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I'm giving a presentation at an undergraduate conference. There are awards given for the best talks. The focus of each talk is what the student has been working on for their research project.

What, in general, do the conference judges look for when they evaluate a talk? Is it the general quality of the presentation? The significance of the results? The way the presenter answers questions from the audience?

For context, it is a physics conference and the talks are short (10 min). In the past, the judges have been graduate students or physics professors at different universities.

  • Please clarify: Is the talk grade the only judgement passed related to the students' research projects (and as such, will probably include judgement of the research project itself)? Or will the contents of the research project be graded separately (in which case it is conceivable the grade for the talk intentionally does not consider the contents of the project, and just look at how well whatever was done in the project is being presented)? – O. R. Mapper Jan 22 '16 at 22:21
  • Typically the organizers provide judges with a form that lists they criteria. The form may be written by undergraduates or it may be created by an office of undergraduate research. – Anonymous Physicist Jan 23 '16 at 0:03
  • @O.R.Mapper The talk grade will be the only judgement passed on the research project; that is the only content that the judges will see. There is no other venue to present the work to the judges via posters, theses, etc. – Wise Owl Jan 29 '16 at 0:17
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I apologize for the length of my reply, but I think this is a really great question that I discuss with undergraduates and even grad students all the time, and want to use this as an opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you.

I completely agree with the points that Fábio Dias made in his answer. However, I want to add one general tip with you that I have found to be extremely effective in my experience both presenting talks and posters as well as judging them.

The way I see it, when undergraduate talks/posters are judged, there may or may not be certain specific criteria against which you will be evaluated, but there are certain important subtleties in how you conduct yourself when talking about your work that will almost always affect your evaluation whether there is specific criteria or not. Let me clarify:

As Fábio Dias mentioned, there are many important technical factors that are commonly taken into account when judging presentations, but aside from this, I believe that one of the most powerful tools to get great scores on research talks is to demonstrate some passion and interest into the work you are presenting.

This is typically the biggest problem with undergraduate presentations. Undergraduates are often not very well-versed in the big picture of their research project and therefore end up simply presenting what they did and what data came of it and what they think it means (or what their advisor told them it means). There is rarely any visible interest in the work, or evidence of creative thought on the part of the student, and this is the biggest factor that separates a great undergrad talk from all other undergrad talks.

No matter how dull your research talk may or may not be to you, when you stand up there in front of all those people, make sure to talk and act like you're the most excited person in the room about the work that you have done. This gets people's attention, in my opinion, above all else. Some great ways of doing this are:

  • Never, ever, ever, ever, ever read from your slides, especially your title. Always come up with a great "prose" way to describe your whole project and then your data.
  • Try to look at your slides as little as possible, unless you're pointing out something on a figure. Look at the audience, glance around the room. In a scientific forum setting, simple presentation skills often directly translate into command of the material being presented.
  • A great way to prevent yourself from doing the above is to not have many words on your slides, this keeps people interested and keeps you from reading to the audience. Many undergrads believe that their research cannot be presented without many words on the slides, but there is almost always a creative way to do this.
  • Question yourself, and question your research. This does not mean you should tell the audience that your conclusions are not accurate, but rather avoid being too rigid in how you describe your conclusions. Avoid words phrases like 'definitely,' 'clearly,' 'this means that,' 'we discovered,' or any version of the word prove/proof/proved, unless used as a technical term such as 'mathematical proof.'
  • Always talk about your work in terms of what it could mean for the future, For example, talk about some interesting data that you couldn't yet explain; offer several possible ways to frame your conclusions; try to add a few "next steps" to your presentation (and not as a list on the last slide, but work it in in a few places as you talk about your work).
  • If you anticipate a question or questions from the audience that you will probably not know how to answer, bring it out in the open as part of your presentation, and say that you are still working to understand that particular part of your project.

Some of these things may seem trivial or obvious, but these are probably the most common "mistakes" undergraduate students typically make when giving oral presentations. I say "mistakes" lightly because it is obvious that sometimes the student simply does not get the proper guidance from their advisers, either about their project, or about how to present the work properly, or both. In these cases, of course, acting like you truly love your project may not be possible because it may not be true.

But either way, what it boils down to usually, coming back to something Fábio Dias said above, is that at the undergraduate level, the expectation is less on whether the results are impressive, but rather whether you can demonstrate that you are a good researcher, and that you have done the most with the results that you have.

Good Luck!

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    Good advice. I want to add a few things: I always place the laptop so I can see the screen from where I am lecturing. This way, I can know what is shown on the screen behind me without needing to turn my head constantly. Another tip is to have the full presentation memorised, and told inside your head repeatedly, to avoid forgetting something and giving you extra confidence. Lastly, don't dance on the spot: keep your feet nailed to the ground unless you are walking to another spot of the stage. – Davidmh Jan 25 '16 at 11:28
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yes! :)

When I'm involved in such things, I usually take all into consideration, when applicable. If the prize is decided before the presentations, you can't judge the presentation.

Specifically for undergrads, I tend to focus on how the research was conducted rather than on the results obtained. I don't usually expect groundbreaking originality from undergrad research, but I do want to the "proper path" being taken. That means:

  • a proper bibliographical revision, where you correctly put your contribution among the literature;
  • a well developed methodology, where you explain and justify all the choices made during the project;
  • a decent analysis of the results, focusing not only on the results but considering also the behavior/interpretation of what was done (undergrad students love to say high probability numbers without the proper analysis)
  • A deep discussion of the contribution, including the pre-requisites for it to work, how, why and when it fails. This last part is usually omitted even by more experienced researchers, deemed 'not sexy'.

In short: I want to see that the undergrad now knows how to do research properly...

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