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How to Survive a Poster Session

Posted in: Writing, Publishing and Presenting

Poster sessions can be your best friend, or your worst nightmare; it all comes down to how well you’ve prepared.  In this article, I’ll discuss how to present your data in poster form, what to look out for at a poster session, and how to make the most out of a poster session…in short, how to survive the experience!

For some of our favourite tips on designing posters, check out Nick’s article for 10 Tips on Writing a Research Poster and my article on Communication Skills for some design tips.

In addition, I do have a few pet peeves that I see on people’s posters that you should watch out for:

  • Boring posters: use some colour and images! It’ll look much more attractive and draw people in.
  • Too much maths: stats are fine – but use just the results to add to your work… we don’t need columns of arithmetic!
  • Clutter: too much information is overwhelming and makes it difficult both for your audience to see clearly what’s going on, and for you to point out what’s most important in your data.

How to Present Your Poster

So you’ve designed your poster for a conference or symposium – now to present it! One of the most annoying things somebody can ask you (and which, in my experience, they often do) is for you to “take them through the poster”. When you’re nervous, tired and have been saying the same thing over and over again to all the people who have come up to you already, this is the last thing that you want to hear – after all you spent all that time making the poster, can’t they just read it? But you just have to grin and bear it. Remember: you’re representing your institution, and you may want to work with these people one day! The best thing to do is have a short (think 3-5 sentence) summary of your research that you can open with, and then use the figures on your poster as cues from thereon. Reference your poster frequently in your explanation – it’s what you’re there for after all! – and it helps your audience to have a visual aid.

Don’t speak too quickly when you’re talking to people – in the atmosphere of a busy poster session it can be easy to get swept along with it all (especially if there’s a bit of alcohol flowing) – and don’t assume that people will immediately understand everything you say. Simple jargon like the name of a cell line could be plain speaking to you, but it means nothing to your audience if they’ve never heard of it before: be very clear.

What to Watch Out For

Competition is always something you need to be wary of at a gathering of scientists! Anyone out there who has ever held an industrial sponsorship can attest to how rigorous their gagging orders are. Even so, they may still let you present at a conference, and it’s in times like these that you should keep your wits about you. While I’ve personally never personally come across any underhand business at a conference (and I certainly don’t want to start any rumours or conspiracy theories), you can imagine that they may be an ideal place for industrial spies. Always be careful about what you’re saying: don’t give away any confidential information, no matter what!

Competition can also come from less sinister sources. It’s easy enough for two completely separate research groups to end up working on similar areas. In these cases, don’t panic! There are probably subtle differences between your work and theirs. Think of it as an opportunity to learn more about your area, rather than as a failure or as if you’ve wasted your time. You can compare techniques, and take steps to make sure that the rest of your work doesn’t overlap too much in the future. In these instances, it’s also good to think tactically – how can you use their results to your advantage? Maybe they’ve used a technique or cell line that you hadn’t thought of, or maybe you could start collaborating. Either way, get thinking about how you can present your data at a different angle to theirs – it’ll come in handy when it comes time to publish your work.

Getting the Most Out of the Session

Poster sessions are useful not only for sharing your work and achievements, but also to sound out what else is going on in the scientific community. If you’re giving a poster within your department, chances are the subject matter between posters won’t overlap that much – but that isn’t to say that you won’t be able to garner something useful from the experience. Looking at your colleagues’ work could shed some light on particular techniques you’ve been having trouble with, and help to build relationships that may come in useful in your research career. Building contacts like this is not only good for your research (you may find a source of advice, reagents, protocols and machines at your disposal) but it could also come in handy in the future with job searches and references.

When your allotted time to be with your poster is up, have a walk around and look at some others. While their authors may not be around to chat, it’s a good time to check out the competition and find some tips for your own research. Have a notebook on you and keep an eye out for reagents like antibodies, primers, media etc. that other groups have used successfully, and also note down the email addresses of any authors who have carried out work that may be useful to you, or of groups who may be carrying out research that you’d like to be a part of in the future.

Take five minutes for yourself. Busy poster sessions can take place at conferences that may have several thousand attendees, and it can get a little overwhelming. You’ll make the most of the session if you’re more relaxed – and everyone knows that scientists are gifted with the ability to sniff out free food from their years in grad school! Go forage. You’ll meet people just as easily this way, in a less formal atmosphere, so it’s another good way to make new contacts. Personally, I had a lot of good breakthroughs in my PhD over a cup of coffee during my morning break with my friends! Don’t assume that standing by your poster is the best way to get out there and meet people – have some fun!

What are your top tips for surviving a poster session?

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