JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

INDEX OF ARTICLES

Chapter 37: In front of the firing squad?

It's been hectic, but somehow I've managed to write my thesis proposal and turn it in to my committee. This means that I may actually graduate within a year or two, provided the research I've proposed continues to work, the world doesn't explode, and no other grand traumas occur.

Now another hurdle looms: defending my thesis proposal in front of my firing squad--er--my committee. It would be great if I could just turn in the written document and get on with my life, but no; now I have to stand in front of my committee, just one of me against all of them (my committee has 3 members), for however long it takes to defend what I've proposed.

Cold Sweat, Anyone?

For many--especially those of us who are introverts--the mere thought of standing up in front of anyone evokes a queasy feeling. The thought of standing in front of a panel of experts talking about science they may know better than you do could be like that nightmare where you keep falling and falling and never know when you're going to hit bottom. Even if you're well prepared--after all, you've slaved over your proposal for at least a month or two, and over the research you'll be presenting far longer--you have no idea what they might ask you.

And even though it's your research proposal, the fear of not being able to answer a question that your committee asks, of not knowing the answers to questions that you should know, of tripping over your reasoning--or your shoelaces--and looking like an imposter, that fear is REAL. It's real enough to keep you from sleeping. It's real enough to make you lose weight--or gain it--due to the stress it causes. That fear is real enough to force you into seclusion as you cram for your presentation. But it is a fear that must be overcome.

Forming your words into coherent sentences capable of conveying the purpose and direction of your research, to a committee that may (or may not) have read your proposal, is possible. With the right attitude, it can even be fun (or so I've heard). Take heart; you will survive. You might come out a little wounded from the process, or you might skate through unscathed. But hopefully you won't have nightmares and anxiety attacks for the rest of your life or your graduate career. Those wounds will heal.

Here are some things to remember as you prepare your presentation- or any presentation really. I'll try to hit the high points.

  • Preparation - Give yourself plenty of time

  • Tell a story - Give the committee something to latch onto. Starting your presentation with the motivation for your project or overall goal keeps your committee from stopping you and saying, "So what's the point?" There may be more than one story behind your research; don't try to tell them all. Just choose the best one.

  • Keep it flowing - Just understanding how each slide, with all of its parts and points, relates to your presentation, DOES NOT guarantee that your committee sees the connection. Keeping your presentation flowing in a logical direction, with informative signs posted at regular intervals, may keep your committee from asking too many questions that could cause you to take a wrong turn, and that will be answered anyway if you're given time to tell your story.

  • Not too complex - Your committee has been through this before. Trying to impress them with how fabulous you think you are might backfire: Do you really want to derive that equation you put on the screen? I didn't think so. Stop pretending you know everything; they can see through your charade. The best way to impress your committee is not to confuse them. It makes them feel good about themselves, while also convincing them that you understand what you're presenting. Humility and simplicity are in order.

  • Not too simple either - On the same note, your presentation should show rigorous thought. Leaving too much out may prompt difficult questions that may trip you up. Scientists like simplicity, but they also like data. Your job is to decide which data is most important, and present it, while assuring your committee that it's backed up by more data. Balance is key.

  • Clean transitions - If you need an introductory slide for each section, by all means use one. Use pictures or diagrams to preview where you're going in the next section, so that it's not just 5 to 10 words, naked on a page. If it's nothing but words, leave off the slide and just say them.

  • Pictures - Speaking of pictures and diagrams: yes, this is like kindergarten, in some ways. People like cool pictures, even when they're all grown up. Too many words--and numbers--on your slides will cause your audience to tune you out. Well-crafted graphs, diagrams, and other data-based conceptual images will focus their attention on the key questions and excite them. You want them engaged in what you're saying, not glazed over.

  • Always have backup - Just because you have a diagram available, that doesn't mean you need to use it. Keep it in the file, close to hand. If you are asked the question, pull it out. Do this a couple of times and your committee will leave the room thinking that there's much more where those came from, that your well of background data and info is very deep. And that's a very good thing.

On Clear and Legible Slides:

  • Font size- If you have to squint from the back of the room to read it, it's too small. If you have to squint to read it from the front of the room, it's too small. If one word takes up a whole line, it's too big.

  • Color - Just because you have all the colors in the rainbow at your disposal does not mean you're allowed to use them. Keep your lines clean, your colors classic, and if you have a color-blind committee member, try to be sensitive to that.

  • Graphs, scales, and legends - What does your graph say to your viewer? Are your axes labeled and clear, with units indicated and legible increments? Are the symbols explained? When you compare values on two graphs, are the scales the same? I know all of this seems obvious, but I've seen many presentations where the graphs are illegible and nonsensical. Come on, people! Everyone has data-processing software now. Learn how to use it! Take the time to do it right.

An excellent Next Wave article called "Academic Scientists at Work: The Job Talk" provides a great list of do's and don'ts for talk preparation.

Preparing for D-Day

  • Practice! You need to practice your explanations of each slide and get your timing down. Of course, your committee will blow this to shreds with questions and talking amongst themselves, but if you are well prepared, with a clear story line, it's far easier to recover from interruptions. Your bit shouldn't run any longer than necessary.

  • Practice with a critical audience - Just as you had someone read over your document before you gave it to your committee, you need get people to listen to your practice talk. Number your slides to facilitate their critiques. Ask your listeners to take notes. Have your slides printed out and make slide corrections or rearrangements on the paper copies, on the fly. If you need to practice more than once, find patient friends. Grad-school classmates work well because they're likely to know the material reasonably well, and they'll need you to return the favor some day.

  • Take time to relax - Yes, you've been on edge. You need to calm down. A good laugh at a silly movie or some time spent with friends can help. Make sure you get a good night's sleep before presentation time.

  • Send e-mail reminders to your committee members - Just because you've been obsessing about your presentation doesn't mean your committee has. Hopefully they've put it in their planners, but gentle reminder at D-day minus 1 week and D-day minus 1 day won't hurt. Don't waste all that anxiety; nothing is worse than having to reschedule because you're short a professor.

D-Day: Time to go to the dance?

  • Look the part - I know you're usually dressed in jeans and ratty t-shirts, but a little polish won't hurt you. Just make sure you have on comfortable shoes. Give yourself enough time in case something goes wrong. Secure the projector and make sure it works with your computer. Make sure the bulb isn't blown. Go get the food and coffee. Go through your slides once more, calmly. Meditate if necessary to take yourself off the ceiling ?

  • Just Do It! Often, an interesting thing happens just before the presentation: knowing you're well prepared, the anxiety melts away and you start to look forward to it. So have fun, smile, and help to perpetuate the illusion that all is well in graduate school. At the very least, show some enthusiasm, make them think that you're enjoying what you're doing (yes, you might have to fake it for a minute, but it just might come to you).

  • Say 'I don't know'--eventually - If you don't know how to answer a question, think and talk your way through it. If the answer doesn't come, say 'I don't know,' and move on. But be ready to think on your feet.

  • Savor the fact that it's over - I say all of the things above from experience. I was a great big ball of stress prior to the talk, but having given group meeting a number of times and talking at conferences, the pre-talk jitters weren't as bad as they could have been. I survived standing in front of the firing squad and made my presentation to my committee (for the first time; I have to do this twice more) and I'm still alive. There is hope I just might graduate.

There was a question or two that I think I could've answered better, but overall, my committee was pleased, even helpful with suggestions and resources that they could loan me that would aide in my progress. If I had to do it again, I would've been a little surer about how I phrased things, about some of the language I used to discuss my work. But I actually kinda had fun presenting. Scary, huh?

Best of luck! Until next time?

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Science Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the forum, Facebook, Twitter, or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.