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«The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research Gordon Rugg Marian Petre THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PHD RESEARCH Gordon Rugg and ...»

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If you are lecturing to students, you will be expected to produce handouts with references to respectable journal articles, textbooks and other sources of information to backup your talk. This is all very laudable. You will also need to give a clear, coherent, simple overview of the area, based on established wisdom and with unnecessary detail removed for the sake of clarity. This is also very laudable. Unfortunately, the world is seldom clear, coherent or simple, so for lectures you will have to present a version of reality which is not a lie, but which is also not the complete story.

For presentations to other researchers, the requirements are very different.

The purpose of these presentations is to demonstrate that you (a) know what things are like at the sharp end of research, (b) have been at the sharp end yourself, and (c) have achieved something at the sharp end which will be of use to at least some other researchers. An important point is that these other PRESENTATIONS 137 researchers will often not include your audience (e.g. in internal presentations on your research progress). For presentations of this sort, a simplified version is blood in the water, and an attempt to hide behind established wisdom is an even gorier metaphor, because you should be reporting work too recent for any established consensus to have been reached. Another important feature of talks of this sort is that you will have to present your own results to professionals who will usually know a lot more tricks of the trade than you do, and who may be hostile (for instance, if you have antagonized them by giving a simplified account). You therefore need to have your content right.

Form in detail This section deals with the way in which you present the content of your talk.

Form overlaps with content in places, but usually the distinction is fairly clear as well as useful.

The audience will usually have an impression of you before they even see you. This can come in various ways. In a job presentation, they will probably have seen your CV. (Do you have accomplishments in your CV and covering letter which create a good impression?) In an academic setting, they will have seen at least the title of your talk and probably a descriptive paragraph about it.

(Are these interesting and sending out the right signals about you and your work?) A little homework and anticipation can make a lot of difference.

The next thing the audience know about you comes from the way in which you are introduced. An ideal start is an introduction such as, ‘It’s a pleasure to welcome Linda, whose work is already familiar to most of us here via her collaboration with Chris’. A less good start is when the person introducing you has to keep checking your details on a note card and gets your name wrong. If you take a proactive approach to your career, you can greatly improve your chances of getting the first sort of welcome.

The audience will also be forming impressions about you based on your appearance and behaviour. How formally are you dressed? How neatly? Are these both at an appropriate level for the setting of the talk? For a job interview in academia, appearance will usually be treated as significant; for a visiting seminar, the audience will usually be more or less indifferent to what you wear unless it is totally outrageous, and will be much more concerned with what you say in the seminar. If you aren’t sure what the dress code is for your chosen venue, then find out. Observe job applicants in your department; go to departmental seminars and see how people dress. Ask someone about dress code over a cup of coffee.

Classic mistakes involving form Most beginners start their talk by smiling nervously and then have problems working out how to use the audio-visual equipment, making them more embarrassed. It is a good idea to become familiar with audio-visual equipment 138 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH well before your presentation – learn how to use as many varieties as possible.

Also, assume that the equipment will cause problems and have a fallback ready – for instance, if you are using a PowerPoint presentation, have a set of overhead projector (OHP) slides ready as an insurance policy. One of us was once examining MSc vivas involving 15-minute presentations by each candidate.

During one presentation the OHP machine broke down. The candidate didn’t panic and the machine was replaced. The candidate carried on until the replacement machine also broke down. The candidate didn’t panic and finished the talk with a third machine. Even by the standards of hardened professionals this was an impressive performance and sent out a lot of very good signals. It is extremely unlikely that you will have two machines fail on you, but it is quite possible that one will, and being ready for it will greatly help your peace of mind.

When you start talking, it is usual to begin by introducing yourself, normally with a slide giving your name and affiliation. This is your chance to check the focus of the audio-visual equipment and to find a good spot to stand. A classic mistake is to stand between the audience and your slide, so that you cast a shadow across the screen and have tables of results showing all over your face. You should get into the habit of standing to one side of the screen.

You should also get used to pointing at parts of the slide on the screen using your shadow.

Beginners often try to put too much onto each slide. You need to use large print so that the slide will be readable at the back of the room, and white space so that the audience isn’t overwhelmed by indigestible masses of information.

It’s usually a good idea to use bullet points on the slide for the key concepts and to explain the bullet points via what you say, rather than to read words off the slide.

Tables of results are a traditional problem in presentations: usually the figures in the tables are too small to be readable at the back of the room. It’s a good idea to check the readability of your slides well in advance.

It’s also a good idea to prepare a handout which complements the slides – most audiences like a one-page handout of connected text covering your key points and a hard copy of the slides, with the slides reduced to a sensible point size so that they can scribble notes on the hard copy during the presentation.

You need to talk clearly enough and loudly enough to be understood at the back of the room. It’s a good idea to check that you can be heard at the back of the room; it’s a bad idea to do this by saying ‘Can you hear me at the back?’ because of the risk of some comedian replying ‘Yes, unfortunately’. Beginners often start in a shout and then revert to a mumble after a few minutes. A simple way to reduce this problem is to write a reminder to yourself on your master sheet (e.g. ‘Slide 2: are you mumbling?’) A more difficult strategy, but one which is invaluable for many purposes, is reading your audience.

Reading your audience involves looking at the audience and assessing their response to your presentation.


Classic bad signs are:

• people looking out of the window;

• people telling jokes to their neighbours;

• people shaking their heads;

• people at the back craning forward to hear what you are saying;

• people at the back asking their neighbours what your slide says;

• people looking at their watches or the clock.

Classic good signs are:

• people taking notes;

• people nodding when you make a point;

• people whispering to their neighbours while looking at your slides or handouts in an interested way;

• people looking at your slides or the handouts in an interested way.

You need to send out to your audience the signal that you are a professional with a thorough grasp of the subject matter. You can send out some positive signals about this in the same way as when writing. For instance, when you quote one of the classic texts, you can mention in passing a more recent, more sophisticated critique of that classic text which is not widely known except among academic heavyweights.

You also need to master the low-level skills of organizing your materials. If you are using OHP slides, then you will need to keep them in order. This is a lot less simple than it sounds. You need to take each slide in turn off your ‘incoming’ stack. Once you have shown it, you then need to put it somewhere (usually your ‘outgoing’ stack).

A useful habit is to work from left to right:

incoming on the left, outgoing on the right, as with washing up and other craft skills. However, OHP slides have a bad habit of sticking to each other, making it difficult to stack them neatly without distracting the flow of your talk, and you will often want to refer back to a slide you showed previously, turning your outgoing stack briefly into an incoming stack. One way of reducing this problem, if you know you will be referring back to a slide, is simply to make two copies of the slide.

Conferences (including student conferences) can be an excellent place to observe different presentation styles. In some areas, such as safety-critical systems research, widely different areas of academia and industry are represented and the audience can be treated to a succession of speakers using extremely different approaches to the same topic. One of us once witnessed an eminent academic in a bright pink cocktail dress giving a state of the art PowerPoint presentation, followed by an equally eminent academic in wellworn tweeds using handwritten OHP slides which looked as if they had been written on the way to the talk in a taxi with dodgy suspension. (There is an allegedly true story of a very eminent academic with little concern about fashion who was arrested for vagrancy early one morning on the steps of the 140 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH British Museum, while waiting for that august institution to open. Not terribly relevant, perhaps, but it would have been a shame to leave the story out, especially since one of us was told it by someone who claimed to have heard it from the eminent academic in person.) Other handy tips A moment spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. If possible, check the room where you will be giving your presentation, once from your point of view and once from the audience’s point of view. From your point of view, what equipment is there and do you know how to use it? How much space is there for you, for things like standing to one side of the screen? Are there trip hazards such as tangled cables on the floor? Can you see the audience clearly enough to read expressions at the back of the room? Is there space to put your bag, slides, etc.? Where will you keep the incoming and outgoing slides if using an OHP?

From the audience’s point of view, how visible is the screen from different parts of the room? If visibility is bad, and you have the chance, then consider distributing hard copies of your slides so the audience won’t miss anything, and remember to tell the audience that you are giving them hard copies of the slides (a lot of people won’t bother to look at the handouts until the end, or a boring bit). Are there glare problems anywhere?

Some types of presentation, such as job presentations, are competitive. In such situations it is a good idea to think about what everyone else will be doing and work out a way of doing something different and better. Which topics will everybody else be emphasizing? What will they have failed to think about which you can take as an element in your talk?

It’s also a good idea to get as much experience as possible of presentations by attending other people’s – for instance, the departmental seminar series. Even if the topic of this week’s seminar is utterly unrelated to your work, it is worth going if only to find out how other people do things. (There’s also a good chance that sooner or later you’ll encounter something from another area which has major implications for your own area.) If the content of a talk is of no interest to you, you can use the time to make notes on any tricks of the trade which the speaker uses, or any mistakes which they make, so that you can improve your own style. One of us learned a great deal about skilful presentation, with particular regard to scaring off questions before they were even asked, during a seminar on learning in rats, while studying media influence on western attitudes towards Arabs.

Attending other people’s presentations, especially during the first few weeks of the new academic year, is also a good way of learning about professional etiquette at such events. Watching someone being savaged for asking a naïve question, or for giving a naïve talk, is painful, but it’s a lot less painful than PRESENTATIONS 141 being savaged in person. You can learn what your peer group’s attitudes are towards things such as falling asleep during a presentation (usually considered bad form, but occasionally used as a studied insult), asking hostile questions (frowned on by some groups, venerated as an art form by others) and knitting (usually viewed with considerable ambivalence).

Audiences who meet frequently (e.g. at departmental seminars or on a well-established conference circuit) often exhibit behaviour which looks odd to an outsider, as a result of group dynamics and history. For instance, a senior figure may savage an inoffensive presentation by a good and unsuspecting student as part of a long-term vendetta against the colleague who supervised that student. This will usually trigger off a retaliatory strike by the supervisor, and within seconds the scene can resemble the academic equivalent of a spaghetti western – a sleepy Mexican afternoon one moment and a high body count the next. An interesting aspect of this is that many members of the audience will be quite unaware that this carnage is going on, because it will be couched in academic language inscrutable to outsiders.

(For instance: ‘I presume that you allowed for the anchor and adjust heuristic in the design of your instrument?’ ‘There was no need for that, because a frequentist presentation was used, due to the inherent problems associated with single event probabilities.’ This section is too short to unpack that one...) Sidestep if necessary You don’t have to disagree with a critic. You can say: ‘That’s a really interesting point, and I don’t think it’s been properly addressed in the literature’. There’s not really a lot that anyone can say to a reply like that without making a fool of themselves. You have shown yourself to be courteous and open-minded, and ready to take on board what they are saying; you are also implying that the omission is common to the literature in the area, rather than a failing on your part.

If your audience points out something which appears to be a genuine flaw, then thank them for it, go away and test out what they’ve said – they may be right, and if so the sooner you fix the problem the better. In such cases it’s a good idea to ask them to work through the implications as a response to their question – it might well be that they are wrong, or bluffing, and if so this will become apparent in their response to your courteous reply.

Hypothetical example: you have just described a methodology for eliciting information about the beliefs and values of socially disadvantaged groups.

Someone at the back of the audience says that you might find that the literature on requirements acquisition already covers this in more depth. You ask them politely to give an example. Response 1: ‘Oh, I’m sure you’ll find lots of examples in the literature’. Response 2: ‘Well, for a start, there’s the problem of missing various forms of semi-tacit and tacit knowledge, such as preverbal construing, taken for granted knowledge and implicit attitudes’.

142 THE UNWRITTEN RULES OF PhD RESEARCH Response 1 is quite possibly a bluff. Response 2 is either an extremely elaborate bluff or an indication that what you thought was a harmless squirrel in the bushes is actually a large bear.

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