Never eat your lunch alone

Lunch can be fun! Photo – Srikanth.

Research can be taxing, particularly when you are starting out your PhD. Given the pressure of deadlines set by grants, crunch periods take a whole new meaning. It feels like a crime to catch a breathe even for a few seconds, leading to long working hours, working lunches, diminishing social life… You can see where this is going.

If there is one thing I would advise starting PhD students, and even post-docs, it’s this – never eat your lunch alone. It may shave off a few seemingly precious minutes from your daily schedule, but it pays huge dividends. How, you ask? Read on…

Camraderie

While not evident from the outside, research is a high stress, high pressure environment – publish or perish and all that. Sharing a morsel with your fellow soldiers in the trench builds the much needed camraderie that would help you to get through times thick and thin. Over time your lunch group will become your support group. Be it a particularly frustrating problem that you are working on, or the all-familiar existential crisis, it’s always helpful to have a vent. It comes as a great reassurance when you realise that your peers went through the same grind. Much cheaper than therapy.

Conflict resolution

There will be often be situations where you would be unwittingly committing a faux-pas, leading to conflict. Problem is, more often than not, you wouldn’t be knowing why! Good news is, you would not be the first person to do it. Your slightly more experienced peers would always have an anecdote to share and help you see the light of things.

A melting pot of ideas

Ideation can’t get any more lateral when you are breaking bread with a physicist, a chemist, a mathematician, a programmer, and an experimentalist. Collective thought processes can lead to unusual solutions to particularly sticky problems. Actually one of my papers actually materialised fairly along similar lines.

An outsider’s perspective

A completely unbiased view is a gift, but not one that is sparse. An outsider’s perspective is extremely underrated; you would be amazed at the insightful questions your colleague from the psychology department might pose about your work on turbulence theory. Share your work with people who are currently completely oblivious to your line of work – it will invariably lead to questions you never thought even existed.

Return the favour

There will come a day when you will be sitting at the head of the table. Return the favour, and guide the greenhorns.

Never miss lunch again

A sound body is a pre-requisite for a sound mind. Delaying lunches, or skipping them altogether is extremely detrimental in this aspect. Have a lunch buddy who will drag you away from your desk. You will thank him/her later.

And finally…

You get to sample your colleagues’ lunches! Come on now, that has to be a great plus!

 

Do you have a lunch group? What great idea did you hit upon over your lunch? Share your experiences below!

Signing off,
Sri.

9 ways to give a bad presentation

 

Presentations are a great way to disseminate science. It’s your chance to tag your face with the science you did. However, given it’s your baby, it is highly likely you would want to delve into every little idiosyncracy of the subject matter. TMI often rings the death knell of what potentially could have been a smashing presentation.

I think it was Picasso who famously remarked that one must know the rules to break them (and it would be safe to say he lived by what he preached). So here’s a list of ways you can give a fairly bad presentation – now awaken your inner rebel and break the rules.

1. Wing it

This is perhaps the worst thing to do. Sure, you are the specialist. However “winging” your presentation can lead exceeding time limits (a serious no-no in parallel-session conferences), poor recall of pedagogy, and a presentation full of “umms” and “ahs”… ironically, you would end up looking ill-prepared. If you are indeed certain about the material, tighten your delivery further by practicing it, weeding out the unnecessary, tailoring the transitions. The way you present is a reflection of your thought process – show it off.

2. Treat your audience as specialists.

It is quite natural to presume that your audience knows the relevant background. However, sometimes you may come across the occasional out-of-towners, who got intrigued by the title of your talk (“Random lasing in bovine semen1“). A starting slide with a bit of non-technical background aimed at a lay person goes a long way to make comprehension easier. For instance, imagine your parents are in the audience. How would you explain your research to them in 1-2 minutes?

3. Read from your slides

If you are planning to do this, you may as well save the audience time and distribute printouts of your slides. Come on, the presentation is your time to show how enthusiastic you are about your work, to own it! Engage with the audience. Share the challenges you had to face, your predicaments, the number of drinks at the bar… Be a story teller.

Tip to non-native speakers – don’t ever memorise your talk. Use your slides as memory triggers, for two-three most important points you want to raise. Keep the sentences short. This might end up in more slides per minute, but you wouldn’t risk forgetting your material.

4. Make the most of the available space

We want to be resourceful and use all space to maximise the amount of information we want to present. However, more the information you present on a slide, the more the eye would want to scan. And before you would have even begun speaking, the audience would have started to fill in the blanks themselves. There is nothing wrong with a bit of white space. It’s like giving the eyes some space to breathe. Remember the audience has limited RAM. Optimise on that.

5. Present everything to the audience right away

There is a temptation to give all the specifics – associated literature, comparisons, technical details, detailed analysis of the results. However you have two limitations – the time limit for your presentation, and the limit to how much your audience can absorb. Stick to the essentials. Limit the amount of information you present in each slide. Purposely deliberate slide transitions, giving the audience enough time to reflect on the information you have presented, allowing them to clear their short term registers. Again, remember, your presentation is not a paper. It is you giving the audience an opportunity to interact with the person behind the science. So give them the essentials, and they will get to the specifics.

6. Graphs with insets, with insets, with insets… Plots and subplots

Given space constraints, one is sometimes forced to adopt this modality. Be judicious on how much information you want to present. A good strategy is to put to use animation options to bring in your graphs step by step. You can use it as a “zoom” tool – to highlight a feature of interest in close-up, which becomes the topic of your next slide – makes for a great story telling tool.

 7. Let the audience figure out what great contributions you have made to science.

This again relates to our presumption that the audience are specialists. Surely they should understand the gravity of your contribution. True, and not. Underscoring your contribution explicitly in a couple of short sentences would help the audience in better recall and reflection, transferring your findings onto their long term memories. The following age old adage helps…

Tell them what your are going to tell them
Tell them
Tell them what you told them.

Works like a charm.

8. Speak in a monotonous, drone like fashion.

I am sure you would have heard the joke about a student bringing his grandfather suffering from insomnia to his professor’s lecture. There is a risk of your audience dozing off, particularly if yours is the last talk of the day, or worse, the talk just after lunch. A special set of skills are needed to re-invigorate your audience. Add some movement to your slides and content. Practice on your delivery. Think of yourself as a Shakespearean actor, e-nun-ci-ate.

9. Use Comic Sans

Please, don’t.

What’s the worst you have come across? Share your experiences, or better still, leave your suggestions for making the greatest bad presentation of all.

References

1.
Smuk A, Lazaro E, Olson LP, Lawandy NM. Random laser action in bovine semen. Optics Communications. 2011;284(5):1257-1258. doi: 10.1016/j.optcom.2010.11.004