Common Forms

Communications skills are perhaps one of the most important classes of skills you will need if you want to be a successful scientist in today's global technological marketplace. There is nothing more important than being able to communicate your science well both orally and in writing.

Virtually every aspect of a research project is dependent on one's ability to communicate clearly and persuasively - from securing funding to support the project, researching the subject, working with others inside and outside one's field of expertise to carry out the experiments, and communicating project findings to colleagues, project supervisors, and the public at large. In this section you will find practical advice on some of the most common forms of communication scientists use.

Articles on Common Forms

Preparing a Poster Presentation

Although viewed by some in the scientific community as inferior to other forms of communication in the greater science and engineering community, the poster is an extremely powerful form of communication at professional conferences. Advantages of poster presentations over oral presentations include the length of the time allotted for discussion of posters at professional meetings. Most oral presentations unless they are invited plenary presentations are limited to about 15-minutes. Poster sessions on the other hand often allow for 2 h or more of discussion with interested visitors. In addition, at most meetings multiple oral sessions are scheduled to run simultaneously in small rooms allowing for a very limited audience. Poster sessions often take place in large rooms and accommodate hundreds of presenters. Consequently, there is greater potential exposure of your work to the greater scientific community in poster presentations.

In this section we will offer advice concerning the following aspects of poster preparation:


Sometimes people have the mistaken impression that putting together a poster involves less work than putting together an oral presentation. Both involve a lot of advance planning and neither can be done well when the effort is initiated at the last minute. As you begin to prepare your poster, there are two key elements to consider: content and layout. So, start your poster preparation early!

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Sometimes people worry too much about the appearance of their poster and forget that at the heart, a poster is simply a visual presentation of one's scientific research. The bottom line is if you don't have good science forget the presentation. At this stage of your career, the encouragement and support you have already no doubt received from your advisor should assure you that you have some interesting new science to present. Consequently your focus should be on making sure that the information presented on the board reflects the quality of your work.

Although the size of a poster may vary somewhat in general poster boards tend to be 4' high by 6' long. Since there is variation in poster dimensions, be sure to find out in advance what the dimensions of your poster board will be as this will determine what/how much information you can put on your poster. Last but not least, now that you know how much space you have, be sure to use it wisely!

The title of your presentation, the names of all the authors and their institutional affiliations should appear at the top center of your poster. So that interested attendees can quickly identify the subject of your poster, be sure to use a font size that produces lettering at least 1.5" high.

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Most science and engineering posters use the same general format: title, authors and institutional affiliations, abstract, introduction, methods, results, conclusions, acknowledgements and references. We will discuss the needed content for each of these sections briefly below:

  • Title - the title should effectively highlight the subject of your research in ten words or less
  • Authors and institutional affiliations - a list of the names of all those who have contributed to the project in a significant way. Be sure to consult your advisor on this subject. Authorship has serious implications with regard to intellectual property issues. For each author be sure that the department and institution where they work is identified.
  • Abstract - this is a succinct summary, usually 150 words or less, that identifies the research problem studied, the methods used, the results obtained, and the significance of those results.
  • Introduction - this section should provide a brief overview of the reasons that the research was initiated and provide a background on the materials and methods used in the study.
  • Methods - the experimental methods used to accomplish the research should be succinctly outlined in this section.
  • Results - this section should outline the results of your work. Since posters are a visual method of presentation, the bulk of this section should be graphical rather than textual.
  • Conclusions - this section should provide a succinct summary of the conclusions you have derived from your work as well as a statement of the direction of any future work if relevant and appropriate.
  • Acknowledgements - This section should credit all of those individuals who have provided assistance to you in accomplishing your work. First and foremost be sure to credit any funding sources that may have underwritten your research. This is particularly important if a federal agency or foundation provided funding for your project. As always it is best to check with your advisor in order to identify all of the appropriate individuals and/or agencies.
  • References - Since research isn't accomplished in a vacuum, you will need to credit the relevant work of others in one or more sections of your poster. As in a technical paper, you will need to include a citation for each and every source. Since the format for references differs from discipline to discipline, be sure to consult your advisor concerning the preferred format for citations.

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There are at least two frequently used approaches to poster layout: poster print and individual panels.

  • Some Thoughts about Poster Prints

    Some individuals use a single large poster printout while others post a series of 8.5" x 11" panels. The former must be printed using a special printer which may or may not be available at your institution. Posters of this type can be printed at local copy shops but they are therefore often more expensive to prepare. In addition, these can be a bit challenging to transport, an important consideration if you must travel by air to the meeting. You can purchase protective plastic tubes in which poster prints can be stored and transported. If you do choose to use this approach be sure to take your poster with you on the airplane if you are flying to/from the conference you are attending.

  • Some Thoughts about Poster Panels

    Panels can be readily printed on any personal color ink jet or laser jet printer. Consequently these are inexpensive to prepare and they present a number of other useful advantages as well: individual panels can be changed and reprinted at the last minute. In addition, this type of poster can be transported in your backpack or personal carry-on bag - ensuring that it can be hand-carried onto your aircraft and that it therefore is never separated from you during your trip. The one disadvantage of this type of poster is that it requires more effort to post it at the meeting so be sure to allow adequate time for setup if you do choose to use this type of poster.

Layout your information in a logical pattern on your poster so that visitors can readily follow your presentation. Note that there is a normal viewing pattern for posters. Think about the dynamics in a poster session. Often these events occur late at night and are accompanied by festal libations. Viewers holding their plastic cups circulate up and down rows of posters walking past them at a slow rate and reading while they walk. So, it is best to arrange your poster so that viewers read the information in columns intended to be read from left to right. You may choose to post blocks of information read in rows going from left to right but this is difficult on potentially interested viewers who must pause and shuffle back and forth like linebackers in order to read your poster. If you must insist on being an individualist in this respect, it is a good idea to unobtrusively number the individual panels of your poster so that viewers know which panel to read next.

Make sure that your poster is visually attractive and readable from a distance of 3 feet away - this includes lettering and captions on any figures and/or tables. Select a font size that produces lettering at least 0.5" high.

"A picture's worth a thousand words." Since a poster is a visual presentation of one's work, graphics rather than text should constitute the bulk of your poster. Use a minimal amount of text containing short, easy to read sentences.

KISS - Keep it simple stupid! Don't load your poster with acronyms, excessive text, or complicated figures.

If you choose to mount your text on colored paper or poster boards, use double-sided sticky tape, spray adhesive, or rubber cement to firmly adhere your sheets.

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Delivery - Presenting Your Poster

In advance of the meeting prepare a brief (2-3 min) talk about your research and practice that talk in front of your poster several times. Ask your advisor, your research group and/or friends and family to act as an audience for your poster presentation. Make changes to your poster and/or presentation as needed based on the feedback you receive from these folks.

Identify in advance the location of your poster session and be sure to arrive early (at least 30-min) to put up your poster.

Although some push pins are frequently provided, it is wise to bring your own supply of push pins with you to the meeting especially if your poster consists of a series of individual panels.

Don't be a wall-flower. Ask people if they would like to hear about your work and then begin speaking.

Plan to stay by your poster throughout the scheduled poster session. Don't be afraid to check out the other posters presented during your session but try to minimize the amount of time that your poster is unattended. If you do leave, it is a good idea to post a signup list for those visitors who wish to obtain a copy of the poster and/or wish to speak with your and/or your advisor further about your work.

You may see other presenters handing out copies of their poster at the meeting. Don't hand out any written information to visitors unless you have previously obtained permission from your advisor to do so. Public presentation of your work can become an issue when applying for patents. If visitors express an interest in obtaining a copy of your work, obtain their business card and/or take down their name, address and/or e-mail so that your advisor and you can follow up on this contact after the meeting.
At the end of the poster session, be sure to remove all of your poster materials. Anything left behind will be thrown out.

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Preparing an Oral Talk

In this section we will discuss the key elements in preparing and delivering an effective oral presentation:

Visual Aids

Use a landscape (horizontal) rather than a portrait (vertical) layout when preparing visual aids. Portrait formatted slides when projected have a greater likelihood of either being obscured at the top or the bottom of the slide than do landscape-formatted slides. In addition, the comparatively larger width of the landscape formatted slide allows for better use and display of information.

When creating your presentation aids, use light text on a dark background as this is easy to read and is also easy on the eyes. Avoid using colorful backgrounds with words or complicated patterns or pictures on them. Plain single color backgrounds are the most effective.

Use an appropriate font size on your slides for the room in which you will present. Note that this means you will need to do some homework in advance. minimum type size you should use for any text on a slide is 18 pt.

A mixture of upper and lowercase text is easier to read than text printed in all upper case.

Make good use of graphics when preparing slides. Audience retention is about 20% when a speaker uses words alone but rises to 70% when text is supplemented with graphics. If you do use graphics, avoid the use of tired clip art such as that provided by Microsoft. Graphics should not distract the audience from your content. Use medium quality graphics whenever possible. If you must use animation, use it sparingly and only if it will help the audience understand and appreciate your work better.

When preparing and using graphs and/or tables for a presentation:

  • Always label your axes and include the units
  • Use standard graph and/or table formats. The purpose of graphical aids should be to uncover the data not to obscure it.
  • Avoid the use of insets if at all possible.
  • Tables should be constructed and used only when you are displaying fewer than 10 or fewer numbers.

Present your information in bite-size chunks. A good guideline for slide content is the "6x6" rule. Use no more than six words per line and six lines per slide.

How many slides should you prepare? On average plan to show a new slide every 30 to 45 seconds.

KISS. Keep it simple stupid! Plan to introduce a maximum of one new idea per slide. Provide only enough detail to convey your message.

Title your slides succinctly , specifically, and clearly with the slide's purpose. For example, a poor title might be "Results." A more effective title serving both you and your audience's need for information might be "Spectroscopic Evidence for a Change in Protein Conformation Upon Reduction." The title reminds you what it is that you want to say and it conveys to the audience the significance of the data shown on the slide.

Proof your visual aids. Typos, misspellings, etc. rob you as a speaker of your authority. After all, why shouldn't audience question your technical expertise if all of your slides say "Fiziks of Kwantum Dotz"?

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Public Speaking

Identify your audience and speaking environment. What is their education? Interests? Are they generalists or specialists - what does your audience likely already know about your topic. Is this a formal presentation? Is one-way or an interactive style of presentation expected?

KISS - Keep it simple stupid! Prioritize your presentation - what message is it that you want to convey to your audience? Make sure this is the focus of your presentation. Avoid the use of acronyms and technical jargon whenever possible. Acronyms can be very divisive. When your audience isn't familiar with the terminology and too many acronyms are introduced, they may become lost and therefore hostile.

Follow the "T3" rule: Tell the audience what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them. This means you should provide an outline of your talk to your audience, deliver the actual content, and then summarize the key points.

Don't read your slides. If you find that you are, this means that your slides aren't correctly designed. The text on the slide should act as a visual prompts for the speaker in terms of the information he/she intends to convey orally.

Practice your talk in advance several times. Practice makes perfect.

Dress appropriately and comfortably. Find out in advance if formal clothing (business attire) is expected and dress appropriately.

Arrive early and make sure that you are comfortable with room layout and the A/V equipment. If you are using technology, be sure to bring backup visual aids such as a set of transparencies with you. If you are using a laptop for your presentation, make sure that it is compatible with the projector. An important consideration is the display resolution of the laptop and of the projector. If you are using a PC computer don't attempt to switch at the last minute to a Mac or vice versa.

Be enthusiastic. Deliver your speech with animation in your voice. Face the audience. Make eye contact with them. Speak loudly, clearly, and slowly so that everyone in the audience can hear and understand what you are saying.

Take charge. If you feel uncomfortable fielding questions during your presentation, be sure to make your feelings known to the audience upfront and if you are interrupted don't be afraid to defer the question until the end of your presentation.

Don't attempt to use humor (or quotations) in your presentation if you aren't funny. Audiences at scientific talks don't expect comedic or thespian performances, they do expect good science presented well.

Make judicious use of the laser pointer. If you use one, turn it on and point to the specific text or graphic element you wish to highlight, then turn it off. Try not to swing the laser pointer all over each and every slide and be careful not to point it into the audience.

End your presentation on time. This is particularly important at large scientific conferences where attendees may move from session to session in order to hear a specific speaker at a specific time.

Fielding Questions First , believe it or not, you really can anticipate the questions that most folks will ask in advance and if you take the time to do this and to prepare, then fielding questions becomes "a piece of cake!" To do this think about who your audience is and what their interests are likely to be related to the subject of your talk. Once you have done this write down every question that comes to mind. These are likely to be the questions your audience will ask. Consult your advisor, other members of your research group, friends, etc. Once you have created this list, prepare an answer for every question and practice delivering them until your are confident.

Listen to every question. This is perhaps the most frequent mistake that speakers make. They don't listen to the question being asked and therefore it makes sense why they have such a tough time answering the question. A good technique to adopt which will help you to listen is to plan to restate the questioner's question out loud before you answer. This technique is also useful in that it provides the speaker with time to frame an answer and it ensures that the speaker is actually answering the question which was actually asked.

What do you do as a speaker if you didn't hear the question? Simply ask the questioner to repeat the question. Frequently, the speaker isn't the only person who couldn't hear it.

What do you do as a speaker if you didn't understand the question being asked? State that you aren't sure you understood the question and ask the questioner to rephrase his/her question.

What do you do as a speaker if you don't know the answer? Simply state that you don't know it. No one knows everything.

Treat every questioner respectfully. Compliment a good question. Think about how you answer every question before you actually do answer it. Be careful not to embarrass your questioner if they ask a "dumb" question. Always treat them with dignity and respect even if they don't deserve it and speak disrespectfully to you. Don't attack hostile questioners. Do challenge inappropriate questions but don't get personal.

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Tips on How to Use a Laser Pointer

A laser pointer is most effective when it is used intermittently in a presentation as a visual aid to highlight key points or to assist the audience in visually identifying specific content on a table, graph, or figure of a slide. The laser pointer loses its value when speakers use it constantly. Depress the button and simply point the beam at the text or visual element you wish to highlight. Do not wave the laser pointer around in circles. Also, constant activation of the laser pointer will betray a nervous speaker. If you are nervous, hold the laser pointer with both hands when you activate it. Finally, intermittent activation will also conserve the batteries so the laser pointer will work when you need it.

Practical Suggestions

  • If you are using your own laser pointer during the presentation, it is a wise idea to carry a spare battery in case your pointer fails during your presentation.
  • When gesturing, be careful not to wave an activated laser point at your audience.

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Business Memos

The business memo is a standard form of written communication in academics, government, and industry. The memo is a formal method of written communication with a well established format and style. An introduction to the standards for format and style is provided below.

Memo Format


Memos generally begin with a header section that identifies the purpose of the correspondence, to whom the memo has been sent, when it was written, and who wrote it. The heading is generally formatted as follows:

To: Name and Title of recipient From: Name and Title of memo's author cc: Names and positions of any other recipients of the memo Date: Month weekday and year Re: Brief statement (10 words or less) summarizing subject of memo

Body of Business Memo

A well written memo begins with a clear and succinct purpose statement. The purpose statement usually begins with words such as "I am writing to inform you..." or "The purpose of this memo is to summarize..." Usually the author of the memo is writing not merely to inform but in order to make a formal request of some kind. Consequently, the nature of the request is also usually stated at the beginning of the memo as well. If the purpose of the memo is to provide a progress report on a project, the author is likely soliciting formal feedback from the supervisor concerning the advisor's satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the progress made to date. So, a typical purpose statement for this memo might be: "I am writing to summarize my progress on Project XYZ to date and to request your feedback concerning my performance on this project."

Once the purpose of the memo has been established the remainder of the memo should be a succinct summary of the facts relevant to the purpose of the memo. A good way to begin is by providing the reader with any necessary background information including dates if these are relevant, summarize the current work or situation and its significance, summarize the problems, if any, and finally outline the request (if relevant). If your memo is one in a series of memos, it is a good idea to indicate this and to briefly summarize any relevant information the reader may need to recall from those earlier memos.

If the purpose of the memo is to summarize one's progress on a project then a good organizational strategy would be to begin with an overview of the project, its goals and objectives, summarize the work done to date, discuss any problems that might have occurred as well as any solutions or strategies you intend to investigate, and then outline a realistic schedule for any remaining work on the project.

Closing Paragraph

Memos are generally written as a request for action on the part of the reader. In general, your memo should end with a (re-)statement of your specific request.

If your memo is longer than one page in length:

Use Headings. If you are writing a lengthy memo (> 1 page) summarizing a lot of information then it is a good idea to structure your document using headings. This will make it easier for the reader to understand and follow your discussion.
Use bulleted or numbered lists. Lists are easier to scan than paragraphs. Use bulleted lists if the information is of similar importance. Use numbered lists whenever one point is more important than another point (relative hierarchy).
Use figures or tables. Trends are easiest to visualize when data are represented graphically.

Stylistic Elements

Memos are generally regarded as a formal method of communication. First impressions count here. A well written memo tells the reader not only about your technical skills but also much about your organizational and communications skills.

"More" is not better in a memo - keep it short and to the point. One page is an ideal length.

Succinct, clear prose is valued in a business memo. Use short sentences. Keep your paragraphs short.

Be sure to proof your work for correct grammar, spelling, typos, etc. before submitting your memo.

Be sure that your memo is readable. As a general rule it is a good idea to use a Helvetica, Arial, or Times Roman font and a font size of 10-point or 12-point.

If you are writing a memo that might elicit strong emotions in the reader, be careful not to use ALL CAPITAL LETTERS (reads as if you are shouting) or excessive punctuation!!!! as both of these actions are likely to enhance the likelihood that your reader will react negatively to your statements.

Progress Reports

Progress reports are a frequently used and very useful device for staying on top of a long term project. Progress reports are simply put brief reports summarizing the progress you have made on a project to date including an outline of any problems you may have encountered as well as plans for the next work period. If your advisor doesn't require you to submit progress reports, you might consider doing this on your own.

They have benefits for all involved:

Benefits for researcher:

  • Written record of accomplishments to date on project;
  • Opportunity to collect and gauge quality and quantity of research accomplishments; and
  • Starting point for first draft of technical paper, thesis chapter, or other written reports

Benefits for supervisor:

  • Useful method of keeping researchers and research teams on-time and on-track;
  • Written record of progress or lack thereof; and
  • Provides supervisor with knowledge of problems and allows supervisor to provide timely feedback and intercession


There really is no standard format for progress reports. However, given that the peer-reviewed technical journal article is generally viewed as a standard medium for written communication in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, if your advisor doesn't provide you with any specific format requirements, the format for a technical article might be a useful format to adopt in preparing your progress report. Another useful format for progress reports is that of the standard business memo.

Online Technical Writing: Progress Reports.



Before you begin to write any paper, it is a good idea to organize your thoughts by writing an outline. An outline simply a written method of organizing information so that you can determine what you are going to include in your paper, where you are going to include it, and what details you need to communicate about it, in other words outlines help you, the writer, determine the relative importance, order, and details for the different topics you wish to communicate. In terms of format, you can write an outline using key words, phrases, complete sentences and/or any mix thereof that works best for you. The most frequently used outline system uses Roman numerals, e.g., I, II, III, etc. to identify major points. These usually become the topic sentences when you turn the outline into paragraphs. Minor points that provide supporting evidence for the major points are designated using capital letters such as A, B, C, etc. If you need to include details about a minor point then these are identified underneath the relevant minor point by Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.). An example outline showing one approach to an outline for this section is illustrated below:

  1. What is an outline
    1. Method of organizing information
      1. What
      2. Where
      3. Details
  1. II. Format of an outline
    1. Major points
      1. Represented using Roman numerals
      2. Represent major ideas or topic sentences
    2. Minor points
      1. Represented using capital letters
      2. Represent supporting evidence
    3. Details
      • Represented using Arabic numerals
      • Represent details about minor points
  2. Example outline (this outline)

The outline need not be perfect but the more time and thought you put into it the easier you will find it to write your paper. In fact that is the whole point. If you take the time to create a good outline, when you actually sit down to write your paper, you will be able to concentrate on how to say what you want to say effectively, i.e., writing, rather than worrying about content.

First Draft

When you first sit down to work on any writing project, you should first strive to create an outline of the content. Once you have an outline, you should use the outline in order to create a draft of your paper. The idea behind a draft is that it is a good mechanism for getting all of your ideas down on paper. If you feel that you must express everything perfectly, it is generally harder to write. On the other hand, if you know that you will be revising the paper, it is much, much easier to get your ideas down on paper!

In creating a draft, focus on the “big picture.” What is the essential message you want to convey? What are the key points you need to communicate in order to get that message across? As you develop your draft, think about how you can help the reader see the structure of your argument – the key points and the overall message. A good way to do this is to break your paper down into appropriately titled sections that help orient the reader.

As you begin to identify the information you need to include in each section this will help you identify paragraphs. Remember each paragraph in a paper is a series of sentences discussing a theme. The first sentence, the so-called “topic sentence” should identify the theme for that paragraph.


The final and perhaps most important step in writing any form of written communication should be proofreading. When you begin your writing project always allow time at the end to proofread your work. Plan to read your paper through at least twice. Read the paper through once focusing on form and the second time on content. The first time through verify spelling, grammar, and stylistic issues. The second time through ask yourself if your writing will make sense to someone else. If the document is relatively short, reading it aloud can be very helpful in this regard. If not, if you can afford to set the document aside for a day or two and come back to it, you may be able to gain needed perspective to review and revise your paper.

Microsoft Word has several features that can be very useful in proofreading your written work. These include the “spelling and grammar” feature and the thesaurus. The “spelling and grammar” feature will allow you to step through your document and revise for spelling, grammar, and style. To proof stylistic issues you will need to select “grammar and style” on the proofing tab in the “writing style” pull-down menu. This feature is also useful as it can provide you with an indication of the level of readability (“Flesh reading ease” and “Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level”) of your document. A wavy red line underneath a word in your Word document indicates a word that may be misspelled. Unfortunately, the default dictionary for Word does not include many scientific or engineering terms. Consequently, many technical terms may be underlined in your document but may be spelled correctly. You can add words to the dictionary in Word so over time you will find use of the “spelling and grammar” feature increasingly valuable.


In many departments seniors and/or honors students are required to participate in undergraduate research their senior year. The experience usually culminates at the end of the year in the writing and oral defense of a thesis. In this section, we'll discuss some strategies for making this experience a positive one.

Writing a Thesis

Writing a thesis is a challenging, complex task that will tax your abilities in many ways but this is an invaluable experience that will afford you the opportunity to develop many critical non-technical skills including time management, teamwork, and technical writing.

Writing a thesis isn't like writing a term paper. Don't make the mistake of thinking that you can craft a quality thesis overnight. By the same token, it is also important that you know that you can do this - write a thesis. Just follow the advice offered below and don't be afraid to reach out and ask for help if you need help along the way.

At the start of the project:

A quality thesis begins with a good research problem, quality data, and sound analysis. Hopefully you are reading this at the outset of beginning your research for the thesis. If so, make sure that you identify a research topic that is interesting to you, well defined in scope, and has the potential of affording results in a reasonable time period so you will have ample time to write your thesis.

Make sure that you know at the outset what the thesis requirements are, if any, regarding time, layout, and structure. Establish a workable timeline and make every effort to keep to it.

The background on the research problem/project is often outlined in the first chapter of a thesis. This chapter should be focused and succinct in its coverage and presentation. Your goal should be to provide only the background needed so that the reader can understand the work that will be presented in the remainder of the thesis. Be careful not to try to present everything you know about the research problem, techniques, etc. As the content of this chapter is based on information from the peer-reviewed technical literature, this chapter is something you have largely under your control. Start work on this chapter early.

When you are ready to begin writing:

Create a weekly schedule and keep to it! When setting aside time for writing, make sure that you set aside useful blocks of time during the time of day during which your critical thinking and communication skills are at their peak. Identify a place to write where there is likely to be minimal external extractions and where you can keep needed resources such as reference textbooks, technical papers, etc. At some colleges and universities, thesis students can apply for a study carol in the library while they are writing their thesis.

Begin your writing efforts by devoting time at the start to the preparation of a thoughtful outline of the thesis. You will find it is much easier to write about something when you know what it is that you want to say. First, create a general outline of the thesis by identifying the topic of each chapter. Next, outline the contents of each chapter. Generally, scientists use the format of the technical paper in preparing chapters for theses and dissertations. This means that each chapter should begin with an introduction which is followed by an experimental section, then a presentation of the experimental results and finally their interpretation (discussion). For each section of each chapter, outline the major and minor (supporting) points.

Make sure you know who the members of your thesis committee will be. This is important as they represent the primary audience to whom you should be writing your thesis. What is their area of technical expertise and research interest?

While writing:

Always make a backup copy of the computer files containing your thesis chapters and be sure to make new backup copies frequently. Keep these disks or CDs in a safe location in case you need them.

Writing can be lonely and isolating. Consider joining or forming (if there is none on your campus) a discussion group with other research students who may be writing their theses. These groups can be tremendous resources of moral support as well as practical advice.

When you have completed work on a chapter, submit the draft to your advisor for his/her review. It is important to get regular feedback from your advisor and to do this early on so that you know that both of you are on the same page with regard to the thesis content and your writing style. You may also find it extremely useful to solicit feedback on your drafts from the other individuals who will serve on your thesis committee.

Be sure to allow sufficient time at the end for editing and proofreading your thesis. Use a spelling and grammar checker.

Defending your thesis:

Typically a defense begins with a ten-to-fifteen minute oral presentation by the degree candidate. This brief presentation should provide an overview of the research problem, methods used, the key findings and their significance. The presentation is then followed by a sometimes lengthy question & answer session in which members of the thesis committee ask the candidate questions about his/her presentation and the contents of the written thesis.

If your department requires you to make an oral presentation and defense of your thesis, the best advice is: practice, practice, practice. Ask your advisor and other group members to participate in a mock thesis defense. If you don't have anyone in your lab to whom you can turn, don't be afraid to ask other faculty members and/or other research students for their assistance. If you do ask for this kind of help be sure that you listen to and act on any advice given.

As mentioned above, be sure that you know who will serve on your thesis committee. What are the members' research interests and areas of technical expertise? This will help you to anticipate what kinds of questions they might ask.

Fielding questions is usually the most challenging element of the thesis defense. The goal of this element is to learn how deeply and how broadly the candidate knows his/her research field and research problem. The most important advice is to answer all questions as honestly as possible. Don't pretend to know something if you really don't. This is the one way you can really get into serious trouble in a thesis defense. If you don't know something, don't be afraid to admit it. Simply say "I don't know."

If English is Your Second Language

In some respects science, technology, engineering and mathematics may seem to be extremely unfriendly fields to international students. No slack is cut for international students studying in these fields - students are expected to master both the science and the language at the same time and international students are held to the same high expectations in terms of speaking and writing as are native born students. Consequently, in this section we offer some suggestions for those international student scientists for whom English is a second or even third language.

  • Be patient with yourself. It takes time and effort to learn to do anything well and that includes learning to speak and write in a new language.
  • Practice your spoken and written English at every opportunity. It may be easier and less stressful to communicate with friends from home in your native language but it won't help you improve your language skills. Whenever possible partner with American students and speak English. You will not only improve your language skills but you will also likely learn valuable information about American language and culture and make new friends.
  • Take all of your written notes in English.
  • Actively solicit feedback from your peers and advisors.
  • If you are giving an oral presentation, practice your talk in advance. Ask your advisor and several of your lab mates to listen to a practice talk. When preparing your presentation, don't be afraid to write down exactly what you want to say on a set of note cards. However, don't read these cards verbatim when you give the final presentation.
  • If you are writing, identify native English speaker/writers who can proof your written work for grammar, style and spelling.
  • When you receive feedback don't just make the changes suggested, try to identify the underlying problems they represent and learn from them.

Getting the Most Out of a Technical Presentation

Technical presentations can be very intimidating as too often speaker presentations are geared for specialists working in the field of research being presented and sometimes simply because the speaker isn't an effective communicator. In this section, we'll discuss some guidelines for getting the most out of the many technical presentations you are likely to attend as you begin your research career.

General Organization of the Technical Talk

Believe it or not there is a structure to most technical presentations.

  • Outline A good speaker will begin with an outline of his/her talk. Consider this to be a roadmap for the information that follows. It will help you know what general topics will be discussed and in what order. A really good speaker will even give the audience some idea of how much time he/she will spend on each topic.
  • Introduction Most talks begin with an introduction. In general, the introduction will provide you with background on the scientific problem that will be discussed, the experimental methods, analytical instrumentation, and methods of analysis that have been used previously, and an introduction to any work that the speaker may have done in this area.
  • Results and Discussion The speaker will then likely move to a presentation of the results that he/she has obtained and a discussion of his/her interpretation of those results.
  • Conclusion A good speaker will close their talk by pulling all of the results together and providing a coherent framework for them.
  • Questions and Answers At the end of most talks, the seminar organizers usually leave 5-10 minutes so that the audience can ask the speaker any questions they may have about the talk. Don't be afraid to raise your hand and ask questions - think of the seminar as being just another class at school. Don't worry if other students aren't asking questions. If you have a question, just raise your hand and ask. If you remain unconvinced by my arguments that your questions will be welcomed, consider remaining after the talk and going up to the front of the room and asking the speaker your question then.

Suggestions for Getting the Most Out of a Technical Talk

  • Prepare in advance to attend the talk. Research the speaker and his/her area on-line and look up one or two of his/her papers. This will help you become familiar with the speaker's background, their field of study, etc. allowing you time to digest the vocabulary of that particular field.
  • Listen actively. Bring a small notebook with you and take notes as you listen. If you have any questions and/or ideas while you are listening to the talk don't be afraid to jot these down in your notebook. Recording them in your notebook will allow you to keep your attention on the speaker and what he/she is saying rather than on worrying about what it is you don't want to forget.
  • Sometimes it isn't your fault that you didn't understand the talk. The speaker may not have been an effective oral communicator. A good speaker will in advance of his/her presentation try to identify who their audience will be - educational background, interests, etc. and then prepare their talk accordingly. That said, many speakers do not do this. Sometimes the issue is simply that the speaker may be a good scientist but a poor speaker. The bottom line is don't assume that it must be your "fault" because you didn't understand the talk. That said, you should never attend a talk with the expectation of simply killing time. Always try to squeeze the most you can out of every experience whether good or bad.


  • Don't talk with your neighbors once the speaker begins to talk. This includes asking your neighbor what the speaker said if you miss something. The speaker will have no idea what it is you are saying. This is rude and distracting to the speaker and those in the audience who are trying to listen to the talk. It won't win you any brownie points with either the speaker or the seminar organizers.
  • Don't bring articles to read or other work to do while the seminar is in progress. This is also inappropriate behavior for a seminar setting. If you aren't going to listen to the talk then do not go to the seminar in the first place.
  • Unless refreshments have been provided, don't bring a meal and eat. This is considered to be rude and it can be distracting to both the speaker and the audience (both the rustling of containers and paper and the smell of the food).