How to Prepare for a Research Presentation

Students sitting in chairs face a man in a grey suit standing and speaking to them
Students in the Freshman Scholars Institute were invited to the 3rd Annual Summer Research Colloquium Conference in Prospect House. They listened to research presentations by current Princeton students both graduate and undergraduate. Photo Credits: Danielle Alio (2018)

Imagine that you’ve been working on a research project for months. Now you’re standing in front of a crowd of professors, some of which probably know more about your topic than you do. If you do research working in an academic department, it can be a stressful experience if you have to eventually present your work to that department. Trying to talk about what you’ve done with your own adviser can be enough sometimes, and showing work that you may not be 100% comfortable with for a whole crowd of professors is a whole new level of daunting. They all have years of experience and may know more about aspects of your presentation than you do, so trying to seem like you know what you’re talking about while possibly being asked questions far out of your depth may seem impossible for an undergraduate to do.

Nonetheless, whether it’s theses, JPs, internships, or summer projects, all undergraduates here are going to find themselves in this position. So how do you do it?

  1. Have your adviser (and maybe your classmates, dormmates, peers, or anyone else) look over your material before you present

Your poster, paper, PowerPoint slides, or whatever you present probably has been changed so many times that it can be hard for you to take a step back and evaluate it properly. Have at least one more set of eyes look it over to make sure everything flows nicely and makes sense.

Having your adviser look over it is crucial, as they will be able to catch errors better than anyone else. It’s much better for these corrections to happen before you go up rather than a correction DURING your presentation.

Having other people look over your work can help make sure it is understandable by whatever audience you are presenting to. Different projects may have different circumstances: you may need your presentation to be understandable by those with a lot of knowledge about your topic, people who have more general expertise in your department but may not know specifics, or anyone. Practicing your presentation with people unfamiliar with your topic can ensure that you’re communicating well. Sure, you and your adviser may have been working on this research for months, but most of the people in your audience haven’t, so make sure it is digestible for them.

  1. Prepare for questions

If you have any questions about your work, ask your adviser! If you’re still confused, I would recommend returning to the literature or asking other members of your department. Remember, there is no such thing as a silly question, so please don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. If something about your topic confuses you, it will probably be just as confusing for your audience, so get answers to those questions!

Try to show your work to other people, taking note of what questions they ask. Your most common questions are probably going to come up when you present, so you can include them as part of your presentation to make sure people stay engaged.

If you have to deliberately cut content that may answer a question, add them in as “extra slides” after your conclusion. This is a great way to meet a presentation time limit while still including information in case people are interested. There’s nothing better than a professor asking a question and you having pre-prepared slides ready to answer it!

  1. Know how to “redirect” questions you can’t answer

No matter how many possible questions you try to prepare for, there is a large chance that someone will ask something completely unexpected that you have no idea how to answer. It is perfectly fine in a research talk to say that you don’t know the answer to something. The hard part can be how to respond when this happens and not seem like you’ve “given up” or are completely lost. 

You can try to reason out your thought process aloud to think about what the answer might be, something like, 

  • “Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that… 
  • …so it seems to make sense that it would be something like… 
  • …which is definitely the case, but I’m not entirely sure how that would play out differently if it was more like…” 

This not only reinforces that you do, in fact, know what you are talking about, but if you’re lucky may prompt the person who asked or others in the audience to answer the question for you, “Oh, if it is like that, then it must be…”. 

If that isn’t an option you could always respond with “That unfortunately is outside the scope of this project, but in the future I would love to work on figuring out…”. You could also reference other papers that they can read for more info (which may often be the papers you used as a background for your project). When I gave my first ever research presentation in front of our Astrophysics department for my summer project, I had extra slides and had responses to common questions all prepared and ready to go. I still was asked two questions that I had absolutely no idea how to even begin to answer.

If the question is something that you knew but can’t quite remember at the moment, you can always ask them to email you about it later where you can get back to them afterwards.

Also, if someone asks a question that is answered later or relates to content later on in your presentation, you can say “I will actually address that later on.” Most people would be very pleased if they ask a question that is answered later on. It means that you both are on the same page and thinking in the right direction.

If you are stressing over an upcoming presentation, take a deep breath, and try to prepare yourself as best you can. Most of these intimidating faculty members have given dozens of talks before, and they know what you’re going through. Something unexpected might happen, and things may not go as planned. There are many strategies that you can do beforehand to better prepare yourself, but the main thing to remember is that you are there to show them what you’ve done. Try to get that across as best you can, and it’ll all be okay!

— Xander Jenkin, Natural Sciences Correspondent