Doctoral College

Producing and presenting posters: a guide for Doctoral Researchers

Written by Joel Warburton.

Joel is a 2nd Year Doctoral Researcher at the School of Business and Economics, and recently won the Delegates Choice Prize for Best Research Poster at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology Annual Conference.  In this blog he shares some thoughts and tips about how to get your research out there with a winning research poster.  For more guidance, book to attend the Doctoral College’s workshop ‘Making an Impact with Posters’.

It can be easy to think that as a Doctoral Researcher you have little to say to the ‘outside’ world, that it’s perhaps better to get your head down, and get your doctorate out of the way, before you think about presenting your discoveries or ideas at conferences.  If you share these thoughts, please take a moment to reconsider!

Presenting your research at conferences can be very useful to
Doctoral Researchers at all stages of their development, even if you have yet to collect data. Participation in off-campus activities can encourage you to look outwards, make connections and share ideas to support, not hinder, your doctorate.

It’s important to share and discuss your work with others (researchers, public, industry) for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, it builds your skills in talking about your research.  It takes practice to get the message across to a range of audiences, in a concise and clear way.  With practice, by the time your Viva comes around, you will be much better at communicating and discussing your topic, and your confidence levels will act as a support, rather than undermine your performance. 

Secondly, getting your research ‘out there’ will bring fresh perspectives to your work.  Feedback from others can prove very useful, for example with regards to topics to include in your thesis, or even suggested amendments or re-directions to your research approach (discuss with your supervisors first!). Building your profile and network within your research/practice community will also help from a career point of view, perhaps widening your post-doc options.

Research posters are a great way to share your work, generate feedback and connect with others outside of your network. They form part of most research conferences and are taken as serious contributions to the programme. Additionally, if you are somewhat anxious about speaking to large groups, posters offer a much more low key, and personal way of talking about your topic.

To that end, I’ve compiled some tips for presenting posters at conferences, but first some general info about the application process.

Target your efforts – Do some research about which conferences are suited to your topic.  Organising bodies focus on different disciplines, and within that each conference will have a series of different themes for that year (more of that later). Some acceptance panels are more demanding than others- you need to pitch for the right one. Speak to your supervisors or other lecturers about which ones are best, depending what you want to say.

Look Ahead – To get your poster accepted onto the programme you need to submit an abstract. Conferences advertise their submission deadlines well ahead of time, sometimes as much as a year in advance.  Poster abstracts are similar to abstracts in journal articles, in that they give a summary of the content.  You don’t always need to have the poster ready at the point of application, just a description of its message.  Make sure you submit before the deadline. You will be notified of the decision well ahead of the actual conference, so for some conferences, you only need to produce a poster if you are accepted!

Follow the Rules – Each conference will have its own rules about the abstract format (word count, sub-headings etc.) and the topics/themes the submission panel wants to hear about.  Make sure you stick to the rules about format, but take advice from your supervisors about how close you need to be to the conference themes. Abstracts are sometimes accepted when they are deemed ‘close enough’ to a theme of the conference.

Get Involved Locally – There are loads of opportunities to present your poster locally before you try for an external conference.  The Doctoral College has the Summer Showcase and the Annual Research Conference, and your own School may also provide opportunities to present a poster. Your supervisors and fellow researchers are a great source of feedback.

The Poster

Your poster should be a conversation starter, not a wall mounted thesis.  Keep it simple and attractive and it will reel people in for a meaningful discussion or just a few questions and answers. This should be the objective.  A good poster will mean that you end up learning just as much as the attendees have.

Basics – Makes sure you follow the event guidelines with regards to size (A0, A1 etc) and orientation (portrait or landscape).  Whatever application you use (PowerPoint, Illustrator, Canva etc.) make sure that your size is set before you start designing, some don’t scale up/down too easily. Make sure text can be read from about 1.5m away. Headline font around 72pt and main text 28pt works well. Leave space at the edges (to avoid cut-off when printed) and double check for spelling/grammar! References, contact details, institution and co-authors (your supervisors) should be included. Want to go one step further? Why don’t you include a QR code that links to either a PDF copy of the poster, your contacts details, blog or a video of you explaining your research? Click here for a video of how to create a QR code.

Eye catching – A Google search for “research posters”will produce thousands of different posters, but often, the majority will look very similar, wordy and dull.  Your poster will be presented amongst several others, sometimes facing away from the entrance, perhaps at the end of a long line. You need to make the poster stand out, so make it look different. If you use colour wisely it can pull people in. However, overdo it, and it will turn people off.  4 or 5 colours in a co-ordinated theme works well, but there are some great posters just using 1 or 2. Material Palette is a tool that creates a suggested colour scheme for you; give it a go, it’s free!   

Word Count – Less is more.  Too much text can be a real turn-off and overwhelming, particularly to non-specialists.  It’s a really important skill to be able to distil your work down to a brief description (a skill I am still working on!).  Aim for 350 words or less on the whole poster.  It’s not a lot, but you will end up with a poster that’s more inviting because of the negative space it contains.

Graphs and Pictures – Don’t overdo it.  1 or 2 graphs/pictures that are essential to your message can be a great way to communicate your idea, but get too technical and the poster will drive people away.  For the most technical subjects, and if you are delivering to an expert audience, this might not apply. However, think very carefully before breaking this ‘rule’ as your work might be more specialist than you think and even other academics/practitioners in your field may appreciate a gentler introduction to your topic.

Content – Make sure that the poster explains your research as a standalone display, but also try and design it in a way that helps you deliver your pitch when you are standing alongside it. Use sub-headings and sections as pointers, and to break up the text. You should also make it clear in what order the sections of the poster should be read. Use arrows or numbered paragraphs to help you do this.

Printing – I found Loughborough Campus Print services to be about half the price of commercial printers, and they produce great quality.  An A0 print costs approximately £13 and you may be able to claim this back from your school funds.  Ask for a practice print in a smaller size to do a final check.  I wish I had done this on a recent poster, as the text was harder to see in print than on screen due to the colours I used. Leave yourself enough time to order a reprint if this happens.

At the Conference

Great, you got your poster accepted and you are at the conference.  Now the work begins!

Before the conference/showcase invite some of your existing network to meet you at the poster.  Also reach out to some of the other attendees/presenters in your field of research and ask if they could spare a minute to meet you at your poster. This acts as an ice breaker as you both will immediately have something to talk about. Not all will agree, but some will be happy to meet up.

Practice a short 1-minute introduction to the poster and its message.  When the poster session begins, stand to one side of your poster and when someone approaches, give them time to scan it. Then ask if they would like a quick run though. If they say yes, deliver the 1 minute ‘pitch’. If not, invite questions and leave them alone. Some people just want to read and absorb, so don’t be too pushy, but equally don’t stand-off altogether.

Some conferences have a snapshot session where you might get 60 seconds on the main stage to invite people to your view your poster at a specific time.  You can try and describe the basics during this time or, as I have seen done to great effect recently, spend the 60 seconds posing questions that your poster/research aims to answer. 

Don’t forget to use the poster afterwards in social media, or perhaps a blog, to continue the conversation and the good work that you started.

Hopefully this blog has given you some good ideas and makes sense.  You’ve nothing to lose, give it a go and good luck!

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