Throughout the course of your PhD its customary to present your findings or your work at conferences. This is a great opportunity to talk to other people who are interested in your field about what you’ve found and the wider implications for it. It’s also a really good chance to practice presenting, gain other transferable skills, or possibly network. A poster is usually an A0 (841mm × 1189mm) piece of paper that communicates a piece of research to a specific audience. This audience will most likely be people within a similar field to yours. Sometimes, however you have a slightly broader audience where more detail is required. Understanding your audience is integral to an excellent poster, and we will touch on this later.
Conferences usually operate in a customary format, with posters being expected to conform to a particular style. Of course, across disciplines this will change slightly – but on the whole it’s very similar. This format usually includes a title, introduction/background to your topic area, your main research question, a methods section, your results, and lastly, the conclusions you make from your findings. Before we break down these components it’s important to consider a few things. Firstly, a poster is more about communication than it is about interesting findings – therefore, the visual aspect of your poster is extremely important. Try not to have large chunks of text, use a lot of spacing to break text up, and be sure to add colour and images to your poster. Don’t go overboard with colours or images though, white (or empty) space is important for your poster as it helps with readability. You want to make it easy for them to consume, not give them a stroke.
Before deciding what to include or how-to layout your poster, remember that you are a storyteller. Your goal is to ‘walk’ someone through a particular piece of work from start to finish. This needs to be simple enough so they can follow your story, but also simple enough for people who lie outside of your field to understand. Everyone’s PhD’ usually consists of multiple different projects, however your poster should be specific to just one of these. Create a simple narrative about one particular piece of your research, not your entire PhD. In some cases, one project will have multiple findings – it might be best to just focus on one of the findings within the poster. Remember, ease of understanding is equally, if not more important, than the actual findings. It goes without saying, but be sure to use the same fonts, text size, sub-headings, and figure/table labels throughout.
To assist others with navigating and reading your poster, ensure it flows in a chronological order. Usually the introduction/background is at the top and conclusions at the bottom. In some instances, it might work best to not confirm to this order – if so, be sure to aid the audience with this. Include things like arrows or numbers to help them navigate through your poster.
Now we’ll break down the individual sections.
The title is one of the most important pieces to make an excellent poster. Its purpose is to draw people in, spark some curiosity, whilst also orienting the reader to the topic. As always, keep your audience in mind – make sure that it’s easy and simple to understand. A tip here is to avoid using questions as a title. Be direct, assertive, lure people in, it will also save you a few words. The visual aspect of your title is also really important. My advice here is to ensure that the background to the title isn’t white. Give yourself a banner, or a heading so to speak. It will really stand out against other posters. One last tip. Your poster should always have the authors names and contact details. I like to squeeze this in just below the title.
How important the introduction or background to your topic is will vary. Again, it’s about understanding your audience. If you think they’ll be familiar with your topic then you can cut this down quite a lot. If not, then you might need to include a few extra points to help them out. This is not an abstract. In fact, your entire poster is basically the abstract. Taking this into consideration, the introduction should be roughly 3 or 4 sentences long. Summarise the essential bits of information needed for your reader. Break these up with some white space and make sure you focus on your narrative and story. Anything that is not needed for your story, leave out. This will help you to keep the introduction space concise and give you more room where it matters.
Your Main Research Question
This is pretty much the aim of your research. What did you set out to find? What was your main hypothesis? Again, only keep the bare essentials here. This should literally be one sentence per hypothesis. Take this into consideration, if you have a lot of aims/hypotheses you might want to consider removing some of them and focusing on just one or two of them. Although this is likely to be the smallest part on your poster, try to emphasise it. You could use a slightly bigger font size, place it a box, provide a figure, or put it in bold. Often people’s eyes fall here first before deciding whether to read your introduction/background. Make this count.
Personally, I would say this is the least important part of your poster. Of course, what you did is important, and you should touch on it, but in all honesty, people don’t care that much about it. It’s typically the mandatory part of a poster you skim through to get to the juicy part – the results. As with your introduction/background, keep this concise as possible. Only include the bare essentials. The more specific details would exist in a paper. Think of it like an abstract, you would only provide the simple things. If you have a rather complex method that can’t be explained in a few words or bullet points, a figure might be more appropriate here (just make sure it’s not too big so it takes attention away from your results).
Your results are the most important part of your poster. For your overall layout, your results section should maybe take up 30-50% of your poster. Really emphasise it and don’t be shy. The results you include should be directly relevant to your main research question. If you have additional results, remove them. If you overcomplicate this section you run risk of damaging your story, it won’t be clear what you found. No matter what – use images. This can be figures or just simple images/cartoons. There is nothing worse than having pure text/tables for results. Make it fun. If you do opt to use a figure, make sure it’s easy to interpret. Have an explicit title that tells the audience what they will see. If you have a really complex figure, maybe include arrows or circles to help the audience focus on the part that matters most. The takeaway point here is to make this as attractive and eye catchy as possible. You want people walking past or people who are at a distance to notice.
This is where you wrap up your results. As with the other parts of your poster, keep this concise as possible. Depending on your findings, this will usually be 1-3 sentences/bullet points. Keep your conclusion specific to your findings. If you did have to cut down some of your results or aims, make sure this is mirrored in your conclusion. I would avoid mentioning limitations or strengths because it doesn’t add to your story. All you should be concerned about is explaining why your results are important.
Usually at the end of the poster you would have some other small sections. Of course, make sure you cite your references. As you’ve been concise, there should only be about one or two references and you should make this section in substantially smaller font than the rest of your poster. You may also want to include a ‘future directions’ section. Keep this brief to just one or two bullet points. One last thing you might want to add is a ‘other work’ section. Here you can reference anything else you’ve published that is loosely connect (or maybe not even related) to your poster.
And that’s a wrap! Sticking to these steps will most certainly improve the quality of your poster. If you want any other guidance on what makes a poster successful, check out this paper. I’ve also uploaded a template for a poster which you’re welcome to play around with.
To summarise be sure to:
- Understand your audience.
- Conform to the usual formatting/layout (or make it easy to follow if not).
- Create one simple narrative.
- Keep it visual, use colours and images.
- Make your title visually appealing and informative. Add names and contact details.
- Only focus on the essential bits of information for your story. Have only 3-4 points.
- Focus on your main research question. Emphasise your aim/hypothesis clearly.
- Keep your methods brief as possible. Use a figure if it helps achieve this.
- Prioritise your results and make sure it’s clear. ALWAYS use images.
- Be succinct and describe what your results mean.
- Add other sections if appropriate.
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