Tips on presenting your thesis proposal.

Lesson Learned From Proposing My Thesis: Presenting

You’ve got your committee and you’ve scheduled a date. You’ve got your document written. Now, you need to present and defend your thesis proposal. In many ways, the presentation is the most frightening part of the process. Your committee will ask tough questions now so that they don’t have to at your defense. Those tough questions could well result in your spontaneous combustion from embarrassment, or your rambling through a poorly thought-out answer in front of a crowd of your peers and then spontaneously combusting from embarrassment. The prospect of that is scary. I get it.

Look, I can’t promise you that you won’t spontaneously combust from embarrassment. But, to cap off this series on the lessons I learned in proposing my thesis, here’s a few tips that might help you see your presentation through safely.

Create a narrative framework early

In my field, the proposal is typically around 45 minutes. Yours may be longer or shorter, but it will probably one of the longer presentations you’ve ever had to give.

It’s really easy to get lost in long presentations — both as a presenter and as a listener. For presentations like these, I think it helps to provide a clear narrative framework for the talk as early as you can.

I don’t just mean outlines (though those are important, too). It helps to summarize your whole talk in the first ~3 minutes. The summary can omit details, but should contain the logical flow of what you’ve done and what you’ll do because of what you’ve done. “Spoiling” the ending will give your listeners a destination to latch onto as they get dragged along 40+ minutes of dense material.

Breadcrumbs also help. If you don’t know, breadcrumbs are those little navigation elements on websites that show you where you are relative to the website’s overall navigation hierarchy (e.g., Home >> Profile >> Security >> Passwords). I like to put breadcrumbs on the bottom of all of my slides so that people can always tell where they are in the overall structure of the talk. That way they can also look at previous section titles and remind themselves of the material that’s already been covered.

Use your big picture diagram as an outline

Okay, yeah, you should still have an outline. Outlines are mostly useful for transitions. If summarizing the talk gives people a “destination”, the outline will show them the interim stops along the way.

Luckily, if you followed my advice on writing the document, you probably already have an outline for your talk: it’s the big picture diagram of your entire thesis that you may have constructed through affinity diagramming.

This big picture diagram is the outline for your written document, so why not use it as a outline for your talk? It will divide your presentation into discrete sections that are simple to talk about in isolation and will provide you with a natural, understandable transition between background work and proposed work.

Reserve detail for the proposed work

Your prior work should not be on trial in your presentation — only your proposed work [1]. Accordingly, don’t feel like you need to explain every detail of your prior work. You don’t need to cover all of your bases, here, you just need to provide enough material for people to understand the insights gained from that work.

So, for each project that serves as “background” for your proposed work, all you have to do is motivate the questions you were trying to answer and then summarize the key results. Those key results should be the basis vectors for your proposed work, so make sure you are convincing in describing them.

You will, of course, have to be more detailed for your proposed work. A good rule of thumb is to dedicate at least 1/3rd of the presentation to the actual proposed work — maybe even 1/2 if your prior work can be covered especially quickly. This is the part of your presentation that should attract the most scrutiny as you haven’t yet done the work and can only guess at its significance. A systematic destruction (ahem, deconstruction) of this section is to be expected — your committee will want to really make sure you’ve thought it through.

Test out A/V 30 minutes early

This should be obvious, but if your proposal is scheduled to start at 1:30pm and end at 3:00pm, schedule your room for 1pm to 3:30pm. You’ll need the buffer time to get everything prepared and removed.

The last thing you want is to have A/V problems. I had some. I had two committee members join my proposal remotely. In the middle of my presentation, one of my committee members was disconnected because the secondary laptop I brought in to run the video conferencing app lost its connection to the room WiFi.

I ended up just adding him to the Google Hangout that I was running off my main machine and sharing my presentation screen with him, so he couldn’t see my face but could see the slides and hear my voice. But, I did have to repeat about 5-6 minutes of my presentation in front of a large audience of people actually in the room. That was embarrassing.

Anyway, the point is: have some prep time and have back up plans in case of A/V issues. If the projector in the room doesn’t work, then, yeah, that’s out of your control. But, for basically any other A/V problem, you should have a viable backup plan.

Lean in to questions

It’s natural to be wary of questions. The questions asked at your proposal will probably be some of the toughest you will ever have to endure, at least as a graduate student.

But, these questions are tough for a reason: your committee probably wants you to graduate as is trying to right any wrong that they can find while there is still time to fix it.

There’s another reason questions will be tough: you’re transitioning from a fledgling Researcher who needs her hand held to an autonomous adult Researcher who don’t take nothing from nobody. Audiences will start being more dickish to you [2]. Mistakes will seem like a bigger deal because you’re supposed to know better, or something. It sucks but it’s something you just have to deal with.

But, anyway, whatever. None of that matters. Don’t get defensive. Take a deep breath, calm yourself, and lean in to questions instead of cowering away from them. As I’ve mentioned before, you want people to either love or hate your work — ambivalence is the worst outcome. People who love your work are probably not going to ask you any questions in public, and people who are ambivalent are probably not going to bother asking any questions at all. That leaves (1) people who like your work, but need some clarifications or have some suggestions, and (2) people who hate your work.

The former group will probably ask questions that are constructive and interesting to ponder. You should view answering these questions as opportunities to move people from “like” to “love”. The latter are people who will ask questions that are intentionally difficult to answer. That’s totally fine. You’ve clearly struck a chord and something about your work that has resonated with them. Now, listen to them and understand why they hate your work. These questions, while annoying in the moment, should offer you some important insight into how to better adjust and position your work so that its greatest naysayers are kept in check [3].

Concluding Remarks

Really, the best advice I can give you on the presentation is to practice with many different audiences. Academics are great at finding holes in arguments, and the more people who expose your work to, in practice, the more attack vectors you will be prepared to defend against in actuality.

Anyway, that concludes this series on lessons I learned from proposing my thesis. If you love it, great — I hope the tips help you to the other side. If you hate it, great — comment or tweet at me what you dislike. If you didn’t care for it, please also comment or tweet at me what you’d rather hear about. Till next time!


[1] Unless your prior work is not published, in which case maybe the unvalidated assumptions that you have drawn from your prior work can be questioned.

[2] As if they weren’t dick enough already.

[3] For example, in my thesis proposal about using social cues to make people more aware of, motivated to use, and knowledgable on how to use security tools, I got a question about what’s stopping me from using my technology to manipulate people into running into a burning building. The question, in its phrasing, was ridiculous. But the true concern was about why am I qualified to make decisions about and influence of what people should be aware, motivated and knowledgable. That’s a legitimate concern, and it is something that I am now more thoughtful about in my work.


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