leading a small company,” he says, which wasn’t what he wanted. He missed having the chunks of time that he once enjoyed as a postdoc to do his own research, think, and write.

Hand-in-hand with the managerial responsibilities came the pressure to succeed, which Jaeger initially found difficult to cope with. Some of this pressure was self-imposed, with Jaeger setting research targets that he describes as overly ambitious and “unnecessarily scary.” But his high-risk project took almost 4 years to yield publications, which made getting grants difficult. Those were frustrating times, Jaeger adds. “I was worrying a lot.”

One year after passing his 5-year evaluation, Jaeger decided to close his lab to become the scientific director of a small institute in Austria. He is currently writing a book and teaching while considering his next career steps. His advice to new PIs who envision a traditional academic career is “to trust yourself and to let yourself grow into the role. It’s not that your life completely changes and you suddenly have to be on top of everything. You have some spare space and time to learn on the job, and that’s the only way you can do it.”

Facing greater exposure

For physicist Martina Müller, who runs a lab at the Jülich Research Center in Germany, the sense of exposure that can come with being a PI took her by surprise. “As a postdoc, you are responsible for yourself and maybe one or two students, but there is always a professor taking care of the final things,” she says. “And then from one day to the other, you are responsible for other people, money, teaching students, and so on,” says Müller, who also holds a junior professor position at the Technical University of Dortmund.

At times, being the one in charge forces you to be the bad guy when you have to make decisions “that are maybe not so popular” with your trainees, says Müller, who tries to cultivate a flat, nonhierarchical structure in her lab to the extent that she can. Earlier this year, for example, she had to tell a student that they needed to delay taking their summer vacation because the trainee’s holiday plans clashed with a coveted slot they had secured at a synchrotron facility.

It’s not just within the lab. PIs need to be ready to step up and defend their ideas and positions to colleagues and higher-ranking professors, within their institute and beyond, Müller says. This “costs energy, and if you are not completely an alpha person, this is something that you have to work on.”

What Müller expected least was the sense of exposure that she came to experience as a woman in a male-dominated working environment. As an early-career physicist, she had become accustomed to being in the minority, but she had never really felt set apart or experienced potential bias against her. Now, in meetings, she is all too often the only woman in the room, which brings a peculiar sort of visibility. “The focus is at some point on you, and you have to sit very straight” and be impeccable professionally, “and this also costs a bit of energy,” Müller says. Often, she also feels the need to show greater competence and say things more forcefully than her male colleagues to be treated equally. “I had not foreseen really how it feels to stand up or to be in many situations alone as a female.”

It helped that, as she started her position, Müller participated in a 2-year leadership training program for women in science. Even more useful has been developing a network of peers at her same career stage. “You cannot talk to your boss or students about certain topics,” such as work overload, conflicts with and between trainees, or gender issues, she says. The network offers the outlet she needs to talk about these issues with other young PIs who are experiencing similar problems. These conversations help her find the support and advice she needs to stand up for herself and manage the challenges.

Achieving balance

For microbiologist James “Jake” McKinlay, one of the biggest surprises when he started as a professor in 2011 was how challenging teaching—and the time management that comes with it—can be. His assistant professorship at Indiana University in Bloomington called for him to spend 25% of his time teaching, with the remaining 75% committed to research. He thought this would be a good balance for him—it was one of the reasons he took the job in the first place.

But the undergraduate course that he was assigned to teach during his first year soon became all-consuming. “I wanted my course to be really special,” McKinlay recalls, so he gave his students all kinds of projects and homework. “I don’t think I realized how much time it would take just to put together a basic lecture. … I tried to do too much too early.” Preparing the material for the course and grading the assignments left little time for research. “My research program all but stopped that semester, and that was really bad.”

The experience eventually forced McKinlay to dedicate specific blocks of time for his research and set more realistic standards for his teaching. By his third year, when he taught his first graduate course, “I was more willing to ease myself into it,” he says, which made both his teaching and research more enjoyable and effective.

The same time management challenge kept presenting itself in many forms. As a professor, you get daily requests to help students and colleagues, sit on committees, and perform community service, McKinlay says. It is essential that you learn to balance all these duties while also protecting your time, he adds.

Today, he always tries to help students and be a good colleague. But as McKinlay has become more established—he was promoted to associate professor in July—he has learned to be more selective in the tasks he accepts, for example only agreeing to review papers that he is really interested in. Saying “no” is difficult, but he knew that to continue contributing in the long term, he needed to secure tenure first.

Part of adjusting his workload and schedule also involved adjusting his own expectations of himself. “You can let aspects of the job, be it teaching or research or service, take as much of you as you let it,” he says. “It’s really forced me to recognize my limits … and to try to work within them.”

This mindset has proved important not just for McKinlay’s professional success and satisfaction, but also for his personal happiness. In addition to making sure he has time for work and his family, “I realized that I need to also dedicate time for myself, otherwise it’s not healthy … and it’s not fun for anybody.”

Doctoral students can use writing meet-ups to overcome isolation and depression — and boost their motivation, says Karra Harrington.

Taken from

Feelings of depression, anxiety and isolation are so common during a PhD programme that some have dubbed the experience ‘the PhD blues’. As a PhD student and practising psychologist, I wanted to try to reduce the impact of the blues on my fellow students and on me.

I decided to plan a regular meet-up with my student peers, in which we could write up our theses together. My hope was that it would establish deep social connections and help us to cope with some of the challenges of our PhD programmes.

I had attended Shut Up and Write! writing groups, which involve short ‘sprints’ of writing with breaks in between. Everyone works silently during the sprints and socializes during the breaks. These groups helped me to manage my productivity and motivation — but I had no sense of connection with my fellow writers. Often, participants would check e-mails or take a walk during breaks. And different people attended each session, which made it hard to get to know each other and to build connections. Any conversations were superficial and perfunctory.

For my group, I wanted to use the breaks to create supportive networks and to share ideas on how to overcome challenges. Ultimately, I wanted to create a community in which participants could learn from and support each other while also feeling productive and making progress on their theses.

I first needed to find participants. I reached out to students involved with the Cooperative Research Centre for Mental Health, an Australian research consortium based in Melbourne that aims to further mental-health research through collaboration. Students in the consortium work across research areas, institutions and geographical locations. Such diversity meant that relationships developed among students who would not usually interact regularly. It also meant that we could use the sessions to expand our networks and gain fresh perspectives on common challenges.

I launched the meet-up almost two years ago, and it has been a huge success, with a regular attendance of six to ten students every month. Our sessions are done in person and through videoconferencing, and include two to three hours of writing, as well as discussions on how to find mentors, structure thesis drafts or balance family life with completing a PhD. I facilitate each session, and group members raise topics according to their needs and interests. Members say that they feel accountable to the group, and that this motivates them and limits procrastination. They also check in with each other between sessions.

Interaction zone

Bringing together students from different institutions, and creating a space in which they could interact, was challenging. The videoconferencing helps members who can’t get to campus — they feel engaged with their peers and less isolated. The meet-ups help me, too: I often have limited contact with other people during my working day. A regularly scheduled time to meet with others and discuss my science gives me a break from the isolation and is something to look forward to every month.

It took some time to build trust in the group so that everyone felt comfortable participating in the discussions. As facilitator, I keep discussions on track and relevant, encourage quieter group members to speak up and provide opportunities for those participating through videoconferencing to contribute. These efforts help to establish a sense of fairness and equality in the group.

Illustration of group discussion with video conference

Credit: Adapted from Viktoria Kurpas/Shutterstock

The consistency of attendance by core group members is important because it helps participants to build relationships, thereby fostering a sense of safety and trust within each session. Group members say that they value having opportunities to connect with other PhD students and share their experiences, and that the group has helped them to maintain their motivation and sense of well-being.

Along the way, I’ve realized the importance of setting clear expectations using ground rules. Our ground rules are based on respect and confidentiality, and include speaking one at a time, listening to each other, not talking during writing sessions and maintaining confidentiality on all issues that we discuss in the group. All group members agree to stick to the rules, and the facilitator helps to enforce them.

As our group continued to meet and members started to open up about challenges that they faced, we found that the ground rules became even more valuable, because they helped to promote a sense of safety and encouraged useful exchanges between members. I found that it was also useful to make the group’s purpose — to manage productivity and well-being — explicit from the start. On signing up to join, members know immediately what to expect. We use the Pomodoro Technique, which involves blocks of writing, breaks for discussion and goal setting, to manage our productivity. At the start of each session, we share our individual goals with each other; and during the discussion breaks, we check with one another on our progress towards our goals.

For some group members, this was a new way of working and it took some time to get used to. But the fact that we made it clear from the start why we had adopted this way of working helped new members to understand and to agree to try out these techniques. Members say they’ve found that the group helps them to set aside quality writing time, and that the structure of the sessions enables them to make progress on their thesis even when they are struggling with motivation.

The peer-mentoring aspect gives everyone a space in which to ask questions and to share what they know. A group member might, for example, seek advice about conference networking while also providing guidance on a data-analysis technique. By creating opportunities for members to ask for support and advice, the sessions help everyone to feel more hopeful and to identify proactive steps that they can take to overcome challenges. The opportunity to help others and to share knowledge provides everyone with a sense of empowerment and the ability to recognize their own strengths and expertise.

Our discussions help to normalize the challenges of PhD studies and remind us to celebrate our successes. We wanted to share the benefits of the group with other PhD students, and so we’ve developed our model into a programme called Write Smarter: Feel Better. We have created guidelines for group sessions and training materials for group facilitators. These cover things such as how to build trust, and how to help the group reach agreement on ways in which members should interact with each other. Australia’s University of Melbourne and Edith Cowan University are now testing the programme, with evaluations planned for completion by the end of this year.

At both universities, PhD students volunteer for the role of facilitator. We worked with the universities to develop strategies to support PhD students in this role; these included providing first-aid training in mental health and arranging for a university staff member to be a support contact. Importantly, although the universities offer support, the sessions remain led by PhD students and for PhD students.

Creating this meet-up group has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my PhD experience. I have learnt so much from organizing and facilitating the sessions, and now have a solid peer network. I have been able to gain insights on my research and career that I wouldn’t have had if I had stuck to working on my own or only with lab peers. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, my goal is not only to survive, but to thrive — with passion, compassion, humour and style — and my meet-up is helping me to do exactly that.


Nature 559, 143-144 (2018)

Raw Talk Live panelists share insights on science literacy and engagement

Raw Talk Podcast — a project spearheaded by graduate students from The Institute of Medical Science (IMS) at U of T — hosted its first live show at JLABS on May 30. A two-part panel discussion, Raw Talk Live explored the current climate of science communication.

Traditionally, science was communicated through conferences, where researchers in the same or similar fields shared their findings with their peers. The responsibility for communicating this research to the public fell on teachers and science journalists. These days, researchers also communicate their findings outside of the academic community through scientific outreach and the media.

Public engagement in science

Tetyana Pekar, an IMS alum and moderator of the first panel, asked panelists what they thought the status quo for public engagement in science was and how it could be improved. The panelists all felt that the status quo was changing for the better, but that there was room for improvement.

One key concern was that scientific outreach tends to stay within the ivory towers of academia, and getting the general public to take interest in science is an ongoing struggle.

A 2017 survey conducted by the Ontario Science Centre found 47 per cent of Canadians do not believe in or understand the science behind global warming.

“There is this aspect of the public’s awareness of science that’s incomplete and they’re going to celebrities for information and that’s very troubling,” said Dan Weaver, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics at U of T.

The results from a 2011 analysis indicate that students from underrepresented or underprivileged backgrounds have less access to science outreach initiatives, which further deepens these misunderstandings as these students are likely deterred from learning about science or pursuing a scientific career.

For Doina Oncel, founder of hEr VOLUTION, a non-profit organization in Toronto that empowers youth in underserved communities to enter STEM, outreach means that “We don’t [just] empower people, we give them tools to empower themselves.”

When Weaver and his research team traveled to Nunavut, they conducted science outreach activities with students from a local school. They showed the students how scientific instruments are used in research to make becoming a scientist a more concrete possibility.

Scientists also benefit from engaging with lay audiences about their research.

“I think the patient [and] parent voice in research is important. I think we have stories to tell and things to say that are valued in the research world,” said Connie Putterman, whose journey in science communication began when her son was diagnosed with autism 18 years ago.

The speakers agreed that citizens have a large impact on science policy, and, in turn, on scientific research. According to the Canadian Science Policy Centre founder and CEO Mehrdad Hariri, by creating a culture of public engagement in scientific research through initiatives like citizen science, we can better defend the integrity of science.

New methods of science communication

Eryn Tong, a Raw Talk segment host, asked speakers in the second panel what they thought effective science communication would look like in an ideal world.

According to Dr. Vicky Forster, a postdoctoral fellow at SickKids, science should be made more accessible through open access publications and accessible language. The other panelists echoed this sentiment. Especially as one in three Canadians are unable to follow science reports published in the media, creativity is necessary when reporting science accurately and in a way that is understood by non-expert audiences.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s a real appetite… to take content and customize it and make it so that it’s consumable in ways that people can navigate it in [a] non-linear fashion,” said Kevin Millar, Senior Vice President of Creative and Medical Science at INVIVO Communications, a digital healthcare agency that creates visual aids for communicating science.

Millar added that Canada should invest more time and talent into communicating science more effectively and for specific audiences.

Helen Kontozopoulos, co-founder of the Innovation Lab in the Department of Computer Science at U of T, pointed out that bringing different voices to the narrative could also help change the way scientific research is shared.

Elah Feder, U of T alum and co-host of science podcast Undiscovered, added that communicating the scientific process is equally important. “People just see a headline that coffee is bad for you and then next week they see that coffee is good for you and I think [they get confused] because they don’t understand the process,” said Feder.

By Amber Dance

Taken from

The lab is sometimes a silly place — and perhaps it should be. A group that behaves in daft ways from time to time tends to be one that is positive, results-oriented and successful, says Michael Kerr, a business speaker in Canmore, Canada, who focuses on humour in the workplace. Jokes and pranks can serve as signs of a healthy workplace, and provide ways to foster trust and good communication among staff, Kerr says.

A 2012 meta-review of studies on humour in the workplace found that it is linked with strong employee performance, effective stress-coping mechanisms and sturdy group cohesiveness1. The study, conducted by two management researchers at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and a psychologist at Florida International University in Miami, also linked humour to reduced burnout among employees.

Although humour has its benefits, researchers caution that jokes and laughs must be appropriate for the workplace and lab members should avoid making fun of each other in potentially or clearly hurtful ways. “Make sure you’re not harassing somebody or singling someone out,” says Sophie Scott, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London. “Banter can be bullying.” And simply saying “I was joking” doesn’t undo the hurt, she adds.

As any comedian knows, attempts at humour can fall flat or even backfire. Adam Ruben, a molecular biologist at Sanaria, a biotechnology company in Rockville, Maryland, worries that humour could ruin a younger scientist’s chances of being taken seriously. Ruben does stand-up comedy on the side, but keeps his major scientific talks mostly free of jokes.

Newcomers to a lab group should get to know their labmates and principal investigator well before they start joking around, advises Bernie Chun Nam Mak, a lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University who studied workplace strategies, including humour, during his PhD programme in applied English linguistics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Burst the stress bubble

There’s no shortage of hilarity in the lab where James Utterback, a PhD student in physical chemistry at the University of Colorado Boulder, works. His greatest prank (so far — labmates beware) was inspired by a laser system that arrived in late 2015 for the group’s studies of solar photochemistry. It came in a crate with metres and metres of bubble wrap.

While another group was in a meeting, Utterback and his accomplices coated their student office’s floor, desks and printer with the bubbly sheets. They hid in the office so that they could catch their colleagues’ shocked reaction. Both groups laughed and entertained themselves popping the plastic bubbles.

But that wasn’t the last of it. When Utterback returned to his office after a conference in mid-2017, he discovered he’d been replaced — with a bubble-wrap mannequin, complete with a wig and clothes. “He had been named James 2,” says Utterback. “He became kind of like our group mascot.”

James 2 regularly rotated between the lab’s student offices, surprising people who turned on the lights to find him diligently ‘working’ at their desks.

“Working with James [1] was seriously delightful,” says Amanda Grennell, a freelance science writer in Missoula, Montana, who earned her PhD in August 2017 from the same lab. “Pranks gave my brain a much-needed break from both work and stress.”

Graduate studies and science in general can be frustrating and isolating, agrees Jorge Cham of Los Angeles, California, who earned a PhD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University in California. He started a PhD comic strip, ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’, soon after beginning graduate school, as a sort of art therapy to cope with the pressure cooker of academic training.

After a stint as an instructor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, he switched in 2005 to cartooning full-time. He regularly lectures about the misery of graduate studies and the joys of procrastination.

This unusual career path has given Cham more fame than he probably ever would have earned in academic robotics — his original plan. The comics, which have drawn 188,000 followers on Twitter, have appeared in more than 50 US newspapers and been collated into 5 collections that have collectively sold more than 100,000 copies. They’ve helped many a stressed graduate student laugh through tough times, simply by showing readers that they’re not alone in their academic struggles. “Burnout is so common, anything that can be done to help people keep perspective and enjoy what they’re doing, the better the long-term prospects of the lab are,” says Cham.

A light attitude can also help to diffuse tension that arises from failures or errors. Cham once spilt a bucket of mildly toxic resin in another lab that had a group leader he found particularly intimidating. He was horrified. “I vividly remember my life flashing before my eyes,” recalls Cham. “I never thought that was something that actually happened.”

But the postdoc supervising Cham took it good-naturedly, simply telling him he was allowed to make that mistake — once. That helped Cham to move past the error.

As that supervisor so deftly illustrated, humour can be a powerful tool for leaders. The meta-analysis of workplace humour found that when those in power were viewed as fun and funny, their subordinates performed better and had stronger teamwork. Staff were also happier with their jobs and their bosses. And a fun, lighthearted lab group might produce better science than one that is perpetually solemn and serious. Humour, says Kerr, is a positive catalyst for thinking creatively. Or, for mathematicians: “Ha + Ha = Aha.”

Light-heartedness can also reduce embarrassment when inevitable mistakes happen in the lab. “Humour can help workers, especially superiors, to imply something negative to each other in a less face-threatening way,” says Mak. He once observed a situation in which a worker made a mistake on an Excel spreadsheet. Her supervisor admonished her by making a wry joke about the error, and they both laughed it off.

Lead with laughter

A humour-filled lab might not happen spontaneously, so leaders might wish to actively encourage it. Scott, who studies speech and laughter, makes a conscious effort to build a happy team.

But leaders should be wary of forcing humour onto junior scientists. “They have to feel comfortable first,” says Scott. “They have to feel part of a group.” She pays particular attention to new lab members — especially when they’re from other countries — ensuring that they feel comfortable, and not left out. If they’re laughing and joking, she knows that they’re settling in.

To help foster a positive group dynamic, Scott often organizes lab social events and includes both personal and scientific discussions in casual lab meetings over coffee. The personal sharing is optional, of course.

“The demeanour of the principal investigator will affect the atmosphere of the whole meeting,” she says. “I try to keep a positive and friendly mood.”

It might seem simple for Scott’s group to spice their work with humour — they study laughter, after all, and their work entails developing funny videos to make viewers and subjects chuckle. But no one has to be a stand-up comedian to infuse some humour into the lab. Kerr says that there are plenty of ways to make work fun, even for the less comedy-inclined. One option he likes is to put up a ‘humour bulletin board’. Lab members can contribute funny statistics, research results or cartoons.

Starting group traditions is another way to make work enjoyable. Kerr suggests giving out fun awards, such as the ‘Most Likely to Overdose on Caffeine Award’. Employees feel appreciated, and everyone has a good time.

Helena González

Helena González teaches science through comedy.Credit: Ignacio Izquierdo

Ruben recalls a fun tradition from his PhD lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Each scientist picked an orange test-tube stopper, or septum, and drew a little face on it. Once a week, they’d take a break to place the stoppers on a shaker; whichever stopper stayed on the longest before bouncing off won its scientist US$1 from each of the other entrants. That two-minute break provided a valuable bonding experience, Ruben says.

And if one wonders what to joke about, “the easiest person to laugh at is yourself”, advises Josh Willis, a climate scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who has trained with comedy troupes The Groundlings and Second City. He christened one of his missions OMG, an initialism for ‘Oceans Melting Greenland’.

Willis is perfectly willing to engage in a bit of self-deprecating humour, and one of his studies made it easy to do that. In 2006, early in his career, he collected data showing that, despite the effects of global warming, some of the world’s oceans had somehow cooled between 2003 and 20052. Willis endured a fair bit of ridicule for this ‘discovery’. Even conservative pundits got in on the harassment, using Willis’s paper as evidence that left-leaning scientists are clueless about climate.

Willis, trusting his data, took it all in his stride. Then, in February 2007, he discovered the error he’d made. No, the oceans weren’t getting colder: certain temperature sensors had given bad readings. He published a correction shortly afterwards3.

In response — playing on the talk-show punditry that Willis had endured — his wife gave him a set of business cards imprinted with the title ‘Idiot leftist scientist’. He still carries the cards in his wallet. “That dose of humility and making fun of myself — in the long run, I think it benefited my career,” says Willis.

Tread with care

Some joke topics are simply not acceptable in any workplace, notes Nicki Fuchs, a stand-up comic and biochemical engineer at MedImmune in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Gender, politics, race and religion, among other matters, are off the table, she advises.

Those rules still leave her with plenty of room to jest with her labmates. And it’s useful for her to joke about work, says Fuchs, because it helps her, a 30-year-old woman, to connect with the rest of the lab members — all older men. A recurring wisecrack is about whoever most recently left the water running and flooded the lab — a not-uncommon occurrence, because their work involves filling up large, pressurized bottles.

Jokes may fall flat in some settings. In graduate school, Ruben often ended his lab-meeting presentations with a joke slide. But during one such presentation, his adviser was already unimpressed with his scientific progress, and Ruben suspects that his joke slide — a colleague’s head that was Photoshopped onto a goat’s body — deepened his adviser’s doubts. Since then, he uses jokes only in informal presentations or talks about science careers.

Scientists should also be careful about humour that might not work well with people from other cultures. What’s funny to one ethnic group can be incomprehensible or offensive to another, Mak notes. It’s fairly simple to learn about the sense of humour in a geographical region to which one is travelling or moving, adds Kerr: he just Googles it.

Of course, some topics that scientists study — cancer, for example — aren’t funny at all. Yet jokes can help to ease tension and discomfort around specialities that deal with tragic subjects, says Helena González, who earned a PhD studying the epigenetics of cancer in 2013 and is now a science communicator with the comedy troupe Big Van Science in Barcelona. “That kind of black humour releases your feelings and makes your work much easier,” she says.

Still, she adds, scientists need to be careful about where they make any such jokes. Generally, among a few close colleagues in the lab, it’s fine. When dealing with patients or the public, it’s not.

And although pranks are fun, those that might endanger personnel, equipment or experiments have no place in the lab. Ruben recalls one supervisor he had at a summer job, who dropped a lit match into a recently emptied jug of ethanol. “A column of fire shot up to the ceiling,” Ruben says. “He probably shouldn’t have done that.”

That said, everyone can use a chuckle now and then. If you’re planning a — harmless! — April Fool’s lab jape, be sure to share it with @naturejobs, hashtag #AprilFools.

Nature 555, 689-691 (2018)

May 29, 2018
Taken from

I am a first-generation Mexican-American scholar, and while I am not the first person in my family to attend college, I am the first to earn a four-year degree, a master’s and a Ph.D. In addition, I am also the first postdoc from my program at the University of Southern California to transition to a tenure-track faculty position.

This fall, I will be an assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Stories like mine often foreground grittiness and/or persistence as characteristics necessary for success. While it is true that my larger story is filled with examples of overcoming structural barriers, I am ultimately uninterested in framing my story as a hero narrative.

In fact, I will go so far as to say that hero narratives in academe, especially when they are about people of color, are dangerous because they encourage searching for flawless beings rather than searching for great scholars who are imperfect — just like everyone else. They can also discourage reflecting on why being a “model” or “exceptional” minority is a requirement to begin with.

Now that I have told you what I won’t be doing, it seems prudent to mention my goals. In a series of monthly pieces for Inside Higher Ed, I will focus on how I navigate the tenure process from start to finish. I hope to share lessons learned from my perspective in hopes that other people can learn from it. While each topic will be different, I will ground them all on my belief that success in higher education is not only predicated on one’s work but also on how the scholarly community receives that work. Understood in that way, success in the academy can be reframed as enacting a semipublic persona successfully — one that is positioned to be relevant within and beyond one’s discipline — while still being an authentic representation of who one wants to be.

I often liken this process to playing a game of chess. In chess, the positions of the pieces matter more than the pieces themselves. At the start of the game, a player’s most powerful piece, the queen, is isolated and relatively useless. It isn’t until the weakest pieces, the pawns, move that the board opens up. Yet, even then, the pieces must work in concert and be well positioned in order to win the game. Along the way, some pieces are sacrificed for the benefit of the player’s advancement.

Similarly, the purpose of my essays will be to share insights about positioning oneself to be successful — to communicate my understanding of the academic chessboard.

To start, I will share what I have learned during my transition from being a postdoc to a tenure-track faculty member. While any such advice is necessarily coupled with a person’s particular experience, I hope my perspective will nonetheless be helpful to other postdocs who are about to begin their appointments, or who are in the middle of them or close to finishing them.

What does it mean to transition from being a postdoc to holding a tenure-track faculty position? Ideally, it is the culmination of thoughtful planning. You can’t just enter into a tenure-track position after being a postdoc by chance. As a postdoc, you must attend to many context-specific variables if you are to avoid being simply seen as an advanced graduate student instead of the independent scholar you aim to be.

Before Starting Your Postdoc

Postdocs typically know where they are headed months ahead of time. This gives an incoming postdoc valuable lead time to research the position, the new institution and the people who will make up their new academic community. If you are about to begin a postdoc, then the following questions should guide the research you do before you arrive.

How are you funded? There are many types of postdocs, and it is important to know what kind you have. The most common postdocs are supported by grants. Being a grant-funded postdoc means you will work for the principal investigator on the project. Thus, the goals of the project — and by extension the goals of the PI — generally come first. Depending on the project’s maturity, such postdocs might allow you to develop more publications and help you build relationships across the university.

On the other end of the spectrum are postdocs that are funded by the university or through external fellowships. These are often coveted positions because they are generally not tied to a particular project or principal investigator. Instead, such postdocs can offer you the freedom and flexibility (and sometimes the budget) to develop your own line of research from the start. The downside, however, is that they may not provide formal mechanisms for you to become a member of a broader research community. Having freedom may also feel daunting because you will be forced to develop your work independently as soon you begin, with limited supervision.

In both of the above cases, you should work to fend off feelings of being an impostor, which can persist beyond graduate school. Have faith in your training and in the distinct qualities and perspectives you have. (Read the previous sentence a few more times until it sinks in.)

Who is your faculty mentor? Often, postdocs are assigned a faculty mentor. Note that mentors should not be confused with advisers; the former guide your work and serve as sounding boards with the expectation that you are a (junior) peer, while the latter generally focus on teaching you how do to the work to begin with. Think of it as the difference between riding a bike with someone who knows the trail you are on well (the mentor) versus learning to ride a bike with someone who has attached training wheels on your bike first (the adviser).

You should have at least one mentor but not feel limited to only one. Do research beforehand and identify faculty members whom you can learn from. Perhaps you know someone who is a successful grant writer. Talking to that person might help you identify parts of their process that work for you. Perhaps another faculty member runs a very productive lab. Talking to them might give you an idea of what efficient procedures look like. No matter whom you identify before you arrive, do so with the goal of learning from them and potentially finding a nexus between your work and theirs.

What are your goals? Postdocs have a limited amount of time to do the work necessary to be viable on the market. Before you start, know what your goals are and where you have shortcomings. Be honest with yourself, and don’t let those shortcomings define who you are as a scholar. Instead, use any identified gaps to guide how you will proceed. (Perhaps you need more publications or a record of writing grants, for example.) Don’t ignore gaps, because they do not go away unless you make an effort to fill them.

Once those gaps have been identified, plan backward to make sure that you have lined up opportunities and resources to fill them. If you lack publications, establish protected time to write. If grants are important, plan to write a few during your postdoc to get a feel for the process — or better yet, win one!

During Your Postdoc Experience

Once you have settled in, it’s time to begin doing the work necessary to make yourself viable on the market.

I plan to write another article on undoing the stigma associated with networking and how networking is simply a different word for building relationships that can be rewarding and productive. For now, suffice to say that you need to build relationships. Schedule coffees and other meetings with faculty members in your department or school. Those meetings will contribute to your professional development and also help you get a feel for what your community sees as important.

Meeting with faculty members is important because the outcomes of such meetings can yield new collaborative projects that also signal your ability to work independently. Trust in your ability to start collaborative projects from scratch by getting to know other faculty and postdocs around you. As an assistant professor you will be expected to do this work, so you might as well get the practice during your postdoc years.

If you are on a grant-funded postdoc, you might become so absorbed with project-related tasks that you neglect developing your own research agenda. Avoid this if at all possible, because the ultimate goal of every postdoc should be to develop a track record of independent research. That might simply mean taking the lead on a part of the project no one else has the time for or interest in.

Regardless of how you are funded, take initiative by starting new projects, attend faculty meetings if you can and find grants to lead. (Note that you may not be able to serve as the formal PI, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take an active role in initiating and shaping a grant.)

Finally, determine if there is a viable pathway forward at your current university. It is rare to transition from a postdoc to a tenure-track faculty position at the same institution — unless, of course, your postdoc is designed to do it. If you identify an opportunity to stay, know what the metrics are and whom to inform when you’ve succeeded in meeting them. Also make it known that you would like to stay, but avoid doing so in a way presumes you “should” stay. Even if there is no formal pathway, you should still demonstrate that your work has value, is innovative and is (probably) fundable.

At the end of your postdoc, it is unlikely that a position will be created just for you, but the time you have taken to build relationships and projects will pay off in the long run. Remember, academe is a relatively small sector, so developing a good reputation can pay dividends well after you’ve completed your postdoc.

Milton Packer thinks that readers must now be the decisive judges of quality

by Milton Packer MD

Taken from

Simon Dack, MD, was the editor-in-chief of the official journal of the American College of Cardiology for 34 years. His office at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City was located adjacent to the fellows’ room, and in the 1970s, we often dropped by to see how he made editorial decisions. It was one of the most amazing learning experiences of our careers.

Dr. Dack was the quintessential editor. The journal was his vision; it reflected his values. He solicited papers from the best and brightest. If he asked you to submit a paper, you took the invitation seriously. If you submitted original research, you made sure that it was worth his time.

Starting in the 1970s, the concept of external “peer review” blossomed in cardiology. Officially, the refereeing process moved out of the inner circles of learned societies and involved the critique of papers by outsiders of equal competence. Dr. Dack sent papers out for peer review, but he considered the feedback as advice, rather than an authoritative word.

One afternoon in 1978, I watched him reject three papers that had received two positive reviews, while accepting a paper that had received two negative reviews. I asked him how he could do that.

His response: I read every word of every paper and every review. I know the reviewers’ strengths, weaknesses, and biases. I ask for their opinion. I am not asking them to vote. I am the editor; this is my journal; I make the decisions; and I take responsibility.

The process was not intended to be flawless. Dr. Dack readily admitted that he made mistakes, but he went out of his way to fix them. The process was certainly not democratic or unbiased. But it worked.

He gave a voice to hundreds of young investigators. Many of the most important (and paradigm-shifting) papers in cardiovascular medicine were published because of decisions he made. If there was controversy, he fed the flames. He was exceptionally receptive to new ideas that had scientific merit, and he gave them a platform.

If he asked you to review a paper, you accepted the invitation and worked hard at it. If you submitted a lazy review, he knew it, and he told you so. You never made that mistake again.

Because most journals in medicine at the time were led by unimpeachable intellects like Dr. Dack, it was easy to keep up with scientific advances. For many, one only needed to read the New England Journal of Medicine each week and a few other journals each month and remember what they published. Readers trusted journals to be a reliable source of information.

But 40 years later, the principles, philosophy, and practices of Dr. Dack have disappeared. The trust that physicians formerly placed in journals has evaporated. The reason: the peer-review process doesn’t work anymore.

Now there are hundreds of cardiology journals, and each publishes hundreds of papers each year. It is really easy to submit a paper online, but what happens then? Only a few journals have a single visionary editor who knows every reviewer personally. Instead, the typical journal has dozens of editors who may or may not have the time to read each paper carefully. Instead, they spend a lot of time finding colleagues to perform external peer review.

How easy is it to get good reviewers? It is impossible. Currently, most leading researchers in any given discipline routinely decline to be reviewers. Doing a good review takes hours, and they just don’t have (or won’t make) the time. Many simply say no. Others hand the work over to junior associates — without carefully reviewing their submitted opinions.

Editors routinely struggle to find external reviewers. Often, they must invite 10-15 people to find two or three who agree to review. Even then, the reviews are often superficial and unhelpful. Some reviewers spend only a few minutes looking at the data, and make recommendations based on their fondness (or lack thereof) for the authors or for the conclusions — rather than based on solid standards of scientific examination. If two or three reviewers carry out their responsibilities with equal lack of rigor, egregious errors can be missed, even in top-tier journals.

When the reviews come in (often quite late), editors often feel compelled to accept the opinions of the reviewers even if they are inadequate or biased. Editors are reluctant to overrule the reviewers, fearing that they will refuse to review again in the future. The desire to keep reviewers happy means that even minor revisions are returned to them for a final blessing, thus adding months to the peer-review process.

What happens when a paper is rejected? Typically, it makes little difference. The authors will instantaneously resubmit to another journal — without necessarily fixing any of the errors or limitations that led to the previous rejection. The process continues until some journal is willing to publish the work. There are more journals than there is worthwhile content, and many lower-tier journals struggle to fill their pages. Some will accept nearly every paper, especially if an author is willing to pay outrageous publication fees. In these cases, the peer-review process is a mere formality. If authors are sufficiently persistent, their papers eventually get published somewhere, and sadly, they reside as apparent equals along with their more worthy counterparts on PubMed.

Peer review is not dead, but it no longer achieves what it is intended to do. Moreover, authors can now bypass the process completely by posting unreviewed work on publicly accessible preprint servers. Currently, these are intended to constitute a transitional state, but soon, postings on a preprint server may replace traditional peer review entirely.

Think of this the next time you read a paper and ask: How did this awful manuscript ever get published in a peer-reviewed journal?

Here is what you should be thinking instead. Of course, this paper got published. Now you need to read it carefully to see if it says something credible and worthwhile. The responsibility of distinguishing quality has shifted from the editors to the readers.

Reading a published paper critically is an awesome responsibility. It takes time, effort, relevant background, and methodological experience. But these days, it is more important than ever.


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


By Debalin Sarangi


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.


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.


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 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