I gave a presentation on my PhD research at university last week, and it was criticised for lacking practical significance. A different comment suggested the presentation was not placed in context. Could somebody provide some advice on how to place research in context and convey its practical significance? How can I effectively assess who/what/where/when will see the benefits of my research?
Ask yourself a number of questions:
- Why am I doing the research?
- What problem am I solving?
- Why should anyone else by interested in this research?
- How can my results help solve someone else's problem?
The first two questions will help you understand what you are doing from your own personal perspective, as well as establishing the context of the work. The latter two will help you establish why someone else would be interested in your work.
In short, ask What? and So what? about your work.
Definitely, your advisor is the person who should help you most with this question, so make sure you talk to her.
With this disclaimer, I would like to distinguish two things: the good and the bad way to justify the significance of your research. To be clear, good and bad are personal (but motivated) judgments and are not related with what will please people asking you that question, but with what is sane argument.
Let's start with the bad way:
this is the most important thing and most others are specialization of it: giving false but vaguely plausible reasons to study what you studied, hopping to reach other's expectations,
claiming applications that are often claimed in the area, or vaguely related but at best very long term applications (e.g. "my study of cell migration is crucial for understanding metastases, so it will help cure Cancer"; this works with any fondamental research in cell biology),
name-dropping (e.g. "Nobel Prize Trucmuche has studied this 20 years ago, so surely that must be interesting"),
generalization for the sake of generalization -applies maybe mostly to maths, but applies a lot there- (e.g. "Finsler geometry is a generalization of Riemannian geometry, so surely it is interesting").
lacking any clue (e.g. "My advisor told me to do it, so I did"). If you don't know why you are doing what you do, at some point you should find out or change subject.
Note that 1. is very, very often seen in grant application, and it might be impossible in some cases to apply successfully without resorting to this kind of argument. This does not make it a good argument; we should be as thorough in assessing the relevance of our research than we are in assessing our research result.
Now the good way:
this is the most important thing and all others are specialization of it: explaining the reasons why you where interested in the project, why you find it fascinating or interesting,
giving perspective applications that sincerely did motivate your work, either from start or that you realized during the research process. This may not exist, which is not (rather, should not be) an issue, at least in fondamental research,
placing your research in context: how it relates to what has been done before, to which previously raised question it answers, which previously held beliefs it contradicts,
explaining how it generalizes previous work to meaningful, existing examples (e.g. "My theorem on Finsler geometry explains such and such features of Hilbert geometry"),
explain the perspectives opened by your work (e.g. "if we believe this principle applies even more generally, then we can hope to use my methods to understand such and such important phenomenons"),
explain why it is fun (e.g. "look at this dancing corn starch: weird, huh?")
Without knowing your actual field of research, here are some general pointers (by no means, is this an exhaustive list):
Research and find other papers based on or is similar to your work, this will give a bit of a basis for the practical context.
From reading of papers, try and define a gap where your research may help with.
Ask your supervisor/advisor for advice in this, employ their help in defining the context.