PhD Talks

Being the end of the semester, there are a lot of students defending. It is interesting to watch the public talks – there is such a wide range of ways to tackle this all-important presentation. There seem to be three major camps (of course, there are presentations that fall in between the categories):

1. Those that aim their talk at professionals in their field.
These talks, although seemingly impressive, are difficult to follow and/or get anything out of unless the audience is in the same field as the presenter. These talks generally have little introductory material, lots of equations, and no personal touches. I have actually seen a couple of these done well (or, I guess, what I could assume as being done well).

Benefits: it makes the presenter look incredibly smart; there are typically few questions; the examiners will appreciate the level; tons of data can be included.

Drawbacks: most of the audience will be lost; there might not be any questions (never good in a talk).

2. Those that try to aim their talk at the general public (or at least general science population).
These are my favorite, because the speaker is obviously enthusiastic enough to make sure that most of the audience will understand a good portion of the talk. They typically spend a good chunk of time giving background info and motivation for the project, and only focus on a few key results. The slides are well thought out with few equations and text, but many interesting and useful images (that aren’t directly out of a paper).

Benefits: most people in the audience will come out with new knowledge; there will be lots of good questions at a more basic level (helps with confidence!); it’s way more fun because personality can be put into it.

Drawbacks: there might be general questions that were not thought of beforehand; it takes a long time to perfect the slides because only select data/results are used.

3. Those that throw their talk together the night before.
We’ve all unfortunately been privy to these talks: there is no apparent transition between ideas, the slides are sloppy with a lot of text, and there is no overview of the research area or motivation for the project. Some people can pull this off…but not as many as those that actually try.

Benefits: um..not as much work?

Drawbacks: pretty much everything else.

For my public lecture, I’m sure you can figure out I will go with #2. I’m of the feeling that it’s called a “public” lecture for a reason! I love having people understand what I’m talking about/doing. Plus, the part of my research that I really get a kick out of is the history and background, so I’ll get to spend a decent amount of time on that part.

Because of my outreach experience, I’m almost worried I’ll pitch it at too low a level. Although, I think a talk can never be too simple – people like to be able to follow along, even if they already know the subject well. It makes them feel smart!

If you have done a PhD public lecture, what was your plan of attack? Who did you aim the talk too? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Comments on: "PhD Talks" (6)

  1. I had to give a “public short summary” in 5 mins before the actual defense. It was more to the fact that I spoke my native language to explain to the non scientists in the audience what I had done. After that I changed into English and built up…. simply first, and then in the end more “complicated things”. I think that worked since all people who spoke to me afterwards understood to a certain point… and the committee understood it all đŸ™‚

    Good luck!!


  2. I went with #2 and the three people in the audience (my parents and husband) who had no background at all in my field, understood it well. That’s what my advisor told me I should do and I’m glad I did. My advisor even suggested leaving out some results that didn’t affect the final conclusions, even though it was a significant part of the analysis.

    My husband went to a defense where the talk went on for TWO HOURS. That was a bad way to go.


  3. I alway thought that was the whole point of the public talk – do you understand your area well enough to present it to a general audience? It’s not easy to do, and a lot of teachers I’ve talked to have said that they feel like they didn’t really understand the science (or whatever their subject) until they had to teach it to their students. I think you’re totally on the right track!


  4. Mine was a combination of #2 and #3, at least from my point of view – you can let me know if it was more like #1! I wouldn’t recommend doing #3 though, it’s way too stressful. And your DH will appreciate it more too (at least mine would have preferred I be a bit more sane leading up to the defense!)


  5. Lyss – I thought yours was great! I was able to follow most of it, which was a feat considering the subject! LOL Honestly, I would have never guessed that you had a bit of #3 in there!

    I saw one recently that, although the person was a good speaker, I basically didn’t understand it from slide #2!


  6. LOL – and I should add: you know me…it’ll probably be done a month ahead of time! But, I’ll still be a raving lunatic before, no matter what!


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