Communicating Science

This is perhaps one of the most important skills you will need if you want to be a successful scientist in today’s global technological marketplace. There is nothing more important than being able to communicate your science well both orally and in writing.

Virtually every aspect of a research project is dependent on one’s ability to communicate clearly and persuasively – from securing funding to support the project, researching the subject, working with others inside and outside one’s field of expertise to carry out the experiments, and communicating project findings to colleagues, project supervisors, and the public at large.

Topics on Communicating Science

Common Forms

Communications skills are perhaps one of the most important classes of skills you will need if you want to be a successful scientist in today’s global technological marketplace. There is nothing more important than being able to communicate your science well both orally and in writing.

Virtually every aspect of a research project is dependent on one’s ability to communicate clearly and persuasively – from securing funding to support the project, researching the subject, working with others inside and outside one’s field of expertise to carry out the experiments, and communicating project findings to colleagues, project supervisors, and the public at large. In this section you will find practical advice on some of the most common forms of communication scientists use.

Articles on Common Forms

Preparing a Poster Presentation

Although viewed by some in the scientific community as inferior to other forms of communication in the greater science and engineering community, the poster is an extremely powerful form of communication at professional conferences. Advantages of poster presentations over oral presentations include the length of the time allotted for discussion of posters at professional meetings. Most oral presentations unless they are invited plenary presentations are limited to about 15-minutes. Poster sessions on the other hand often allow for 2 h or more of discussion with interested visitors. In addition, at most meetings multiple oral sessions are scheduled to run simultaneously in small rooms allowing for a very limited audience. Poster sessions often take place in large rooms and accommodate hundreds of presenters. Consequently, there is greater potential exposure of your work to the greater scientific community in poster presentations.

In this section we will offer advice concerning the following aspects of poster preparation:


Sometimes people have the mistaken impression that putting together a poster involves less work than putting together an oral presentation. Both involve a lot of advance planning and neither can be done well when the effort is initiated at the last minute. As you begin to prepare your poster, there are two key elements to consider: content and layout. So, start your poster preparation early!

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Sometimes people worry too much about the appearance of their poster and forget that at the heart, a poster is simply a visual presentation of one’s scientific research. The bottom line is if you don’t have good science forget the presentation. At this stage of your career, the encouragement and support you have already no doubt received from your advisor should assure you that you have some interesting new science to present. Consequently your focus should be on making sure that the information presented on the board reflects the quality of your work.

Although the size of a poster may vary somewhat in general poster boards tend to be 4′ high by 6′ long. Since there is variation in poster dimensions, be sure to find out in advance what the dimensions of your poster board will be as this will determine what/how much information you can put on your poster. Last but not least, now that you know how much space you have, be sure to use it wisely!

The title of your presentation, the names of all the authors and their institutional affiliations should appear at the top center of your poster. So that interested attendees can quickly identify the subject of your poster, be sure to use a font size that produces lettering at least 1.5″ high.

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Most science and engineering posters use the same general format: title, authors and institutional affiliations, abstract, introduction, methods, results, conclusions, acknowledgements and references. We will discuss the needed content for each of these sections briefly below:

  • Title – the title should effectively highlight the subject of your research in ten words or less
  • Authors and institutional affiliations – a list of the names of all those who have contributed to the project in a significant way. Be sure to consult your advisor on this subject. Authorship has serious implications with regard to intellectual property issues. For each author be sure that the department and institution where they work is identified.
  • Abstract – this is a succinct summary, usually 150 words or less, that identifies the research problem studied, the methods used, the results obtained, and the significance of those results.
  • Introduction – this section should provide a brief overview of the reasons that the research was initiated and provide a background on the materials and methods used in the study.
  • Methods – the experimental methods used to accomplish the research should be succinctly outlined in this section.
  • Results – this section should outline the results of your work. Since posters are a visual method of presentation, the bulk of this section should be graphical rather than textual.
  • Conclusions – this section should provide a succinct summary of the conclusions you have derived from your work as well as a statement of the direction of any future work if relevant and appropriate.
  • Acknowledgements – This section should credit all of those individuals who have provided assistance to you in accomplishing your work. First and foremost be sure to credit any funding sources that may have underwritten your research. This is particularly important if a federal agency or foundation provided funding for your project. As always it is best to check with your advisor in order to identify all of the appropriate individuals and/or agencies.
  • References – Since research isn’t accomplished in a vacuum, you will need to credit the relevant work of others in one or more sections of your poster. As in a technical paper, you will need to include a citation for each and every source. Since the format for references differs from discipline to discipline, be sure to consult your advisor concerning the preferred format for citations.

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There are at least two frequently used approaches to poster layout: poster print and individual panels.

  • Some Thoughts about Poster PrintsSome individuals use a single large poster printout while others post a series of 8.5″ x 11″ panels. The former must be printed using a special printer which may or may not be available at your institution. Posters of this type can be printed at local copy shops but they are therefore often more expensive to prepare. In addition, these can be a bit challenging to transport, an important consideration if you must travel by air to the meeting. You can purchase protective plastic tubes in which poster prints can be stored and transported. If you do choose to use this approach be sure to take your poster with you on the airplane if you are flying to/from the conference you are attending.
  • Some Thoughts about Poster PanelsPanels can be readily printed on any personal color ink jet or laser jet printer. Consequently these are inexpensive to prepare and they present a number of other useful advantages as well: individual panels can be changed and reprinted at the last minute. In addition, this type of poster can be transported in your backpack or personal carry-on bag – ensuring that it can be hand-carried onto your aircraft and that it therefore is never separated from you during your trip. The one disadvantage of this type of poster is that it requires more effort to post it at the meeting so be sure to allow adequate time for setup if you do choose to use this type of poster.

Layout your information in a logical pattern on your poster so that visitors can readily follow your presentation. Note that there is a normal viewing pattern for posters. Think about the dynamics in a poster session. Often these events occur late at night and are accompanied by festal libations. Viewers holding their plastic cups circulate up and down rows of posters walking past them at a slow rate and reading while they walk. So, it is best to arrange your poster so that viewers read the information in columns intended to be read from left to right. You may choose to post blocks of information read in rows going from left to right but this is difficult on potentially interested viewers who must pause and shuffle back and forth like linebackers in order to read your poster. If you must insist on being an individualist in this respect, it is a good idea to unobtrusively number the individual panels of your poster so that viewers know which panel to read next.

Make sure that your poster is visually attractive and readable from a distance of 3 feet away – this includes lettering and captions on any figures and/or tables. Select a font size that produces lettering at least 0.5″ high.

“A picture’s worth a thousand words.” Since a poster is a visual presentation of one’s work, graphics rather than text should constitute the bulk of your poster. Use a minimal amount of text containing short, easy to read sentences.

KISS – Keep it simple stupid! Don’t load your poster with acronyms, excessive text, or complicated figures.

If you choose to mount your text on colored paper or poster boards, use double-sided sticky tape, spray adhesive, or rubber cement to firmly adhere your sheets.

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Delivery – Presenting Your Poster

In advance of the meeting prepare a brief (2-3 min) talk about your research and practice that talk in front of your poster several times. Ask your advisor, your research group and/or friends and family to act as an audience for your poster presentation. Make changes to your poster and/or presentation as needed based on the feedback you receive from these folks.

Identify in advance the location of your poster session and be sure to arrive early (at least 30-min) to put up your poster.

Although some push pins are frequently provided, it is wise to bring your own supply of push pins with you to the meeting especially if your poster consists of a series of individual panels.

Don’t be a wall-flower. Ask people if they would like to hear about your work and then begin speaking.

Plan to stay by your poster throughout the scheduled poster session. Don’t be afraid to check out the other posters presented during your session but try to minimize the amount of time that your poster is unattended. If you do leave, it is a good idea to post a signup list for those visitors who wish to obtain a copy of the poster and/or wish to speak with your and/or your advisor further about your work.

You may see other presenters handing out copies of their poster at the meeting. Don’t hand out any written information to visitors unless you have previously obtained permission from your advisor to do so. Public presentation of your work can become an issue when applying for patents. If visitors express an interest in obtaining a copy of your work, obtain their business card and/or take down their name, address and/or e-mail so that your advisor and you can follow up on this contact after the meeting.
At the end of the poster session, be sure to remove all of your poster materials. Anything left behind will be thrown out.

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Preparing an Oral Talk

In this section we will discuss the key elements in preparing and delivering an effective oral presentation:

Visual Aids


Use a landscape (horizontal) rather than a portrait (vertical) layout when preparing visual aids. Portrait formatted slides when projected have a greater likelihood of either being obscured at the top or the bottom of the slide than do landscape-formatted slides. In addition, the comparatively larger width of the landscape formatted slide allows for better use and display of information.

When creating your presentation aids, use light text on a dark background as this is easy to read and is also easy on the eyes. Avoid using colorful backgrounds with words or complicated patterns or pictures on them. Plain single color backgrounds are the most effective.

Use an appropriate font size on your slides for the room in which you will present. Note that this means you will need to do some homework in advance. minimum type size you should use for any text on a slide is 18 pt.

A mixture of upper and lowercase text is easier to read than text printed in all upper case.

Make good use of graphics when preparing slides. Audience retention is about 20% when a speaker uses words alone but rises to 70% when text is supplemented with graphics. If you do use graphics, avoid the use of tired clip art such as that provided by Microsoft. Graphics should not distract the audience from your content. Use medium quality graphics whenever possible. If you must use animation, use it sparingly and only if it will help the audience understand and appreciate your work better.

When preparing and using graphs and/or tables for a presentation:

  • Always label your axes and include the units
  • Use standard graph and/or table formats. The purpose of graphical aids should be to uncover the data not to obscure it.
  • Avoid the use of insets if at all possible.
  • Tables should be constructed and used only when you are displaying fewer than 10 or fewer numbers.

Present your information in bite-size chunks. A good guideline for slide content is the “6×6” rule. Use no more than six words per line and six lines per slide.

How many slides should you prepare? On average plan to show a new slide every 30 to 45 seconds.

KISS. Keep it simple stupid! Plan to introduce a maximum of one new idea per slide. Provide only enough detail to convey your message.

Title your slides succinctly , specifically, and clearly with the slide’s purpose. For example, a poor title might be “Results.” A more effective title serving both you and your audience’s need for information might be “Spectroscopic Evidence for a Change in Protein Conformation Upon Reduction.” The title reminds you what it is that you want to say and it conveys to the audience the significance of the data shown on the slide.

Proof your visual aids. Typos, misspellings, etc. rob you as a speaker of your authority. After all, why shouldn’t audience question your technical expertise if all of your slides say “Fiziks of Kwantum Dotz”?

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Public Speaking


Identify your audience and speaking environment. What is their education? Interests? Are they generalists or specialists – what does your audience likely already know about your topic. Is this a formal presentation? Is one-way or an interactive style of presentation expected?

KISS – Keep it simple stupid! Prioritize your presentation – what message is it that you want to convey to your audience? Make sure this is the focus of your presentation. Avoid the use of acronyms and technical jargon whenever possible. Acronyms can be very divisive. When your audience isn’t familiar with the terminology and too many acronyms are introduced, they may become lost and therefore hostile.

Follow the “T3” rule: Tell the audience what you are going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you told them. This means you should provide an outline of your talk to your audience, deliver the actual content, and then summarize the key points.

Don’t read your slides. If you find that you are, this means that your slides aren’t correctly designed. The text on the slide should act as a visual prompts for the speaker in terms of the information he/she intends to convey orally.

Practice your talk in advance several times. Practice makes perfect.

Dress appropriately and comfortably. Find out in advance if formal clothing (business attire) is expected and dress appropriately.

Arrive early and make sure that you are comfortable with room layout and the A/V equipment. If you are using technology, be sure to bring backup visual aids such as a set of transparencies with you. If you are using a laptop for your presentation, make sure that it is compatible with the projector. An important consideration is the display resolution of the laptop and of the projector. If you are using a PC computer don’t attempt to switch at the last minute to a Mac or vice versa.

Be enthusiastic. Deliver your speech with animation in your voice. Face the audience. Make eye contact with them. Speak loudly, clearly, and slowly so that everyone in the audience can hear and understand what you are saying.

Take charge. If you feel uncomfortable fielding questions during your presentation, be sure to make your feelings known to the audience upfront and if you are interrupted don’t be afraid to defer the question until the end of your presentation.

Don’t attempt to use humor (or quotations) in your presentation if you aren’t funny. Audiences at scientific talks don’t expect comedic or thespian performances, they do expect good science presented well.

Make judicious use of the laser pointer. If you use one, turn it on and point to the specific text or graphic element you wish to highlight, then turn it off. Try not to swing the laser pointer all over each and every slide and be careful not to point it into the audience.

End your presentation on time. This is particularly important at large scientific conferences where attendees may move from session to session in order to hear a specific speaker at a specific time.

Fielding Questions First , believe it or not, you really can anticipate the questions that most folks will ask in advance and if you take the time to do this and to prepare, then fielding questions becomes “a piece of cake!” To do this think about who your audience is and what their interests are likely to be related to the subject of your talk. Once you have done this write down every question that comes to mind. These are likely to be the questions your audience will ask. Consult your advisor, other members of your research group, friends, etc. Once you have created this list, prepare an answer for every question and practice delivering them until your are confident.

Listen to every question. This is perhaps the most frequent mistake that speakers make. They don’t listen to the question being asked and therefore it makes sense why they have such a tough time answering the question. A good technique to adopt which will help you to listen is to plan to restate the questioner’s question out loud before you answer. This technique is also useful in that it provides the speaker with time to frame an answer and it ensures that the speaker is actually answering the question which was actually asked.

What do you do as a speaker if you didn’t hear the question? Simply ask the questioner to repeat the question. Frequently, the speaker isn’t the only person who couldn’t hear it.

What do you do as a speaker if you didn’t understand the question being asked? State that you aren’t sure you understood the question and ask the questioner to rephrase his/her question.

What do you do as a speaker if you don’t know the answer? Simply state that you don’t know it. No one knows everything.

Treat every questioner respectfully. Compliment a good question. Think about how you answer every question before you actually do answer it. Be careful not to embarrass your questioner if they ask a “dumb” question. Always treat them with dignity and respect even if they don’t deserve it and speak disrespectfully to you. Don’t attack hostile questioners. Do challenge inappropriate questions but don’t get personal.

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Tips on How to Use a Laser Pointer


A laser pointer is most effective when it is used intermittently in a presentation as a visual aid to highlight key points or to assist the audience in visually identifying specific content on a table, graph, or figure of a slide. The laser pointer loses its value when speakers use it constantly. Depress the button and simply point the beam at the text or visual element you wish to highlight. Do not wave the laser pointer around in circles. Also, constant activation of the laser pointer will betray a nervous speaker. If you are nervous, hold the laser pointer with both hands when you activate it. Finally, intermittent activation will also conserve the batteries so the laser pointer will work when you need it.

Practical Suggestions

  • If you are using your own laser pointer during the presentation, it is a wise idea to carry a spare battery in case your pointer fails during your presentation.
  • When gesturing, be careful not to wave an activated laser point at your audience.

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Business Memos

The business memo is a standard form of written communication in academics, government, and industry. The memo is a formal method of written communication with a well established format and style. An introduction to the standards for format and style is provided below.

Memo Format


Memos generally begin with a header section that identifies the purpose of the correspondence, to whom the memo has been sent, when it was written, and who wrote it. The heading is generally formatted as follows:

To: Name and Title of recipient From: Name and Title of memo’s author cc: Names and positions of any other recipients of the memo Date: Month weekday and year Re: Brief statement (10 words or less) summarizing subject of memo

Body of Business Memo

A well written memo begins with a clear and succinct purpose statement. The purpose statement usually begins with words such as “I am writing to inform you…” or “The purpose of this memo is to summarize…” Usually the author of the memo is writing not merely to inform but in order to make a formal request of some kind. Consequently, the nature of the request is also usually stated at the beginning of the memo as well. If the purpose of the memo is to provide a progress report on a project, the author is likely soliciting formal feedback from the supervisor concerning the advisor’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the progress made to date. So, a typical purpose statement for this memo might be: “I am writing to summarize my progress on Project XYZ to date and to request your feedback concerning my performance on this project.”

Once the purpose of the memo has been established the remainder of the memo should be a succinct summary of the facts relevant to the purpose of the memo. A good way to begin is by providing the reader with any necessary background information including dates if these are relevant, summarize the current work or situation and its significance, summarize the problems, if any, and finally outline the request (if relevant). If your memo is one in a series of memos, it is a good idea to indicate this and to briefly summarize any relevant information the reader may need to recall from those earlier memos.

If the purpose of the memo is to summarize one’s progress on a project then a good organizational strategy would be to begin with an overview of the project, its goals and objectives, summarize the work done to date, discuss any problems that might have occurred as well as any solutions or strategies you intend to investigate, and then outline a realistic schedule for any remaining work on the project.

Closing Paragraph

Memos are generally written as a request for action on the part of the reader. In general, your memo should end with a (re-)statement of your specific request.

If your memo is longer than one page in length:

Use Headings. If you are writing a lengthy memo (> 1 page) summarizing a lot of information then it is a good idea to structure your document using headings. This will make it easier for the reader to understand and follow your discussion.
Use bulleted or numbered lists. Lists are easier to scan than paragraphs. Use bulleted lists if the information is of similar importance. Use numbered lists whenever one point is more important than another point (relative hierarchy).
Use figures or tables. Trends are easiest to visualize when data are represented graphically.

Stylistic Elements

Memos are generally regarded as a formal method of communication. First impressions count here. A well written memo tells the reader not only about your technical skills but also much about your organizational and communications skills.

“More” is not better in a memo – keep it short and to the point. One page is an ideal length.

Succinct, clear prose is valued in a business memo. Use short sentences. Keep your paragraphs short.

Be sure to proof your work for correct grammar, spelling, typos, etc. before submitting your memo.

Be sure that your memo is readable. As a general rule it is a good idea to use a Helvetica, Arial, or Times Roman font and a font size of 10-point or 12-point.

If you are writing a memo that might elicit strong emotions in the reader, be careful not to use ALL CAPITAL LETTERS (reads as if you are shouting) or excessive punctuation!!!! as both of these actions are likely to enhance the likelihood that your reader will react negatively to your statements.

Progress Reports

Progress reports are a frequently used and very useful device for staying on top of a long term project. Progress reports are simply put brief reports summarizing the progress you have made on a project to date including an outline of any problems you may have encountered as well as plans for the next work period. If your advisor doesn’t require you to submit progress reports, you might consider doing this on your own.

They have benefits for all involved:

Benefits for researcher:

  • Written record of accomplishments to date on project;
  • Opportunity to collect and gauge quality and quantity of research accomplishments; and
  • Starting point for first draft of technical paper, thesis chapter, or other written reports

Benefits for supervisor:

  • Useful method of keeping researchers and research teams on-time and on-track;
  • Written record of progress or lack thereof; and
  • Provides supervisor with knowledge of problems and allows supervisor to provide timely feedback and intercession


There really is no standard format for progress reports. However, given that the peer-reviewed technical journal article is generally viewed as a standard medium for written communication in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, if your advisor doesn’t provide you with any specific format requirements, the format for a technical article might be a useful format to adopt in preparing your progress report. Another useful format for progress reports is that of the standard business memo.

Online Technical Writing: Progress Reports.




Before you begin to write any paper, it is a good idea to organize your thoughts by writing an outline. An outline simply a written method of organizing information so that you can determine what you are going to include in your paper, where you are going to include it, and what details you need to communicate about it, in other words outlines help you, the writer, determine the relative importance, order, and details for the different topics you wish to communicate. In terms of format, you can write an outline using key words, phrases, complete sentences and/or any mix thereof that works best for you. The most frequently used outline system uses Roman numerals, e.g., I, II, III, etc. to identify major points. These usually become the topic sentences when you turn the outline into paragraphs. Minor points that provide supporting evidence for the major points are designated using capital letters such as A, B, C, etc. If you need to include details about a minor point then these are identified underneath the relevant minor point by Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.). An example outline showing one approach to an outline for this section is illustrated below:

  1. What is an outline
    1. Method of organizing information
      1. What
      2. Where
      3. Details
  1. II. Format of an outline
    1. Major points
      1. Represented using Roman numerals
      2. Represent major ideas or topic sentences
    2. Minor points
      1. Represented using capital letters
      2. Represent supporting evidence
    3. Details
      • Represented using Arabic numerals
      • Represent details about minor points
  2. Example outline (this outline)

The outline need not be perfect but the more time and thought you put into it the easier you will find it to write your paper. In fact that is the whole point. If you take the time to create a good outline, when you actually sit down to write your paper, you will be able to concentrate on how to say what you want to say effectively, i.e., writing, rather than worrying about content.

First Draft

When you first sit down to work on any writing project, you should first strive to create an outline of the content. Once you have an outline, you should use the outline in order to create a draft of your paper. The idea behind a draft is that it is a good mechanism for getting all of your ideas down on paper. If you feel that you must express everything perfectly, it is generally harder to write. On the other hand, if you know that you will be revising the paper, it is much, much easier to get your ideas down on paper!

In creating a draft, focus on the “big picture.” What is the essential message you want to convey? What are the key points you need to communicate in order to get that message across? As you develop your draft, think about how you can help the reader see the structure of your argument – the key points and the overall message. A good way to do this is to break your paper down into appropriately titled sections that help orient the reader.

As you begin to identify the information you need to include in each section this will help you identify paragraphs. Remember each paragraph in a paper is a series of sentences discussing a theme. The first sentence, the so-called “topic sentence” should identify the theme for that paragraph.


The final and perhaps most important step in writing any form of written communication should be proofreading. When you begin your writing project always allow time at the end to proofread your work. Plan to read your paper through at least twice. Read the paper through once focusing on form and the second time on content. The first time through verify spelling, grammar, and stylistic issues. The second time through ask yourself if your writing will make sense to someone else. If the document is relatively short, reading it aloud can be very helpful in this regard. If not, if you can afford to set the document aside for a day or two and come back to it, you may be able to gain needed perspective to review and revise your paper.

Microsoft Word has several features that can be very useful in proofreading your written work. These include the “spelling and grammar” feature and the thesaurus. The “spelling and grammar” feature will allow you to step through your document and revise for spelling, grammar, and style. To proof stylistic issues you will need to select “grammar and style” on the proofing tab in the “writing style” pull-down menu. This feature is also useful as it can provide you with an indication of the level of readability (“Flesh reading ease” and “Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level”) of your document. A wavy red line underneath a word in your Word document indicates a word that may be misspelled. Unfortunately, the default dictionary for Word does not include many scientific or engineering terms. Consequently, many technical terms may be underlined in your document but may be spelled correctly. You can add words to the dictionary in Word so over time you will find use of the “spelling and grammar” feature increasingly valuable.


In many departments seniors and/or honors students are required to participate in undergraduate research their senior year. The experience usually culminates at the end of the year in the writing and oral defense of a thesis. In this section, we’ll discuss some strategies for making this experience a positive one.

Writing a Thesis

Writing a thesis is a challenging, complex task that will tax your abilities in many ways but this is an invaluable experience that will afford you the opportunity to develop many critical non-technical skills including time management, teamwork, and technical writing.

Writing a thesis isn’t like writing a term paper. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can craft a quality thesis overnight. By the same token, it is also important that you know that you can do this – write a thesis. Just follow the advice offered below and don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help if you need help along the way.

At the start of the project:

A quality thesis begins with a good research problem, quality data, and sound analysis. Hopefully you are reading this at the outset of beginning your research for the thesis. If so, make sure that you identify a research topic that is interesting to you, well defined in scope, and has the potential of affording results in a reasonable time period so you will have ample time to write your thesis.

Make sure that you know at the outset what the thesis requirements are, if any, regarding time, layout, and structure. Establish a workable timeline and make every effort to keep to it.

The background on the research problem/project is often outlined in the first chapter of a thesis. This chapter should be focused and succinct in its coverage and presentation. Your goal should be to provide only the background needed so that the reader can understand the work that will be presented in the remainder of the thesis. Be careful not to try to present everything you know about the research problem, techniques, etc. As the content of this chapter is based on information from the peer-reviewed technical literature, this chapter is something you have largely under your control. Start work on this chapter early.

When you are ready to begin writing:

Create a weekly schedule and keep to it! When setting aside time for writing, make sure that you set aside useful blocks of time during the time of day during which your critical thinking and communication skills are at their peak. Identify a place to write where there is likely to be minimal external extractions and where you can keep needed resources such as reference textbooks, technical papers, etc. At some colleges and universities, thesis students can apply for a study carol in the library while they are writing their thesis.

Begin your writing efforts by devoting time at the start to the preparation of a thoughtful outline of the thesis. You will find it is much easier to write about something when you know what it is that you want to say. First, create a general outline of the thesis by identifying the topic of each chapter. Next, outline the contents of each chapter. Generally, scientists use the format of the technical paper in preparing chapters for theses and dissertations. This means that each chapter should begin with an introduction which is followed by an experimental section, then a presentation of the experimental results and finally their interpretation (discussion). For each section of each chapter, outline the major and minor (supporting) points.

Make sure you know who the members of your thesis committee will be. This is important as they represent the primary audience to whom you should be writing your thesis. What is their area of technical expertise and research interest?

While writing:

Always make a backup copy of the computer files containing your thesis chapters and be sure to make new backup copies frequently. Keep these disks or CDs in a safe location in case you need them.

Writing can be lonely and isolating. Consider joining or forming (if there is none on your campus) a discussion group with other research students who may be writing their theses. These groups can be tremendous resources of moral support as well as practical advice.

When you have completed work on a chapter, submit the draft to your advisor for his/her review. It is important to get regular feedback from your advisor and to do this early on so that you know that both of you are on the same page with regard to the thesis content and your writing style. You may also find it extremely useful to solicit feedback on your drafts from the other individuals who will serve on your thesis committee.

Be sure to allow sufficient time at the end for editing and proofreading your thesis. Use a spelling and grammar checker.

Defending your thesis:

Typically a defense begins with a ten-to-fifteen minute oral presentation by the degree candidate. This brief presentation should provide an overview of the research problem, methods used, the key findings and their significance. The presentation is then followed by a sometimes lengthy question & answer session in which members of the thesis committee ask the candidate questions about his/her presentation and the contents of the written thesis.

If your department requires you to make an oral presentation and defense of your thesis, the best advice is: practice, practice, practice. Ask your advisor and other group members to participate in a mock thesis defense. If you don’t have anyone in your lab to whom you can turn, don’t be afraid to ask other faculty members and/or other research students for their assistance. If you do ask for this kind of help be sure that you listen to and act on any advice given.

As mentioned above, be sure that you know who will serve on your thesis committee. What are the members’ research interests and areas of technical expertise? This will help you to anticipate what kinds of questions they might ask.

Fielding questions is usually the most challenging element of the thesis defense. The goal of this element is to learn how deeply and how broadly the candidate knows his/her research field and research problem. The most important advice is to answer all questions as honestly as possible. Don’t pretend to know something if you really don’t. This is the one way you can really get into serious trouble in a thesis defense. If you don’t know something, don’t be afraid to admit it. Simply say “I don’t know.”

If English is Your Second Language

In some respects science, technology, engineering and mathematics may seem to be extremely unfriendly fields to international students. No slack is cut for international students studying in these fields – students are expected to master both the science and the language at the same time and international students are held to the same high expectations in terms of speaking and writing as are native born students. Consequently, in this section we offer some suggestions for those international student scientists for whom English is a second or even third language.

  • Be patient with yourself. It takes time and effort to learn to do anything well and that includes learning to speak and write in a new language.
  • Practice your spoken and written English at every opportunity. It may be easier and less stressful to communicate with friends from home in your native language but it won’t help you improve your language skills. Whenever possible partner with American students and speak English. You will not only improve your language skills but you will also likely learn valuable information about American language and culture and make new friends.
  • Take all of your written notes in English.
  • Actively solicit feedback from your peers and advisors.
  • If you are giving an oral presentation, practice your talk in advance. Ask your advisor and several of your lab mates to listen to a practice talk. When preparing your presentation, don’t be afraid to write down exactly what you want to say on a set of note cards. However, don’t read these cards verbatim when you give the final presentation.
  • If you are writing, identify native English speaker/writers who can proof your written work for grammar, style and spelling.
  • When you receive feedback don’t just make the changes suggested, try to identify the underlying problems they represent and learn from them.

Getting the Most Out of a Technical Presentation

Technical presentations can be very intimidating as too often speaker presentations are geared for specialists working in the field of research being presented and sometimes simply because the speaker isn’t an effective communicator. In this section, we’ll discuss some guidelines for getting the most out of the many technical presentations you are likely to attend as you begin your research career.

General Organization of the Technical Talk

Believe it or not there is a structure to most technical presentations.

  • Outline A good speaker will begin with an outline of his/her talk. Consider this to be a roadmap for the information that follows. It will help you know what general topics will be discussed and in what order. A really good speaker will even give the audience some idea of how much time he/she will spend on each topic.
  • Introduction Most talks begin with an introduction. In general, the introduction will provide you with background on the scientific problem that will be discussed, the experimental methods, analytical instrumentation, and methods of analysis that have been used previously, and an introduction to any work that the speaker may have done in this area.
  • Results and Discussion The speaker will then likely move to a presentation of the results that he/she has obtained and a discussion of his/her interpretation of those results.
  • Conclusion A good speaker will close their talk by pulling all of the results together and providing a coherent framework for them.
  • Questions and Answers At the end of most talks, the seminar organizers usually leave 5-10 minutes so that the audience can ask the speaker any questions they may have about the talk. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand and ask questions – think of the seminar as being just another class at school. Don’t worry if other students aren’t asking questions. If you have a question, just raise your hand and ask. If you remain unconvinced by my arguments that your questions will be welcomed, consider remaining after the talk and going up to the front of the room and asking the speaker your question then.

Suggestions for Getting the Most Out of a Technical Talk

  • Prepare in advance to attend the talk. Research the speaker and his/her area on-line and look up one or two of his/her papers. This will help you become familiar with the speaker’s background, their field of study, etc. allowing you time to digest the vocabulary of that particular field.
  • Listen actively. Bring a small notebook with you and take notes as you listen. If you have any questions and/or ideas while you are listening to the talk don’t be afraid to jot these down in your notebook. Recording them in your notebook will allow you to keep your attention on the speaker and what he/she is saying rather than on worrying about what it is you don’t want to forget.
  • Sometimes it isn’t your fault that you didn’t understand the talk. The speaker may not have been an effective oral communicator. A good speaker will in advance of his/her presentation try to identify who their audience will be – educational background, interests, etc. and then prepare their talk accordingly. That said, many speakers do not do this. Sometimes the issue is simply that the speaker may be a good scientist but a poor speaker. The bottom line is don’t assume that it must be your “fault” because you didn’t understand the talk. That said, you should never attend a talk with the expectation of simply killing time. Always try to squeeze the most you can out of every experience whether good or bad.


  • Don’t talk with your neighbors once the speaker begins to talk. This includes asking your neighbor what the speaker said if you miss something. The speaker will have no idea what it is you are saying. This is rude and distracting to the speaker and those in the audience who are trying to listen to the talk. It won’t win you any brownie points with either the speaker or the seminar organizers.
  • Don’t bring articles to read or other work to do while the seminar is in progress. This is also inappropriate behavior for a seminar setting. If you aren’t going to listen to the talk then do not go to the seminar in the first place.
  • Unless refreshments have been provided, don’t bring a meal and eat. This is considered to be rude and it can be distracting to both the speaker and the audience (both the rustling of containers and paper and the smell of the food).

Conferences and Meetings

Professional meetings are often organized around research problems or methodologies. As such they provide participants the opportunity to learn and grow as researchers and presenters and to gain visibility in their discipline. Participants come from all levels of academe, industry, and government. Conferences may be small – attended by ten or fewer individuals or they may be large – attended by more than 10,000 people. They may be local, regional, national or international. Meetings vary widely in length. They may be short in duration lasting only a few hours or they may be as long as a week.

Students are welcome at many professional conferences. Some national meetings such as the American Chemical Society National Meetings even have special programming, social events, and presentation opportunities specifically for undergraduate research students. There are also dedicated meetings and conferences specifically for undergraduate student researchers. The most well known and established national conference for undergraduates is the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR).

In this section, we will discuss why you should go to conferences, how to select a conference, how to fund your trip, make your travel arrangement, and we will take a look at some of the various activities that conferences offer and their benefits to you.

Articles on Conferences and Meetings

Activities at Conferences

Opportunities at professional conferences can be broadly categorized as:

Technical Sessions

Technical sessions featuring three or more oral presentations, individual or panel discussions, at professional conferences can be generally broken down in to symposia and contributed sessions. Symposia are technical sessions featuring invited talks. Contributed sessions are technical sessions featuring contributed talks. All technical sessions whether symposia or contributed are usually organized topically around themes related to the overall conference theme.

Invited Symposia

Symposia can be further categorized as award symposia or topical symposia. Award symposia are sessions intended to recognize an individual for either a specific research accomplishment or sometimes a lifetime of professional service. Speakers in award symposia are generally longtime friends and colleagues of the award recipient. Consequently, award symposia are wonderful opportunities to learn about not only the technical contributions but also the personality of respected researchers in a discipline. Topical symposia are generally focused on research problems or methodologies. Sessions may be organized to present a historical perspective or the talks may highlight the most recent developments. Sometimes talks will present a longitudinal perspective on a researcher’s career or on a specific subject. These talks focus less on the technical aspects of the work and more on the “big picture.”

Other Technical Offerings

Many other opportunities exist for learning and professional development at technical conferences. These include workshops and short courses, poster sessions, expositions, and the employment bureau.

Workshops/Short Courses

Often conferences will provide workshops and/or short courses to meeting registrants. Workshops are sessions often free offered by companies to introduce potential users to their products. Short courses are literally that half-day or full-day long courses taught by experts from academe as well as the private sector intended to provide registrants with specific technical knowledge that will allow them to learn new technologies/methodologies and/or while participating in the technical conference. Private industry loves this approach to professional development as it minimizes the time and cost of employee training and improves productivity and job satisfaction.

Poster Sessions

Refer to the Poster Presentations section.


Many conferences hold exposition that showcase the latest products and services available to educational and technical professionals in the fields represented at the conference. Exhibitors include book and journal publishers, instrumentation manufacturers, companies selling reagents, consumables, software, services, and representatives from professional societies, granting agencies, recruiting firms, etc.

The benefits of attending an exposition are many. The experience can be educational, valuable in terms of networking, and simply just plain fun! Many vendors offer all kinds of freebies including candy, pens, raffles for laptops, software, equipment, gift cards, etc. in order to attract potential customers to visit their booths. If you are a student in the science, technology, or engineering disciplines many companies will bring working models of their latest instrumentation or software to the exposition. You can learn about new instruments/software, compare features and capabilities. If you are considering a career in the private sector you can learn a lot about the different participating companies and make valuable contacts. Be sure to bring plenty of business cards with you!

Employment Bureau/Career Center

Some larger professional conferences may offer an employment bureau or career center during the week of the conference. Access to the meeting career center may be limited to registered conferees and may require payment of an additional fee. Conferees interested seeking employment may be asked to complete a general application form and to submit one or more copies of their current resume. In general some of the career services that you may find at meetings include workshops on career-related issues, opportunities to hone your resume writing and/or interviewing skills, and opportunities to participate in private screening interviews with interested employers on-site.

Social Events

There are many social events at professional conferences. These include breakfasts, luncheons, dinners, receptions, and local tours. Depending on the size of the conference, meeting organizers may provide tours of local attractions for attendees. Some social events are free and others are paid. Depending on the occasion, such as at an award dinner, formal or semi-formal attire may be required. Participation in these events is perhaps as important if not more important than participation in technical sessions as it is in these informal sessions that researchers freely exchange ideas and information and it is in these interactions that friendships, collaborations, etc. are forged. Go! Participate! Don’t worry if you don’t know anyone when you first go. Just be yourself, be friendly and you will have a great time! Last word of advice: Be sure to bring plenty of business cards to exchange with everyone that you meet!

Common Formats for Conference Presentations

The two most common formats for the presentation of research findings at conferences are:

>Oral Presentations


Depending on to whom you speak some individuals will tell you that oral presentations are preferable compared to poster presentations. Some people feel that oral presentations are more prestigious and offer more cache than do poster presentations.

Oral presentations are generally short talks or panel discussions delivered by one or more individuals to a room of interested meeting attendees. Depending on the meeting, the speaker(s) may read a prepared speech or the speaker may more informally discuss his/her work using visual aids such as a PowerPoint presentation using a laptop computer. A very brief time is allotted for individual oral presentations. An oral presentation is typically between 15 and 30-minutes in duration. Consequently, the presentation must be clearly and succinctly presented and there will be little if any time for questions from the audience.

There are two types of oral presentations:

At some meetings oral presentations may be taped and available for purchase by meeting attendees. At many meetings, taping and/or photographs at oral presentations may be forbidden.

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Individual Oral Presentations


Contributed Anyone who submits a proposal or meeting abstract is potentially eligible to deliver a contributed talk. “Contributed” simply means that you as a conferee submitted your paper for consideration of presentation as versus “invited” which means the meeting organizers or symposium organizer invited you to speak. At some conferences, contributed talks are of shorter duration than invited talks but generally there are no substantive differences otherwise.

Invited In some sessions often referred to as symposia, organizers invite experts in a specific area to share their recent work. These presentations are called invited talks. Invited talks may be given slightly longer time periods than contributed talks. Invited speakers must also submit proposals or meeting abstracts.

Depending on the specific meeting, the organizers may or may not offer invited speakers benefits that contributed speakers may not receive. At some conferences, invited speakers may be offered free or reduced registration, lodging, travel, and even a small honorarium. However, an invited to be an invited speaker may come with none of these perks. If you are “invited” don’t make assumptions – ask the organizer what, if any, services the conference is providing to invited speakers. At some conferences simply being invited is considered to be a significant honor.

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Panel Discussion


Presentations may be made by individuals or by panels. In panel discussions, two or speakers presenting different perspectives or different aspects of the presentation topic will sequentially summarize their work and relate it to that of the other panelists. Once all of the speakers have made their presentations there is generally an open discussion of the papers.

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Poster Presentations


Poster sessions offer meeting organizers the opportunity to offer large numbers of meeting attendees the opportunity to present their work. Poster presenters are usually provided a significant amount of space (3′ x 4′ or more) on which to display a visually attractive poster summarizing their research project. Generally, poster presenters have the opportunity to share their work over an extended period of time often an hour or more. At some meetings, the poster may be displayed for an entire day! This allows the poster presenter to describe and discuss their research in greater detail than would be possible in an oral presentation to significantly more people. In my opinion, posters are in no way inferior to oral presentations and may in fact be far more useful.

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Funding Your Conference Participation

There are many places you can go to solicit support for your travel to/from a professional conference. Possibilities include:

Your Research Advisor

The first place to go is your research advisor. Your advisor is going to be more interested in supporting your participation if you are presenting your research findings for research supported by an external grant as your advisor may have solicited funds specifically for this purpose as part of his/her grant application. Why? Research presentations are part of the “currency” in academe and count toward tenure and promotion. External presentations facilitate the transition of research findings into published findings which are also part of the “currency” in academe and valued by the private sector as well.

Your Academic Department or College/university

The second place to go if your advisor cannot support your travel is your academic department or college/university. The department may be able to partially or even fully support your travel to a conference. If you are presenting your research finding and/or are an upperclassman/woman and are planning on going on to advanced study in your discipline these facts may bolster your case.

Professional Societies

Many professional societies such as the American Chemical Society and Psi Chi, provide support to college students who want to attend their professional conferences. Support is often available from these groups at the local, regional, and national levels. A normal requirement imposed by these groups is that applicants be student members of the professional organization. Preference is likely to be given to students who have never attended a professional conference and are planning to go on to advanced study in their discipline. You will find a number of these travel grants listed on WebGURU.

Fund-raising Activities

Another approach to consider is fund raising! If you know of several other students who are interested in attending the same meeting, consider partnering with them and organizing bake sales, selling laboratory notebooks, lab goggles, lab coats, or other supplies that your peers might need, etc. Hold a garage sale.

General Advice

The following are suggestions for making the most out of your meeting experience:

  • What to Wear: The dress at the majority of professional conferences is fairly formal. If you are seeking a job or looking to impress a prospective graduate advisor, you would be wise to dress appropriately. That said, depending on the location, the time of year, and the specific conference you will see all types of dress.
  • Meet people! Don’t be intimidated by professional reputation. Don’t worry about feeling awkward – everyone feels the same way! Just be yourself. Take the initiative. Introduce yourself and really listen to the other person with whom you are speaking. Make it a point to exchange business cards. If you don’t have any this is a good time to print some cards which you can do these days quite inexpensively.
  • Connect with other conferees electronically using social media. These days most conferences have a hashtag that conferees can use before and during the conference. Following the hashtag is a terrific way of getting to know what the conference is all about, who is attending, and to find sessions and people with whom you might like to connect when you arrive.
  • Eat with other people you meet at the meeting! People always feel good about themselves and other people when they are sharing a good meal. Think about it!
  • Don’t go to too many technical talks. Be selective. Inquire from your advisors and others concerning who is known to be a good speaker. If you are interested in going to graduate school you should start thinking about whom you would like to work with as a graduate research advisor. Look to see if any of these individuals is speaking and make it a point to attend one # of their talks.
  • Make it a point to learn something new. Select one technical session that is focused on a topic or technique that is new to you. This will provide you an invaluable opportunity for learning and networking.
  • Take notes on what you learn and who you meet. I like to use the notepad on my cell phone or OneNote on my ipad.
  • Be safe. Don’t wear your badge outside of the convention center or hotel as you will advertising to everyone you meet that you are a visitor. Unsavory individuals may regard you as a viable target for theft or worse so don’t advertise that you are a visitor!
  • Finally, and perhaps most important: Have fun!

Housing and Transportation

Travel and housing can be quite expensive. So it is important that you do advance research on the costs associated with your travel to/from the conference before you commit to presenting and attending the conference.


If you are flying to a conference, you will likely need to arrange for transportation between the airport and the meeting site. Some larger conferences make arrangements for vans/shuttle service between the airport and the conference site for registered conferees. Since costs can vary widely, it is important that you research the transportation costs associated with travel to/from your hotel well in advance of the conference. If the conference is at a college or university, you may find useful travel information on the college or university’s website.


Often conference organizers will hold a conference at a hotel. Attendees are not generally required to register and stay at the conference hotel though there may be benefits to staying in the conference hotel including complimentary shuttle service to/from the conference center, if the meeting is not being held at the hotel. If the meeting is held at the hotel then staying at the conference hotel can be quite convenient – you can run upstairs to your room, change, pick up or drop off stuff at a moment’s notice. Depending on the size of the conference, the rates negotiated for meeting attendees at the official hotels affiliated with the conference may or may not fit your budget. Likely there are other hotels located in the immediate vicinity. Consequently it is wise to do some research as you are likely to find accommodations at a lower rate at a good hotel nearby. If you do however, choose to stay at a hotel unaffiliated with the conference make sure that the hotel is located within walking distance of the conference venue and that the immediate area is safe for walking. If you are traveling by air to the conference, you may be able to obtain a package deal for your transportation and housing by purchasing both through the same travel agency or internet travel site.

Reimbursement of Expenses

If you do secure support for your participation in a technical conference you are most likely to be asked to incur the expenses for meeting registration, travel, lodging, and subsistence up front and to request reimbursement for your expenses following your successful participation at the conference.

It will speed up the processing of your reimbursement if you follow a few general rules in making your plans. First, find out what, if any, specific rules your organization has regarding reimbursement. In general most organizations will only reimburse travelers for “reasonable” expenses. Reasonable means you are expected to make every effort to make the most economical use of the available funds by considering cost, time spent traveling, and convenience when making your travel arrangements. Some institutions will not reimburse you if you do not arrange your travel plans through their approved travel agency as they have been guaranteed to obtain the lowest available rate if their employees book through the approved travel agency. Second obtain receipts for any purchase for which you anticipate requesting reimbursement. Original receipts will likely be required to secure reimbursement for any purchase. Third, be aware that there may be limits imposed on the amount that you are allowed to spend for a specific purpose. This is often true for subsistence where there may be a per diem (“per day”) or even “per meal” cap. Finally, be sure to keep a copy of all of your receipts and any forms you submit for reimbursement in case anything gets lost or something goes wrong in the process.

The following are typical guidelines for travel reimbursement:

  • Lodging: Lodging should be secured in a standard room not a suite in a mid-range hotel/motel. Lodging is generally reimbursed only for the days you are actually participating at the conference.
  • Travel: If you are traveling by airplane or train and expect to be reimbursed for your expenses, you should book your travel at the coach rate – seeking the lowest possible fare.
  • Subsistence: Your subsistence including any gratuity is generally reimbursable provided you secure a receipt. If you are of age, be aware that alcoholic beverages are generally not reimbursable. If you plan to dine with spouses, friends or guests, their meals are also not reimbursable. You should segregate and pay separately for any alcoholic purchases or food purchases for relatives, guests and friends.
  • Incidentals: Incidentals such as entertainment (e.g., candy, soda, “On Demand” TV movies), personal telephone calls, gifts, and other personal purchases are generally not reimbursable.

Reasons to Attend Conferences

As an undergraduate researcher, you should attend technical conferences and meetings because your participation will provide you an opportunity to:

  • share your research findings with others in your field
  • learn what others in the field are doing can lead to new ideas
  • meet others in your field- can lead to new opportunities for collaborative efforts
  • have fun! Meetings are not all business. There are usually opportunities to socialize with your peers and if you arrange your travel plans appropriately you may be able to sightsee before or following the conference.

In presenting your work you will

  • Grow as a researcher and presenter
  • Obtain feedback on your research
  • Meet and get to know your peers
  • Gain visibility in your field

Requirements for Conference Participation

If you want to present your research at a meeting, you will want to do a bit of research on the conference and find out:

  • what your advisor thinks about your presenting your research
  • what opportunities exist for research presentations by student researchers
  • what the constraints are regarding meeting participation and presentation
  • what the cost of participation at the meeting will be (including travel costs)
  • what resources> (locally or externally) are available to support your participation at the conference.

First Things First: Speak with Your Advisor

The first and most important thing to do is to speak with your undergraduate research advisor to determine whether or not your advisor believes you are ready and able to present your research at a conference and to determine whether or not your advisor can provide the needed financial support (which may be considerable if you wish to present at a national or international conference) in order to underwrite your trip. Before you speak with your advisor, it would be a wise idea to do some background work: Make sure that you are working on a project the results of which can be publicly communicated. If you are working on a project that is potentially patentable or which is supported by industrial funding, you may not be able to present some or all of your work publicly; Summarize your research accomplishments in an abstract (approximately 250 words or less) that shows the quality and quantity of the results you have at this point; and determine how much it will cost to attend the research conference including travel (airfare, housing), registration, and subsistence and what must be submitted (abstract, extended abstract, and/or proposal) in order to make a presentation.

Common Constraints On Meeting Participation


Many meetings are organized by professional associations. In many conferences participation and presentation may be limited to those made by the membership or by individuals sponsored by members. If you are not a member of the professional society, you may still be eligible to present if your faculty advisor or a collaborator is a member of the organization sponsoring the conference. If no one is a member, consider inquiring about student membership in the professional association. Student memberships are often relatively inexpensive and may provide additional perks such as a complimentary subscription to the society’s publication or eligibility for student scholarships, travel grants. Presentations are usually limited to work that has not been previously published and/or presented at any other technical conference. At some conferences conferees may not be presenters on more than one presentation.

Conference participation usually requires the conferee to:

  • register; and
  • submit an abstract

We will discuss both of these topics below.


In general everyone who wants to attend a technical conference, whether or not they are presenting research, must register for the meeting. If you intend to present registration is usually a requirement. If the meeting is sponsored by a professional society, membership in the society may affect the registration fee structure. The lowest registration rates are usually accorded to those attendees who are members of the professional society. In addition, many meetings offer a discount to attendees who register in advance of the meeting as this allows the organizing committee more flexibility in planning and negotiating the conference arrangements with conference center, hotels and/or airlines. There may be full meeting or day rates. Free registration may be provided for spouses.

Registrants are given a badge that they must wear at all times during the conference in order to be admitted to the technical sessions and any official social events. The registration materials may be mailed to you or they may be provided on site.

Even if you are not presenting at a technical conference and/or are not traveling from a distance in order to participate, it is highly advantageous to register in advance. Conferees registering on site often must wait in long lines in order to complete the registration process. “In advance” usually means several months in advance of the meeting.

At some meetings organizers will offer college students a discounted meeting registration rate, complimentary meals, and/or a small stipend if the students are willing to work behind the scenes at the conference. Working behind the scenes can provide you with an invaluable opportunity to meet key professionals in your field and to network with them. This type of meeting opportunity is somewhat rare and generally is not publicly advertised. Interested students are strongly encouraged to contact the meeting organizers well in advance of the meeting – six months out or more.



A meeting abstract is basically the same thing as an abstract for a technical paper. It is a succinct (typically 200 words or less) summary of the research that you plan to present in your conference presentation. As such it should outline the research problem, its significance, the methods used, the results obtained and the significance of the results. The work outlined should be novel and should not have been previously presented at any other conference or published anywhere. The abstract can describe work which is in progress at the time the abstract is submitted if the work will be completed at the time at which it will be presented.

If available review the list of key words that will be used in indexing conference abstracts and incorporate as many of these as possible in your meeting abstract. Research methodologies and applications are examples of frequently used key words.

In general speakers are supposed to present the work that they have outlined in their proposal or meeting abstract. Since abstracts and meeting proposals are often approved six months in advance of a conference, meeting organizers understand that presenters will have likely done additional work that they would like to present. This is acceptable at most conferences. However, if you plan to present work that differs significantly from that described in the approved meeting abstract it is important to discuss this in advance with the session and/or meeting organizers.

Meeting Abstract Example

Symposium Title: Sustainability across the Chemistry Curriculum: Green Chemistry and Beyond

Poster Title: Synthesizing conducting polymers employing green chemistry principles

Conducting polymers, important in materials science, are traditionally synthesized using electrochemical methods in concentrated acid or harmful organic solvents. Use and disposal of these reagents is typically dangerous and expensive. In this project designed for use in the freshmen chemistry teaching laboratory, either polypyrrole or polyaniline are synthesized electrochemically by cyclic voltammetry using Green methods, a simple potentiostat, and an electrochemical cell containing monomer, electrolyte, and optically transparent indium-doped tin oxide on glass electrodes. In approximately 1.5 hours, freshmen working individually or in groups synthesize conducting polymers and observe their important optical and electrical properties. After synthesizing the polymer, students design their own electric circuit using the conducting polymer, a battery, and a light-emitting diode to demonstrate the polymer film’s conductivity. This method of synthesizing conducting polymers can also be extended to the creation of nanowires and represents a second laboratory experiment we seek to implement in the near future.

Extended Abstract


Sometimes you may be required to submit an abstract and at a later time an extended abstract. An extended abstract resembles a communication. Extended abstracts are short papers outlining the problem investigated, methods used, and the key findings that the speaker will present. Extended abstracts are usually peer reviewed. They are viewed by many researchers as publications. Since prior publication of research normally precludes publication of the work at a later time in the peer-reviewed archival technical literature, you may find that your advisor reluctant to allow you to present your research at venues where extended abstracts are required for conference presentations.



At many conferences interested speakers must submit a proposal. Proposals are usually submitted in response to a published “call for proposals”. The proposal is generally a three-to-four page long paper outlining the proposed presentation. A good proposal will:

  • Outline your project clearly and clearly outline its relevancy to the themes of the conference
  • Describe results of your project or innovation if available. If outcomes are not yet available, indicate when they will be.
  • Include properly formatted references to any relevant background information
  • Explain how the presentation will be made, including what, if any technology, will be required for the presentation, and the role of the participants in the presentation. Technology frequently used includes laptop hook-up, projection equipment, TV/DVD, overhead projector, flip charts and markers, microphone, etc. Note it is important to find out in advance what types of technology the conference organizers will provide. Don’t assume that any of these resources is “standard” and will be supplied – ask!

Peer Review

Meeting abstracts, extended abstracts, and proposals are generally peer reviewed prior to acceptance for presentation. In general, peer review is usually performed by the conference planning committee, a session organizer, and/or one or more individuals who have agreed to perform this purpose. In general, review criteria usually include relevance of the presentation to the overall conference and session themes and the technical quality of the work described. The proposal may also be evaluated based on how well written it is as this provides an indication of how likely the speaker is to be an effective communicator. Since criteria vary widely it is vital that prospective presenters obtain, review, and follow the guidelines for submission of abstracts, extended abstracts and/or proposals carefully prior to submission. The work outlined in your proposal should be novel and should not have been previously presented at any other conference or published anywhere. The proposal can describe work in progress if the work will be completed at the time at which it will be presented.

Selecting a Conference

Considerations when selecting a conference are generally practical and include:

  • The quantity and nature of your research findings – how significant are they? How many people will they impact – researchers in your area of specialization? Or is it a more global impact?
  • Your prior experience as a presenter – If you have never presented at a conference before it might be a good idea to get your feet wet by presenting at a local or regional conference where you can practice your presentation, hone your presentation skills, etc. and
  • Financial – generally participants must pay a registration fee to attend and if the conference you want to attend is not local you will need to pay for your travel, lodging, and subsistence. Local conferences tend to be less expensive however they may not provide you the same opportunities as national conferences.

There is no right “time” or “age” at which you should consider participating in a conference. IYou will derive more from the experience of attending a conference if you have work to present, if you are confident in your understanding of your work and are able to effectively orally communicate your work to others. If you are interested in presenting at a conference, your first step should be to discuss your interest in presenting your work with your research advisor. If both of you decide that you do have something vital to contribute then you need to consider some practical issues including which meeting you will attend, what the cost of attending the meeting will be, and whether or not there are any funds available to support your travel to the meeting. In general local or regional conferences are less expensive than national conferences and their location may eliminate travel and lodging.

You don’t have to present at a local meeting before you consider presenting at a national conference though the experience of presenting at a local or regional meeting may help you hone your presentation skills and improve your self-confidence.

Publishing a Technical Article

The technical journal article is one of the principal means whereby scientists share their work with the greater community of practice. In this section, we’ll discuss how to get your research published in a peer-reviewed technical journal in your field of research.

Articles on Publishing a Technical Article

Revising the Manuscript for Publication

Once the journal receives your manuscript, they will contact you with a tracking number that you can use to monitor the progress of your manuscript throughout the publication process.

Within several days of receipt, the editor handling your manuscript will typically send it out for review by two or three reviewers and then wait for them to submit their reviews. Specific criteria for review vary from journal to journal however most forms include a request for an overall assessment of the manuscript:

  • accept
  • accept with minor revision
  • accept with major revision
  • reject

and solicit information concerning the originality, significance/impact, and quality of the science and its written presentation. Reviewers, whose service is completely voluntary and uncompensated, are usually asked to complete their review within a two-week period. However some reviewers may need more than two weeks (they may be busy, ill, on vacation, etc. at the time they were contacted) and some individuals simply don’t respond. If all of the reviews aren’t returned within the required time period, the editor will often contact the reviewer to see if they need additional time in order to complete their review. If the editor feels it is unlikely that the reviewer will ultimately provide a useful review, he/she may send the paper out for reviewer to another person which of course (which means the paper will be delayed an additional two weeks beyond the original review period). Once the editor has all of the reviews in hand, he/she will study them and make a determination regarding the publishability of the work and the suitability of the paper for publication in their particular journal.

The Editor makes a judgment concerning publication of the article based on the submitted reviews. Often the Editor will receive a mix of both positive and negative reviews. If a mix is received, the Editor may request additional reviews from other experts. Sometimes if the paper is in the direct arena of the Editor’s technical expertise, he/she may choose to act as an additional reviewer in order to resolve the situation.

Revise Again

Once the Editor has made a decision regarding the disposition of the article, they will notify the authors of their decision and provide verbatim copies of the reviews, rendered anonymous, that he/she used to make this decision. The majority of papers submitted for consideration of publication require some degree of revision before their publication.

When you receive your reviews, don’t take them personally. If you receive highly critical reviews of your paper, don’t take them personally. If your article is rejected, try not to take it personally. (Note there is a recurrent message here.) Don’t telephone or e-mail the editor to yell and scream at him/her. Put the reviews away, take a deep, cleansing breath, and go for a nice long walk. Wait at least a day or two before you pick up the reviews again. If your paper was rejected, read the reviews carefully and identify what the deficiency is that led the editor to conclude that he/she would have to decline further consideration of the paper. It may be something you can address such as poor quality writing or a mismatch between your paper and the journal’s readership. If so, then you should be able to make beneficial changes that will facilitate your article’s publication elsewhere.

If your paper is still under consideration for publication but you have been asked to respond to the reviewers’ comments, you will need to prepare and submit a document detailing your response to all of points raised by the reviewers, a revised manuscript, and a new cover letter. Depending on the extent of revision requested by the editor and/or reviewers, these documents may only be reviewed by the editor or they may be sent back out to the original reviewers. It is important to know this so you understand how important it is to clearly identify what changes you have made, why, and where those changes have been made in the manuscript (line and page number). When you do make significant changes (a sentence or more) to the manuscript, be sure to include the original and revised statements and reference to the line and page number on which they appear in the original and revised manuscripts so the reviewer doesn’t have to search through them to find the changes. For example, “We have revised the text at the top of p. 2 in the original manuscript to properly credit this work: “Subsequently, XXX et al.[8] demonstrated that…”

In revising your manuscript, you do not have to make every change that the reviewers request. You may disagree with the reviewers on one or more point. In fact, it is highly likely that you will disagree with one or more of the reviewers’ comments. However, if you do disagree, you will need to thoughtfully, constructively, and dispassionately lay out the reasons why you disagree with the reviewer. Whatever you do, if you want your article published, don’t attack the reviewer personally. The following is an example of how you might deal with a situation like this in preparing your response to the reviewers: “We respectfully point out that we already credited XXX et al. on p. 7 (this is reference 13 in the paper) of the original manuscript. We have made as much of a comparison as we can at this stage between the [properties] of our films and those prepared by others using [similar approach]. In terms of the other suggested references none are relevant: We did not investigate the effect of temperature, so YYY et al. is not relevant to the present paper. Finally, ZZZ et al. describes [properties] observed during the initial stages of film growth (films about 110 nm thick) and therefore is not relevant to our work.”

Selecting An Appropriate Journal

The first step is identifying your audience and the journal to which you will submit your manuscript for consideration of publication. Likely for your first paper, your research advisor will identify the journal where you’re your paper will be submitted. However, he/she may ask you for a suggestion. So, how do you go about selecting the best journal in which to publish your paper?

Several considerations will be extremely useful in guiding your selection of an appropriate journal:

  • What is the degree of importance of your work? Has your work contributed to a better understanding of a universally important problem or to an issue of significance in a very limited field of study? If your work is narrowly applicable to a specific field of study, your paper may be more suitable for publication in a specialty journal. Specialty journals are those that publish work in one specific field or using one type of instrument. Titles of some specialty journals include Electrophoresis, Journal of Proteome Research, and Journal of Electroanalytical Chemistry. If your research is truly ground-breaking then it may be more appropriate to submit your paper to a high-profile journal with an audience possessing a wider range of interests such as Cell, Science, or Nature.
  • How novel is your work? Does your paper present research that has not yet been published in the peer-reviewed literature? In general, technical articles considered for publication in most journals must meet this standard. However, review articles which summarize and contextualize the findings of individual research studies often due to their very nature present work that has been previously published.
  • How carefully/skillfully has your work been carried out? Important considerations in this regard are the quality of the reagents, methods, results, and analysis. Higher quality journals generally have more stringent requirements regarding the quality of the work described in a technical paper.

Submitting the Manuscript to the Journal

In general, you will need to submit several things to the journal when you submit your manuscript: a cover letter, the manuscript, and a signed copyright transfer form. Today electronic submission of manuscripts is increasingly common. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the process and the information that will be requested of you before going on-line to submit your article. Specific information on the cover letter and copyright transfer form follow.

Cover Letter

The cover letter should be prepared following the standard format for a business letter. This means you should put your address in the upper corner, followed by the date, the full mailing address for the Editor to whom the letter is addressed should appear below this aligned with the left margin. The letter should open with a formal salutation: “Dear Dr. Editor:” The body of the cover letter should contain the following information:

  • The full title of the manuscript you are submitting for publication;
  • A statement that your submission is exclusive, i.e., that you are not submitting this paper to another journal (It is not acceptable to submit your manuscript to more than one journal at the same time.)
  • A brief statement summarizing the significance of the work and how this is relevant to the mission of the journal
  • Information on whom to contact in case the journal requires any additional information about the manuscript.

It will also facilitate the review and publication of your manuscript if you provide the following information in your cover letter:

  • The name of the associate editor whom you wish to handle your paper (Selecting the editor yourself ensures that the person handling your paper has an appreciation for your science.)
  • The names and contact information (mailing address, e-mail) for any individuals whom you would like the journal to use as reviewers of your manuscript as well as the names of anyone whom you would prefer that the journal not contact for review.


Ideally, you should identify individuals who share similar research interests and who have the technical expertise to provide a critical evaluation of your paper. If there are individuals whom you do not wish the journal to use in reviewing your paper, it is important to state this up front in the cover letter as well. At the beginning, you may find it challenging to identify suitable reviewers for your papers. A good place to begin is by listing those individuals who have published work on the same or similar problems using the same or similar systems and/or approaches and who have published their work in the journal to which you are submitting your manuscript for consideration of publication. Note that most journals publish a list of their reviewers once each year. Reviewers are often culled from the authors of papers published in that journal so this is also a good starting point for identifying possible reviewers. If you are completely stumped, don’t feel that you must supply names. You can always leave the task of reviewer selection up to the editor who will handle your paper. However, remember that if you don’t suggest reviewers and you are unhappy with the outcome, it will be harder to contest negative reviews after the fact.

Copyright Transfer form

As an original work “fixed” in a tangible medium of expression, your paper is a form of intellectual property for which your rights as an author automatically are protected by the U.S. Copyright Act. Normally when you submit a manuscript for consideration of publication, you must transfer ownership of the copyright to the journal’s publisher. Most journals require authors to sign a copyright transfer form, usually available on the journal’s website, at the time they submit their manuscript to the journal for review. As an author it is important that you understand your rights you are retaining and those that you are transferring to the journal. This is an important point because once you sign this form even though you are the paper’s author, you may no longer be able to make and freely distribute copies of your article or portions of it without first obtaining permission from the publisher of the journal. In general, authors retain the right to reproduce their data, figures, etc. For example, the American Chemical Society’s copyright form states:

  • “The undersigned author and all coauthors retain the right to revise, adapt, prepare derivative works, present orally, or distribute or transmit to not more than 50 colleagues, their own paper, provided that copyright credit is given to the source and ACS, that recipients are informed that they may not further disseminate or copy the paper, and that all such use is for the personal noncommercial benefit of the author(s) and is consistent with any prior contractual agreement between the undersigned and/or coauthors and their employer(s). Authors/employers may post the title of the paper, abstract (no other text), tables, and figures of their own papers on their own Web sites, and include these items in their own scholarly, research papers.”

Note: See “Intellectual Property” for more information and references to web resources on copyright.

Sample Coverletter

Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and/or Mathematics
My University
City, State zipcode
Weekday, Month day, Year

Dr. Ed Etor, Editor
Name of Journal
Street Address
City, State zipcode

Dear Dr. Etor:

Please find enclosed a manuscript entitled: “Title” which I am submitting for exclusive consideration of publication as an article in Name of Journal.

The paper demonstrates [significant finding and its significance]. As such this paper should be of interest to a broad readership including those interested in [what kinds of research, topics, techniques – should be those targeted by the journal].

Knowledgeable referees for this paper might include:

  • Ay Dot Reviewer [what is his/her technical expertise relevant to the paper] (emailforaydot)
  • Bee Dot Reviewer [what is his/her technical expertise relevant to the paper] (emailforbeedot)
  • See Dot Reviewer [what is his/her technical expertise relevant to the paper] (emailforseedot)

Thank you for your consideration of my work! Please address all correspondence concerning this manuscript to me at My University and feel free to correspond with me by e-mail (myemailaddress).


Your Name
[list of all files attached such as manuscript, copyright form, etc.]

Writing the Manuscript

Preparing an article for publication is a lengthy process that requires much attention to detail. In this section, we’ll discuss some of the important considerations in preparing a high-quality manuscript.

Obtain Journal Guidelines

Once you have identified the journal, you should obtain the journal’s guidelines for authors. This is important because each journal has a unique and specific focus, audience, and format requirements that you must follow if you wish your paper to be published in it. Written directions regarding the specific requirements for preparation and submission of technical articles are increasingly available on-line and can usually be found on the journal’s homepage. Be sure to read these through thoroughly and carefully. If you fail to follow the directions, depending on the gravity of the formatting deviation, the journal may simply return your manuscript to you without even sending it out for review. It is also a good idea to obtain, if possible, and read the directions for reviewers as well. After all, your paper will be evaluated by the reviewers according to the criteria outlined in this document so you as an author would be wise to prepare your manuscript to meet the criteria that will be used in its evaluation. Some journals now use downloadable document templates which are formatted by field (title, by-line, introduction, etc.). Some of these are admittedly easier to use than others. That said, if you plan on submitting additional articles to this journal in the future, it is really well worth your time to learn how to use the template sooner rather than later.

Decide What Type of Paper

There are basically three kinds of papers: reviews, communications, and full papers.


Reviews are articles that provide a perspective on a field, technique, or research problem. They generally don’t contain new experimental results but rather summarize the present and past literature in a particular field or discipline.


Communications are relatively brief (less than 1000 words) articles describing particularly novel and timely findings for a significant study currently in progress. Because of the restrictions on their length, communications don’t have a well-defined format. Communications generally focus more on a presentation of the results followed by a brief discussion of their significance.

Full papers

Full papers describe the results from a complete or full study of a system or process. These papers are generally longer (typically 4-10 pages) than communications and have a distinctive well-defined format. A discussion of the content of each section of a full paper follows below.

    • Title – The paper’s title should be brief (12-15 words) and provide peer readers with a quick overview of the paper’s contents. It should be able to be understood without reference to other resources, i.e., it should stand alone. In crafting a title, it is useful to include any keywords that could be useful to abstracting service such as BIOSIS, CAS, etc. in properly indexing the article. Useful keywords might include the name of the system or material studied, the analytical methods and/or instrumentation used, etc. A number of journals publish lists of keywords that they use in indexing their articles. Try to avoid using acronyms that may be unfamiliar to anyone except specialists working in a specific field.
    • By-line – The by-line consists of the names of all of those individuals who contributed to the study and their institutional and departmental affiliations usually arranged in order (left to right) of decreasing relative contributions to the paper and the science it describe. The name of the principal investigator/ major professor, usually designated with an asterisk (*), appears at the end (far right) of the list. In general, the first (leftmost) name is that of the person who contributed the most scientifically to the paper. Authorship on a paper is an important issue. It is one that should be discussed between a student and faculty mentor ideally at the start of their research relationship. If you have not discussed the issue of authorship with your advisor previously now is the best time to have this conversation. Authorship comes with important responsibilities attached. All authors are responsible for the quality and accuracy of the technical content, interpretation, and expression of the ideas contained in the article. The American Chemical Society says that all authors of papers in its journals have certain ethical responsibilities concerning the content of any papers on which their name appears. These include: accuracy, economy (shorter is better), attention to detail (repeatability), appropriate credit to the relevant literature, safety (any/all hazards should be identified), completeness, and proper acknowledgment of all contributions.
    • Abstract – An abstract is a brief (usually less than 200 words), succinct summary of the work that has been done. A good abstract outlines the problem studied, the approach used, the uniqueness of the work, the principal findings, and the significance of the study. It should make sense to you then that in writing a paper the abstract should be written last. This ensures that the abstract actually abstracts the article.
    • Introduction – The introduction should introduce the research problem that the study was designed to address and its significance. It should also provide an introduction to the relevant literature in the field, credit this work, and identify any limitations – what gap is the current study designed to fill? In other words, the introduction should provide literally an introduction for the reader on any/all information that he/she will need in order to understand and appreciate the science you will report on later in the article.
    • Experimental – The experimental section should provide information on all of the relevant technical details concerning how the study was actually accomplished. The source and quality of any reagents, materials, and instrumentation (model and make) is provided in this section. The method of preparation, isolation, and/or purification of any reagents or materials used should be provided as well. If standard methods are used for calibration, appropriate references to the relevant literature should be provided. If new methods are used, the procedure used should be outlined in detail. A useful question to ask yourself in writing this section is: Is enough information provided to enable the reader to reproduce the experiments/measurements described?
    • Results – This section of the technical paper could be referred to as “Show-and-Tell.” Here, you should present the minimal set of results that the interested reader will need to know in order to reach the same conclusions that you did in your study. There is always the temptation to share everything but this should be avoided at all costs. In writing this section it is a good idea to use sections. The data should first be presented and then any methods of analysis needed in order to interpret the raw data should be introduced. Each finding should then be stated and qualified.

Whenever possible use figures rather than tables as it is much easier to see trends in a graphical presentation of data. A useful rule of thumb in identifying the appropriate figures and tables to use in communicating your results is the following: the reader should be able to grasp the principal findings either by reading the text or by examining the figures and tables.

If you do use figures and tables each of these must be titled descriptively. Captions should include all relevant critical experimental conditions.

    • Discussion of Results – In some journals “results” are presented in a separate section from “discussion. In other journals, “results” and “discussion” are presented together in one section. The former approach is viewed as more rigorous as it allows the reader to separate the data from any interpretation superimposed on them. The idea is that in this way, if the interpretation is at some point later proven incorrect, the results may still be valid and useful.

Results are the data obtained. Discussion focuses on the interpretation of those results. Often authors will summarize their conclusions in the last paragraph of the discussion section.

  • Acknowledgments – This section is used to acknowledge the contributions of those anyone who assisted in the study whose contributions did not rise in the view of the principal investigator to authorship and to credit the funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, etc., that supported the work.
  • References – This section contains a specifically formatted list of all of the relevant primary technical literature cited in your paper. As such, it should list all of the important papers in your field. Be sure not to ignore older papers. Today there are a number of commercially available computer programs that you can use to correctly format the bibliography of your paper. Some of the more widely used programs include Thomson’s Endnote and Procite.

Prepare a Draft

Writing a good technical article takes time. This isn’t something that can be done at the last minute or in a protracted period of time. The best approach in beginning to write your paper is to create an outline of the key points you wish to communicate in your paper. To do this, it is extremely useful to prepare and organize the figures and tables you will need to use to in order to tell your story. Be sure to consult the journal’s directions for authors concerning any format requirements that the journal may have regarding figures and/or tables. Next, you should create a draft of your paper. I generally find it easiest to begin writing the results section first. This should then logically lead you to write the discussion section in which you interpret the data presented in the results section. After this, you will know exactly what experimental details need to be described for the reader in the experimental section of your paper. At this point, you will know what background information the reader will need to know in order to understand and appreciate the science that you are presenting in your paper which will enable you to craft a good introduction for your paper. Finally, having written the paper, you will be in the best position to summarize your work in the form of an abstract.


Once you have a completed draft, revise, revise, and revise. Re-read your paper through with a critical eye toward the Journal’s review criteria. Ask your friends and colleagues for their opinion of your paper. While review criteria do vary somewhat from journal to journal, the list below should provide you with a good starting point in evaluating your own paper and determining whether or not it is ready for submission for consideration of publication.

Review Criteria Checklist

  • Is the paper likely to be of interest to the readership of the journal?
  • Is the problem described significant?
  • Is the contribution reported in the paper new and original?
  • Does the paper contain high quality data?
  • Are the interpretations and conclusions adequately supported by the data provided in the paper?
  • Are the references provided in the paper appropriate and correct?
  • Is the organization and presentation clear and easy to understand?
  • Is the length of the paper appropriate?
  • Is the number of figures and tables appropriate?
  • Are the figures and tables of high quality?

Publication at Last!

Congratulations! You made it. Your article is now “accepted” and you may list it as such on your resume. The article next enters the publication queue at the journal. Depending on the number of articles in line ahead of yours, their length (pages), it may be several months before your article will actually appear in print in an issue. When the journal begins work on the actual issue in which your paper will appear, they will send you a “proof” of your paper. At this point, your article is considered to be “in press” and you may list it as such on your resume.


Proofs are simply prints of the article as it will appear upon publication in the journal. Journals provide authors with proofs to give them an opportunity to catch and fix any errors that might have occurred upon translation of the article. As a general rule, you are normally expected to offer comments on the layout. At this stage you cannot make any significant changes to the text of the article. However, you may fix minor errors such as typos and formatting errors.


At this stage, authors are also offered the opportunity to purchase reprints of the article at cost. Reprints are generally expensive. Today some journals offer authors the opportunity to print a set number of copies of their article upon publication. One important point of which to be aware is that once published your article becomes the copyrighted property of the journal’s publisher so you will not be free to photocopy it or if you have or obtain an electronic copy to distribute that to friends and colleagues.

Shortly after you return the corrections to the journal your article will likely become available on-line. Today many journals make articles available on-line several weeks in advance of the actually publication of the issue of the journal in which the article will appear.

About six to eight weeks after your article appears in the print issue of the journal (Congratulations! You are now officially an author!), your advisor will receive any reprints he/she may have purchased.