By Trevor C. Hunt
This article originally appeared on Student Doctor Network on March 4, 2019.
Welcome to “Research for the Rest of Us”, a column about navigating the complex intricacies of life in the lab. These articles aren’t for the superhuman Nature-publishing, Nobel Prize-winning MD/PhDs out there, but rather for the rest of us: the Average Joes simply trying to get our feet wet in research. Join us as we journey through this complex world of academic adventures, from picking a project to matching into your dream residency and everything in between.
Poster presentations are to medical school as book reports are to grade school. They are ubiquitous, yet nobody really knows how to do one well. At first they can be intimidating and mysterious; eventually they might become mundane and boring. No matter where you lie on that spectrum as a student researcher, one thing is certain: like it or not, there’s no avoiding them. You’d be hard-pressed to make it four years of medical school without doing a poster, and those diving into research will no doubt present many more.
The problem with posters is that the how-to manual for them really doesn’t exist. Most of us learn how to make and present posters via informal, opinion-based advice from an early mentor and stick to that formula from then on out. As a result, the habits we develop mirror those of the person who taught us. For better or worse, these habits can stick around for an entire career and then one day permeate the advice we eventually give out. Thus, the cycle continues.
This article will serve as a primer to the topic of research posters, giving newer presenters a solid foundation while pointing out often-overlooked details to the grizzled veterans. These tried and true tips, used in combination with the subjective guidance of your mentors and peers, will give you a leg up so that you can snag one of those coveted “Best Poster” awards at your next conference.
The 5 W’s of Poster Presentations
Posters are everywhere in medical school and science in general, but why is that? Have you ever stopped to ask why our preferred method of disseminating research findings is essentially a PowerPoint slide blown up to 36×48 inches? Before diving into how to make and deliver a poster presentation, let’s start with the who, what, where, why, when.
Who makes posters? Practically everybody in academia! As the most accessible form of research presentation, students make up the largest proportion, but you will still see plenty of residents and scientists at all stages of their careers manning the tack boards at any conference you visit.
What exactly is a poster? Essentially, a poster tells the story of a research finding or project in a visual, easily-digestible format. The traditional poster has the same sections as an abstract, such as background, methods, results, and conclusions. However, a poster can represent any type of project at any stage of completion, so you will see these components change from poster to poster and depending on the type of conference you’re at. For example, a poster reporting typical basic science findings will look a lot different than one proposing an innovate new idea in medical education.
Where are posters presented? At nearly all conferences, a poster session is included to help attendees share their ideas and findings. The three major levels of conference are local, regional, and national. Your medical school’s annual student research day would be considered a local conference, while regional meetings are often put on by state chapters of national societies. The annual meeting of those large societies, such as the AMA, would be considered a national meeting. As you go up the hierarchy, the poster sessions get more competitive and thus carry more weight when you add them to your CV.
Why present a poster? This question will vary by the presenter’s level of training. For a student, posters start as a way to show research productivity on a CV and to practice key skills such as public speaking and scientific discourse. With experience, the focus may shift to soliciting critical feedback on a project in hopes of improving it or brainstorming new hypotheses. Once out of training, poster presentations become less frequent but might be most useful for networking with others in the field to spark a new collaborative project. Despite their simplicity, posters remain valuable no matter how far along you are in your training.
When is a poster presented? This will also vary, as it depends on what you hope to get out of it. Students will often be expected to do a poster at the end of a research experience, but there is no need to limit yourself to just this bookend role. If an exciting conference is coming up that you want to attend, consider submitting a poster as well. The opportunity to present will help you network and make the conference that much more productive. Hit a snag in your current work? Make a poster to get feedback and advice from those who stop by to view it. No matter what stage your research project is in, a poster can be a great opportunity to strengthen your science.
Preparing Your Poster
The actual process of making a poster can be anything from pleasant to mind-numbing depending on how much you enjoy the creative process and how skilled you are with PowerPoint. Scientists as a whole tend to prefer data to design, so most likely fall into the latter category. Still, if you want to knock it out of the park with a poster, it must be equally strong in both its science and its appearance. The sleekest poster doesn’t stand a chance if its contents are garbage, while the most impressive research project will simply be overlooked if it doesn’t catch the viewer’s eye.
Assuming your science is strong, design should be on your mind from the start, as it can make or break your poster’s performance at the conference. We’ll hit a few crucial tips below, but for a much more thorough walkthrough of nearly every detail involved in poster creation check out this guide from Dr. Colin Purrington’s blog. Full disclosure: I have no idea who he is. However, his guide is the best and most comprehensive one I’ve found online and took my own posters from meh to mesmerizing practically overnight.
When designing a poster, simple is better. Stick to one main color—two at maximum, just make sure they don’t clash—and leave plenty of white space instead of trying to fill up every inch. Big fonts and big images are a must, and try to minimize text. This isn’t the time to write a dissertation on your project, just stick to the absolute basics a person should know if they walked by and read it. The finer details can all be explained orally when you present it. Many people overlook this step, but once the poster is complete zoom in and make sure all the boxes, headings, and figures are nicely aligned with each other. It seems trivial, but attention to detail on your poster will convey to the viewer that you also have attention to detail in your research.
Most importantly, make sure you lay out the poster’s components in a way that flows naturally. Most people like to have the exposition at left, such as background and methods, with the results occupying the most important real estate at the center of the poster. Finally, the conclusions and future directions follow at stage right. Space should be dedicated in order of importance, with results taking up the majority of the poster while things like references and acknowledgements should be minimized (if included at all). Finally, once the poster is complete be sure to do a test print on regular paper to look for errors. Nothing feels worse than tacking up your poster at a conference only to feel all your hard work slipping away thanks to an overlooked typo or a graph that just didn’t print right.
The next time you make a poster, take an hour to just tweak the layout of a blank template before you add all your data into it. Coming up with a custom format like this will pay off in dividends, saving you time on future posters and ensuring they all follow a consistent, logical organization. Naturally, you will have to make adjustments on a project-by-project basis, but sticking to one solid template as a starting point is worlds better than beginning from scratch each time.
Pulling Off the Presentation
Once your poster is perfected and printed, it’s up to you to show everyone at the conference just how great your research really is. It’s easy to feel like your work is done as soon as the poster prints, but don’t let your guard down just yet! Flopping the presentation is all it takes for your hard work to go to waste. When it comes down to it, people will stop by your poster because it looks interesting but they would much rather hear you talk than stand there silently reading it. Design draws the crowds but an engaging speaker is what keeps them from wandering away.
The most important aspect of presenting a poster is having a short “elevator speech” lined up that you can rattle off at a moment’s notice. You only have a few seconds to catch a person’s interest, so start off with an attention-grabbing fact or question before diving into a chronological tour of the highlights of your poster from start to finish. The goal is to get the viewer to care about your poster right away, forcing them to stick around to hear what your final conclusions were. Have this speech prepared ahead of time and practice it before the conference. This will help you to work out the best way to succinctly present your content instead of blindly improvising and getting caught talking in circles on presentation day.
Once you run through things, expect difficult questions from your audience. This is especially true with judges, as your ability to field a question is often a major criterion of your score. Fear not though, as knowing the answer is often much less important than how you respond. Listen intently during the question, use tricks like restating to buy thinking time, and if you don’t have an answer prepared try to speculate based on what you do know. Don’t lie or make something up, but instead think aloud as you talk through the question. If all else fails, fall back on noting how great the question is and discussing how you might study that hypothesis in future experiments.
Lastly, remember that a poster is just as much about receiving as it is about sharing. Make sure you receive value from your presentation in the form of feedback, advice, and networking. Instead of standing quietly at your poster, smile to those who walk by and speak up to any whose eyes dart to your work or who stop even momentarily. Instead of offering to answer any questions and standing silent as they read, ask what field they work in and offer to jump into your elevator speech. Before they leave, ask for feedback on your work or your presenting skills and consider exchanging contact information if they might want to collaborate in the future.
Love them or hate them, posters are the gateway drug of presenting research in medical school. Take any chance you have to do one, as the work it requires is far outweighed by the skills and experiences accrued in the process. Before you know it, you’ll be cranking out posters in mere hours and delivering riveting presentations without breaking a sweat. With enough practice on the small stage, you’ll be in great shape to wow the audience when the time comes to give a high-profile podium presentation. Above all else, enjoy the process and have fun! Posters are a unique tradition, and skipping lecture to fly off to a conference with one is an excellent opportunity to recharge your batteries and mix up the mundane routine that medical school often becomes.
About the Author
Trevor C. Hunt is a rising fourth-year medical student and a member of his school’s Research Distinction Track, currently completing a one-year research fellowship. He authors the SDN column “Research for the Rest of Us”, using his experience to help others navigate the precarious pitfalls of life in the lab. He enjoys reading and art, and when not in the hospital or conducting experiments can often be found on a golf course or a ski slope. Find him on Twitter: @TrevorHunt_ECU