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I am a PhD student in Physics, and was invited to give a talk about the theoretical side/perspectives of an observable at a conference for (mostly) experimental researchers. I have worked a bit on this topic and have a relatively good understanding, but I'm certainly no expert, and therefore need to present works and results from other people (both other theorists and past experiments).

As this is the first time I have to give an “overview” talk, I'm a little unsure on how to prepare it. My specific questions are:

  1. How do I select a handful of relevant results/points to include?
    • I have 30 (+15) minutes, which is not enough to cover every single thing that has been done, and also I don't want to overcram the talk.
    • Probably some audience members have worked on this (I don't know the participants), and it would probably be bad academically (and for my career?) if I don't even mention their work.
    • Naturally, I will include one result from myself.
  2. Some of the results from other people are not great and criticized amongst a portion of the community. Should I bring this up? And how can I be as objective as possible since I haven't been on the field for that long?
  3. Does it make sense to structure the talk from a historical perspective? That is, starting from the first insights with toy models and building up to the state-of-the-art and then future perspectives with new experiments?
  4. Is it appropriate to make it clear in the beginning that I am not an expert on the subject? This feels correct/safe to me but I wonder if this would turn off the audience.

I have given talks before and am for the most part confident on my delivery, but I always spoke about my own current work, never about other researcher's. Also, being a young scientist I can't help but feel insecure.

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    For clarification — have you completed a doctoral degree (“have a PhD”), or are you working towards a doctoral degree (“am a PhD student”)?
    – RLH
    Nov 23, 2023 at 19:30
  • a PhD student :) Edited to clarify. Nov 23, 2023 at 20:29

2 Answers 2

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I feel like there are two rough outlines to a compelling talk like this:

Outline 1 is sort of historical, following a path of results that lead to some discovery/accepted result/model of the world. Science is rarely so clean but if you start from the end and work your way backwards you can tell a neat story. The end result could be big or it could be a relatively modest realization in some small focus area.

Outline 2 is to follow a controversy or debate among researchers trying to find support for 2 or more different theories. You don't necessarily need to come down on either "side" and provide an answer but the goal of your talk should be for your audience to be able to think about the alternatives and how they might come to believe one or the other (or neither) is correct.

There is room for criticism in both; you can present such criticism fairly without it being mean spirited. I would not recommend telling your audience you don't know what you're talking about; if you're thinking of that you either need to put more effort into your presentation or find some confidence in yourself. Telling the audience to lower their expectations is the cheap third way out.

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Normally, in my experience, review talks strive to combine historical overview with the state of the art, and fundamental theoretical concepts with references of their experimental implementations. It is perhaps impossible to say in advance what is the optimal for a certain review, moreover, the absolute optimum likely does not exist: different fields would require different structures. One more important thing about giving talks in general, is that a significant share of people do not absorb all the information from the talk, only a fraction of it (different for different people). Thus, the information transfer channel from the talk to different audience members is quite irregular, and any precise recommendations here probably make little sense. On the other hand, there is plenty of general advice regarding making slides and giving talks, and I'd suggest checking a few of them.

Given this, I think, what is important is that you, having a reasonable knowledge of your field including its history and modern development, decide in advance on the backbone structure of your talk. This backbone structure should serve the purpose of prioritizing the key takeaway points and will help you to convey these points during your talk.

The time limit of 30+15 minutes suggests that there is going to be quite some time for discussion. This in turn gives you an opportunity to prepare some appendix slides that can be shown during the discussion for clarifications. I think the general rule is approximately one slide per minute, however, this surely depends on the density of information on the slides. Thirty slides are likely insufficient to squeeze an entire field, so the prioritization of the key points is really important.

A strategy for covering a subfield, where few groups are conducting experiments to solve a certain problem, can be to have two slides for this subfield. The first one would conceptually explain the problem from the theory point of view with references to the works of all the groups, and the second one can illustrate that with an experiment of one or two of these groups. Other groups with other experiments can have slides in an appendix, you can bring them up during the discussion, or just mention them during the main talk. It is going to be clear from the context that you attempt to give broad coverage and hence cannot cover all the experiments in detail, so having only a reference would be fine.

If there are results viewed as controversial in the community, a good solution is perhaps to remain neutral. The exact optimal way to reference these results really depends on a multitude of factors. These include the importance of the problem that these results attempt to solve, the supporting data, etc. This is really a decision up to you, but I'd suggest asking other people from your field, starting with your supervisor.

Regarding the final point, it is a standard practice to introduce yourself in a way that makes your experience clear. You can perhaps say something along the lines "I am a PhD student from group XX, am a theorist and I started working on YY in the year ZZZZ." Certainly, no one should say "I'm not an expert", such a statement is subjective and not scientific :).

As a final remark, I believe that the very fact that you are aware of these questions and ask about them is a good indication that you are capable of providing a thorough review. Good luck!

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