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#44: What to present from your PhD study when you don’t have a lot to show yet?

Were you asked by your supervisor to present your PhD work at a research seminar? Perhaps there’s an annual PhD-day in your graduate school where all new PhDs have to present their work. Or your funding body requires you to give a first project presentation. Reluctantly, you agreed, but you don’t feel too good about it because as you are not very far into your PhD project, you think you have nothing to show yet. What do you do now? What can you present with only incomplete results from your own PhD to work with? Follow our suggestions and develop a structured content plan that can still impress! 

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We remember the first presentations of our own PhD work very well. Our expectations of these first talks were sky-high. We wanted them to be not just good, they should be impressive so that everybody understands and likes the work we are doing and encourages us to go ahead. 

But deep inside there was a little voice telling us that it probably wouldn’t go down like this. Our PhD studies had not progressed far enough. We couldn’t present all the good stuff that we’d hoped to have found by the end of the project. It wasn’t that we couldn’t present because the data collection was incomplete – all we had were ideas and good intentions. How could somebody ask us to present our work at such an early stage? But we were asked! Our supervisors had simply signed us up to the upcoming research seminars. So what could we possibly present? 

Is this a situation you will eventually find yourself in as well? Did your supervisor also “suggest” you give a presentation of your PhD study soon? Or do you have other requirements that compel you to present your work? Are you also thinking it’s far too early because you have nothing to show yet? 

If you’ve answered YES to these questions, keep reading, because TRESS ACADEMIC can help you. We’ll give you quality suggestions and ideas for what you can present even if your own research results are not ready yet. On top of that, we’ll tell you how to get the most out of this presentation and how to deliver it well. Best of all, you can download our free worksheet to create a “Content plan for early PhD presentations” to be on the safe side the next time you are asked to present. Let’s start by analyzing this presentation and ways to use what you do have from your PhD effectively.

1. What is the purpose of the event and who is the audience? 

The first step would be to identify the purpose of the event you are presenting at. Is it a recurring event at your institute, like a research seminar series that comes up every month? Or is it a single event that was set up for a special occasion? Will you be the only presenter at the event or are multiple speakers scheduled? It’s important to have an idea about the intentions behind getting these people together to listen to you and other presenters.

The second step is to find out who is attending the event. Will it be people from your cohort, your institute and your university or will it also include people from outside? Will you know the people who attend or, like most conferences, will it be a mixed bag of researchers from your field, most of whom you don’t know? Knowing the people who you are presenting your work to makes a huge difference when selecting your presentation content and form. 

Once you have the answers to step one and two, then you can better identify what the purpose of your presentation will be. Knowing this will aid you to prepare the appropriate content for the occasion.

These kinds of events can have multiple purposes. Your aim for giving a presentation there could be:  

  1. to present your PhD research to (international) peers
  2. to inform members of your institute about the research that you are currently doing at their institute
  3. to receive constructive input and criticism on the PhD work that you present
  4. to discuss problems that have come up in your work and to ask for possible solutions
  5. to inform your supervisory committee or your thesis advisory committee about the progress of your project
  6. to gain experience in presenting in front of an audience
  7. to have the possibility to attend an international meeting 

and more. 

The purpose and the type of event also influences how long you are expected to present. At an internal meeting at your institute, your presentation could span of 15-30 minutes plus time for discussion. At a conference, it is more likely to be 5-15 minutes, including poster presentations or mini presentations. 

Find out more of these details before you decide what to present. The better you know the context, the better you can define what would be a good fit. 

2. Content that you could present 

When you are still in the early phase of your PhD project, there are not many original findings that you can base your presentation around. Everybody is aware of this and so don’t worry, you are not expected to present anything final or groundbreaking. Instead, you have several content options that you could talk about: 

A) Give a project overview

Present to your audience what your project is about. Tell them what the aim of your research is, which methods you plan on using, how you will collect and treat your data and what most likely will be your research aim. Try to also include aspects that are unknown or difficult for you to get feedback on. Don’t forget to give a short outlook on the potential benefits of your work. 

Taking this type of classical approach to your presentation content always works. Your audience will get a full overview on your PhD topic, the aim, the methods and expected outcomes. Typically, the audience will come with their own questions on various aspects of your presentation as you cover many different things at once. 

You want to keep this presentation rather short because what you want to achieve is your audience getting an overview on your project and its potential outcomes. They do not need to understand every single detail or consideration, so if they are interested in learning more they can ask you afterwards. You want to leave the audience with the impression that the project you are working on is interesting, relevant and achievable. 

B) Give a state-of-the-art report on your research problem

In this type of presentation, you should focus less on the work that is still to be done in your project and focus instead on the research aim of your work. You are providing the wider background or “bigger picture” of your PhD project. 

A presentation like this is based on a detailed literature review of your research problem, which you’ve usually completed in the initial phase of your PhD anyway. Now you can show the audience what the larger context is and how your own project is embedded within it. At the end, you’ll briefly sum up the major steps of your research design (if you know them already) to give the audience a glimpse of how you’ve approached the problem that you presented. 

This presentation is particularly helpful in the very early stages of a PhD project. You want to leave the audience with the impression that they have understood why you do what you do in your project. They should be able to place your work within the bigger context of research in your field. 

C) Give a justification for why your project is needed 

This presentation is less about the background of your PhD project but more about its relevance. You won’t go into the full details of the literature review, but rather you draw a picture of the burning problem that you’re addressing and why you need to do something about it. 

Be careful not to sound too pretentious in your presentation. This is often a risk for these type of presentations. You’ll probably make clear to everybody that the problem you are working on is a relevant one, but this does not automatically mean that the project is good. Try to convince your audience with the quality of the approach you developed to address the research problem. You need to convince the audience of two things: first, the relevance of the problem and second, the quality of your work to address the problem. Thus, you should already know quite a bit about the research steps you will go through even though you have not yet conducted them. This type of presentation content is suitable for occasions where the audience is not working on the same topic as you on a daily basis.   

You want to leave the audience with a clear understanding of the relevance and importance of your work. They should become aware of the potential benefits that arise once you will have successfully completed your project.

D) Give an outlook on a potential application of your work 

In some PhD projects, you are working towards a concrete application that will result directly or indirectly from your work. This application should be the content for this type of presentation. 

If the problem and the relevance of your work are clear and not a question of debate, your presentation could instead focus on the moment the work is completed. You briefly sketch out the problem, how you address it and then draw attention to the (multiple) applications that your findings could lead to. Such content is particularly valuable for an audience that works in the same field and has a clear understanding of the potential applications that your work addresses. 

You want to leave the audience with the impression that they appreciate your project because of its strong real-world impact. They see that your PhD project is one step on the way to reach something else important. This type of presentation is interesting for the audience as it will shift the focus from the project level (research) to the real world (potential application), which is farther reaching. 

E) Give the first results 

In this presentation, you present the first (preliminary) results from your work to your audience. You give them an introduction to the problem so that they understand your research aim and you tell them how you’ve approached it. 

Then, you focus on one or a few aspects where you already have results. Leave out a report of all other aspects or potential results that you might achieve, as they blur the picture. Also avoid reporting any method steps that are not related to your presented results. If somebody wants to know more about it, they can ask afterwards. 

This type of talk is equally suitable for conferences as research seminars where you inform peers on the progress and findings resulting from your work. In this talk, you discuss problems, validity, reliability, and consequences of your first results. You want to leave your audience with the impression that you have already made the first steps in your work and that these steps look promising. 

F) Give insight into problems that you struggle with 

With this type of presentation your aim is to openly discuss the problems and struggles in your work. This can be the most difficult type of presentation for you to present, but also the one where you stand to benefit the most. You can pick the brains of your audience and basically say: This is what I want to do, this is how I want to do it, but I have this problem … any ideas how to solve it?”

When you pick this kind of content for your presentation, your aim is not to show what you have achieved or done, but to ask for advice and support from your colleagues on a problem that came up during your work. Clearly, this type of presentation is more suitable in environments where you don’t feel exposed, but respected, and surrounded by people who want to support you. 

You want to leave the audience with the impression that you are working on an interesting project which you are confident enough in to ask your fellow colleagues for advice to improve it. Most likely, they will appreciate your openness and are happy to advise. It also gives your audience a far more active role to play in your presentation than in any of the other types of content suggested above. 

3. A few words on how to present this content

Sure, the content that you present is an important element of a good early PhD presentation, but so is HOW you present it. As a quick guide, stick to the following five principles for a good presentation experience: 

  • Less is more when it comes to content. Don’t get lost in too many nitty-gritty details that dilute your message. 
  • Be an engaged presenter, show enthusiasm for your work and interact with your audience. 
  • Express yourself in simple words and communicate visually. 
  • Have a clear take-home message that people can relate to. 
  • Rehearse your talk and know what you want to say. 

We have published a handful of guides that support you in how to plan, prepare and deliver your (first) presentation, so have a look at the resources list below. 

Conclusion 

Next time your supervisor comes in and asks you for a short presentation on your PhD project, you don’t need to be scared. If you downloaded our free worksheet “Content plan for my early PhD presentations”, you will be well prepared to take on a spontaneous presentation slot. Analyse exactly what the purpose of the presentation is and then go for the most appropriate content to present and you will make a great impression! We know you can do it!

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