Updated: Oct 26, 2022
A research presentation, be it in a slide or a chalk talk format, is often part of the graduate school application process. Admissions committees typically use this as an avenue to assess a candidate’s knowledge base and research experience. At the same time, it’s a way for programs to assess certain qualities like critical thinking and oral communication skills, which may be not so apparent in SOPs or CVs and can be better evaluated in a live format. Because it can make or break an application, it’s understandable for candidates to feel nervous or anxious when preparing for a research presentation. If you have are in this position, don’t worry because we’ve got you covered! I present here 7 tips to help you nail that upcoming presentation for your grad school apps!
The research presentation can often make or break the application. A stellar presentation can also help make a good first impression on faculty members you may be working with in grad school.
1. Know your audience
Some programs will disseminate information about panel interviews to the applicants beforehand. In such cases, they may include the names or positions of the panel members. If you’re lucky to get this information, use it to your advantage. Do a quick online search about their work and their research interests because there is a high chance that their whole approach to the interview will be influenced by these factors. Check their background so you can decide the level of detail you need to include in your presentation. Are they specialists in your current field and can relate easily to your research, or do they belong to a completely different field? If it’s the former, then you can probably skip obvious details in the introduction. If it’s the latter, then you might have to learn how to simplify some concepts and provide analogies to facilitate their understanding. Remember: a tailor-made presentation can lead to greater audience engagement.
2. Cut to the chase
When putting your presentation together, ask yourself this question: “What is my core message?” Defining this will help you decide what to include or exclude from your presentation, of course with your audience still in mind. As a rule, if you can remove a slide and the core message remains, then it’s probably best to not include that slide in the first place. You may be tempted to include unnecessary slides, especially if these cover interesting side findings or extensive optimization experiments that you worked hard for. However, because of the limited time allotted at grad school presentations, it's often best to eliminate these and just go straight to the key points of your project.
Here are additional tips to make each section of your presentation as succinct as possible.
Introduction: Keep this to 2-3 slides only. Only include background information that will be necessary for your panel to understand the rest of your slides. If doing a chalk talk presentation, write important keywords on the board as you go.
Research Question/Objectives: What knowledge gap are you trying to address? Try to formulate this in a very specific manner. For example, “How does Gene X promote Processes X, Y, and Z in Disease A?” is preferred than “What is the function of Gene X?”
Methods: Unless it’s necessary, you can refrain from including this section at all. Instead, you can include this in your talking points for the Results section (see Tip #3: Tell a story).
Results: Only show key figures that support your core message. Do not be tempted to show a ton of graphs or tables and run the risk of overwhelming or confusing your audience. If doing a chalk talk presentation, utilize visual aids (e.g., up and down arrows, check marks, or X marks) to indicate important trends or relationships between keywords.
Summary and Future Directions: This section should address the research question you presented earlier. Personally, I always go for a graphical abstract summarizing my key findings plus 2-3 concise bullet points that can help my audience understand this summary figure.
Once you’ve put together a draft, practice with a friend, colleague, or a mentor and ask them in the end what is their main takeaway from your presentation. If it does not align with the core message you were aiming for, go back to the drawing board and further refine your presentation.
3. Tell a story
Once you have drafted a skeleton for your presentation, you also need to think about what to say and how to transition from one part to another. As human beings, we often like to hear a satisfying story with a coherent flow from beginning to end. Conversely, it’s easy to lose your audience by randomly going through bits and pieces of your work. To avoid this, my personal technique is to always use the “Why? → What → So what?” line of thought as I go through each slide/sub-section of my Results section.
Why? In a sentence or two, describe your main motivation or objective. For example, “To test whether Gene X is necessary for Process Y, I performed…”
What? Move on by pointing to a figure and factually describing the results you obtained. “From Figure A on the left, we can see that knocking out Gene X led to an insignificant decrease in….”
So what? Interpret what your results mean. “This was surprising because it contradicts our hypothesis. Instead, it suggests that…”
Afterwards, move on to the next slide and go through the same routine. To further help with audience engagement, try to use conversational (instead of very formal) language from time to time and show excitement about your work through your body language and voice. If they can see that you are genuinely interested in your work, chances are they will be all ears on your story.
4. Make it visual
Slide presentations can be made better with thoughtfully designed visual aids. There are a lot of online tools and free icon repositories that you can use to put life into your slides. You can use these to introduce important concepts at the start, or to summarize your research project at the end of your presentation. If you’re including a Methods section, you can also use these tools to make a simple flowchart discussing your experimental approaches. Apart from using well-designed graphics, it is advisable to use simple animations and/or slide transitions that are cued according to your script. Lastly, instruct your audience where to look at by maximizing the use of the pointer during the actual presentation. Of course, if doing a chalk talk presentation, it’s fine to just write keywords or acronyms on the board, as illustrating shapes or icons will probably be more confusing for the audience and will take a lot of your allotted time.
5. Practice and be mindful of the time
Practicing a lot can help increase your confidence and mastery of the presentation. If using a script, try to commit it to memory. Figure out the pacing for each section. Work on your body language, posture, hand gestures, and voice projection as well. If doing a chalk talk presentation, know exactly when to pause to write on the board. Lastly, rehearse the timing of your presentation, as you wouldn’t want your panel to cut you off when you hit the time limit.
6. Showcase your achievements
A research presentation can also be the time to impress your panel members about yourself. Claim ownership of your work and emphasize your contribution to the science by using sentences that start with “I”. If possible, highlight your intangible skills (e.g., leadership, ability to work with a team) as well. Inserting sentences like “I led the effort to optimize Method X in our lab” or “I collaborated with an expert from Field Y to solve this problem” could go a long way.
7. Don’t underestimate the Q&A
Working on your presentation is only half the battle; you should also devote an equal amount of time and effort preparing for the Q&A section. Again, try to know your panel members or try to anticipate what they will ask about. Review the basic scientific concepts relevant to your project and the fundamental principles behind your methods. Know your experiments and your results by heart. Be aware of potential gaps and try to figure out the next logical steps of your project. Chances are, you will get questions pertaining to any of these. Lastly, practice with senior colleagues or mentors and ask them to ask you questions as well.
I hope this short list of tips will help you in your upcoming interviews! If you need do a mock research presentation, don’t hesitate to ask your mentor or the GradMAP team for help. Good luck!
Antoni Andreu Martija is a doctoral student in Biosciences at the Clinical Cooperation Unit Neuropathology of the German Cancer Research Center and Heidelberg University. He is broadly interested in molecular and cellular neuroscience, having worked in various neuroscience topics ranging from neurodegeneration to neuro-oncology from his MSc to his PhD. When not in the lab, he spends time playing music, watching fantasy or sci-fi shows, and doing volunteer work through GradMAP.