Now that I’m working full-time alongside writing up my PhD, I’m conscious of the constant balance I’m trying to make. I’m not new to working and studying at the same time, that’s a road I’ve been travelling the last four years but there is something different about working full-time and balancing the rest of my commitments.
Until I reach the point of my viva, I am still registered as full-time student and that comes with it’s own set of expectations. While I have handed in my apologies for the regular reading group and researcher development sessions, I still need to maintain a supervisory team meeting schedule as well as participate in certain events.
I had a ‘will I/won’t I’ moment at the start of last week when the head of research emailed to remind the PhD cohort to submit a poster for the Technology and Design Poster Session, hosted by RGU. While my apologies for not being able to attend in person we accepted, the importance of still submitting a poster was stressed. Cue a last-minute push to generate one on Sunday night!
Poster sessions are a great opportunity to escape from the silo of individual study and share your research, learn more about the work of fellow students and of course there is a prize for best poster. Being competitive by nature, of course I felt that none of my previous posters were good enough, and I had do make a new one from scratch. But designing a PhD poster is hard work, even for a designer.
The internet is awash with the varying styles of PhD posters around and a quick search will illustrate why PhD research is often regarded as being inaccessible. The dense text, the tone, the statistical content and the dry images of many posters leave a lot to be desired (some of my past posters included!). But it got me thinking, what’s the purpose of the PhD poster and what should it contain?
Why? A PhD poster is a great way to share your work with a wider audience. Many conferences host poster sessions alongside the traditional paper presentations often a less intimidating option for the early career researcher. You get the opportunity to chat to people who are interested, you become more articulate in how you share your research and in a way creates a sense of validation about what you’re doing. The posters can be easily resurrected at a number of different events and more often than not are used to decorate the research offices of your institution.
What? But what should the PhD poster contain? The best thing to do is to really think about this first, don’t just try to cram three years worth of research onto one A1 sheet. These are a few of the key considerations (in my opinion….there are many more out there too!)
Audience: The first thing to do is to consider your audience. Who will be reading the poster? What type of language do you need to use? If it’s fellow academics then you might get away with using academic terms but please, please remember that not everyone will understand and it’s up to you to make your research as clear and accessible as possible. You want to reach as wide an audience as possible so make it as clear and concise as you can. A great way of considering your writing in this way is to ask yourself if your mum/gran/random family member could understand it. This works so well for me (although I must’ve told my mother about my PhD research at least 500 times and she’ll still say I’m doing something with art! No mother, try design+research+collaboration+space. Four keywords work best every time!)
Approach: As I mentioned, it’s too difficult to for everything in so I’d suggest picking an element of your research and focussing on that. This might be a methodology used, or a particular set of findings. You should aim for the reader to capture everything your poster is trying to say in under 5 minutes. The idea of a poster is that it works to spark interest and start a discussion, not to explain everything.
Layout: I will always say less is more. And I mean less text, that’s LESS TEXT! There is nothing worse than a poster that is 90% text, all written in a tiny font that makes it illegible unless your nose is pressed up against the poster (well, perhaps worse is powerpoint presentations with bullets and edge to edge text but lets not get started on that!).
Please remember that the chances are your audience will stand about 3-4 feet away from your poster so you need a hook that pulls them in closer, not a mush of text that quickens their step to the next poster in line. That hook might be a headline in larger text, or an image but really think about creating something that is eye catching.
Title: In terms of content, you should have a catchy title, something interesting but that doesn’t tell the whole story. You want them to read more so think newspaper headline, not the name of the specific sub-species of plant you’re studying.
Context: Provide an overview to your research, what’s the research problem and why is it important? Then place your research within this context. Think about why your research is relevant to the random person in the audience who’s taken the time to read your poster.
Methodology: Don’t forget to add in some detail about your methodology. People are interested in how you’re conducting your research so share that but unless your poster is specifically focussed on methodology, then a few lines will do.
Results: Share some of your key findings, these should be short, snappy and interesting. You want people to read on. If you’ve got a lot of findings, don’t be tempted to write them all up. Pick three of the key areas you want to share and stick to them. Your poster will be much more attractive to the audience and it has much more chance of being memorable.
Conclusion: You can add in another section here but please, please don’t repeat all your findings. Use the conclusions to place your findings in context and if you’ve space, maybe talk about where your research is heading now. A few lines is fine though.
You: This is a really important part, put your name, email address and if possible a photo too. The chances are that you’re going to mingle at the poster session too, having a look at everyone’s posters so adding your photo will help people identify you if the have a question. It will also make your poster much more memorable.
So after a night of summarising my research, frantically saving it in a multitude of formats as each email bounced back from the printers, I finally submitted my poster.