It’s usually the case in graduate school that you have to give a departmental seminar. This is a presentation that brings your academic community up to speed on what you will be researching in grad school and what you may have discovered so far. You might consider it daunting, but take it as an opportunity to receive feedback from an audience wider than your supervisory committee. It might help you gain some much-needed perspective for your project. It’s also great practice to explain your research—whatever the discipline—to other people because preparing to do it exposes your own weaknesses on the topic.
Most of what follows is applicable to thesis programs where students are required to collect data and is not a comprehensive list of tips for giving presentations in general—it’s tailored to graduate seminars. That said, some of the tips are applicable for any academic presentation, so I hope they’ll help no matter what stage of university you’re in.
Give context for your presentation
Not everyone in your department will intimately know your academic history. Take the opportunity to introduce yourself and explain to people where you are in your degree.
If it’s the case that you somehow got stuck giving a presentation in your first year, before you have a substantial amount of data collected, that’s OK! This is a great time to offer up the rationale for the work you’re looking forward to doing based on what’s already in the literature, present your hypotheses, and give some preliminary or even predicted results. This will make people much more sympathetic to the fact that you don’t have a lot of data, because you’ll show them that you have indeed put work into preparing for your research.
Roadmapping the talk
There are a lot of ways you may choose to roadmap your presentation. One format that most people will be able to follow easily is that of the common academic journals of your field. For example, if you’re a sciences student, organizing your talk so that your background literature review and hypotheses come first, followed by your methodology and data, and ending with future directions, will work out very well.
If you’re a little bit further on in your degree and you have a lot of different projects to talk about, you might find that organizing your talk into multiple sections each with their own sub-categories is a lot cleaner than trying to combine all of your findings into the middle of your talk. It will also help the audience follow one train of thought to its endpoint before moving onto another.
Remember, this isn’t your paper for publication! Try to steer away from showing complicated figures with 10+ panels. Since you’re there explaining everything, it’s easier for the audience to digest a few large images at a time. Be aware that what you see on your laptop is likely not going to project perfectly onto a screen in a seminar room. Test out your slide-deck ahead of time and make sure that the contrast on relevant images is easy enough to decipher from the back of the room. You don’t want to be saying, “I know it’s hard to see, but…”
Now, before you take centre stage in your department, ask your supervisor if you can first present it at a lab or group meeting to get their feedback. Take their suggestions seriously, make tweaks to the presentation, then go wow the rest of your department. I believe in you!