Preparing to present

The Melbourne Cup: “the race that stops a nation”. I look forward to stopping this afternoon, sausage and bread in hand, to watch some amazing equine athletes do what they do best. But for me, the revelry will be short-lived. I am working hard to prepare my presentation for our upcoming Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences Postgraduate Symposium, to be held at the University of Melbourne Werribee campus on November 20 and 21.

It seemed timely, therefore, that I stumbled across this blog post from Gradhacker (one of the blogs I frequent, to remind me that I’m not alone in this RHD journey). Entitled Conference Talks: A Head-butt or a Headache? it explores common ground we all feel: nervousness, panic, preparing and delivering your presentation, and helps put it all into perspective. Our Postgrad Symposium is a great place to practice these presentation skills, with an audience who understands how it feels to be an early expert in a scientific sub-discipline. All the best with your preparations!

We need to talk about titles

I know the right title is hard to find. How on earth do you sum up the nature and importance of your work in a single sentence? Titles deserve more respect than we give them, Jonathan Laskovsky asserts. I think he’s onto something…

The Research Whisperer

Jonathan LaskovskyJonathan Laskovsky is the Senior Coordinator, Research Partnerships in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University. He is primarily responsible for managing research partnerships support and administration within the College.

Alongside this role, Jonathan has research interests in modern and postmodern literature with a particular focus on fictional space and critical theory.

He tweets infrequently as @JLaskovsky and can be found on Linkedin.


A colon The dreaded colon

We need to talk about titles. We’ve been neglecting them and it’s starting to show.

Neglect signifies that we once cared for titles but, for some reason, the care has ceased or become sporadic at best (insert your favourite garden-tending metaphor here).

This neglect might partly be explained by the ever-increasing pressure on academic life: large teaching loads, increasing demands for research output, conferences, meetings and other administrative distractions, as well as our paltry attempts to maintain some kind of work-life balance…

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3MT – what’s the point?

Grand Final week. It’s a highlight on any Melbournian’s calendar. But my Grand Final of interest had nothing to do with red and white, brown and gold and a strange shaped ball. I am referring to the Grand Final of the 3 Minute Thesis at the University of Melbourne. The team I support was well represented, with two of the ten finalists from the ranks of the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences. The presentations were engaging, fascinating and very well-rehearsed – it made me think about presenting research in a whole new way, about how I respond to every conversation that starts with “so, what exactly do you do?”

The 3 minute thesis started in 2008 at the University of Queensland, and has spread across Australia, into the U21 network of universities and into 18 countries outside Australia. Clearly, the creators were onto something. The idea is to explain your research project to a non-specialist audience in just three minutes. So, here’s my 3 minute thesis on presentation skills:

  1. You don’t need slides to do an oral presentation. The presenters in the 3MT are limited to a single static slide, no animation, no frills – and it works brilliantly. If you think about it, significant time goes into explaining a diagram or chart. You need to introduce what it is showing, clarify what the components are, draw attention to the important findings or features, and then explain how this advances your argument. Of course, this is a worthwhile investment if your audience needs all the evidence behind your work, but how often is that really true? If you’re short on time, simpler graphics can be much more efficient and effective.
  2. Shorter duration doesn’t have to mean simpler ideas. Your thesis, by definition, is full of complexity, whether it’s the concepts, the methodology or in the interpretation. Sure, you could present your research in a simplified form to cut down on the time. Or, you can draw on anecdotes, metaphors and emotional engagement of the audience to make ideas accessible. Tying your project into something your audience already has complex knowledge of is an effective method to get them “up to scratch” quickly. Of course, the linchpin is making sure you choose the right metaphor for your particular audience. If they’re not into computers, then using html code as a metaphor for a genome won’t help much!
  3. Rehearsal is not optional. Pauses are very effective if used strategically in speech, but less so when used because you’ve forgotten what idea comes next. Gestures and movement can be distracting if used haphazardly, but when strategically placed into the presentation, are great for engagement. It often seems some people are just “born presenters”, but this is largely a fallacy; like writing or networking, presenting effectively is something you can learn. I think it’s more like playing a musical instrument or dancing ballet – practicing smaller components and adding new techniques over time is the key. Most of your favourite lecturers from your undergrad degree weren’t born with amazing presentation skills, they developed them through observation and practice.

So, is my three minutes up yet? The most striking thing about the 3MT grand final was that every presentation ran exactly to time. The motivation, of course, is that any speaker who goes over 3 minutes is disqualified – I can think of some conferences that would benefit from the same strict rules! Unfortunately, the 3MT competition is only open to PhD students post-confirmation, but for anyone who meets the criteria, I strongly recommend you to get involved next year. If you’re not eligible, perhaps your 3 minute thesis should be developed for networking at conferences and functions.  It’s a great reason to think about your research from a new angle.

What to say when someone asks you: “Should I do a PhD?”

Consider your thought process when you first decided to enrol in a research degree. Did you know what you were getting into? I certainly didn’t – and although I am enjoying the process and the new skills I am developing, I wish I had researched what exactly I was signing up for in the first place. The Thesis Whisperer has become one of my “legitimate uses for break time”, and I think this post offered some insight into exactly what we’re asking of ourselves for our research degrees.

The Thesis Whisperer

“Do you think I should do a PhD?”

It seems like I can’t go to a party without at least one person asking me this question – does this happen to you too? I probably shouldn’t be surprised; according to a recent government report the number of people undertaking a research degree in Australia has increased by 41%  over the last 10 or so years.

There’s no doubt that some students start without realistic expectations of the amount of work that is involved and how it may affect their life, which is why I was pleased when Dr Ehsan Gharaie, a lecturer in the school of property Construction and project management at RMIT, sent me this guest post.

As a recent PhD graduate in a field which is relatively new to this form of education, Ehsan tells me that he is often approached by people who ask him

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