Presentation now given. Slides available below.

Presenting work-in-progress is something we all should do in order to obtain early feedback and to help crystallize our ideas. Unfortunately, many graduate students need help getting over this hurdle of presenting early research, even if it is only to their own research group. I will be giving a talk about presenting work-in-progress to our graduate students, and I'd like to get some input on what sort of advice I should give them to help them be more willing to share their work.

  • What tips can you offer on presenting work-in-progress?
  • How should the presented deal with the fact that the ideas are not entirely clear in his/her head?

I'm not so concerned about the work being stolen, as presentation will occur locally. I'd like to know how to get students to present such work and how they best can do it.

The students' work is generally of a formal nature, rather than describing systems, so I hope that this question is relevant here. If you feel that this is out of scope please do say so.

Resulting Presentation.

Here is the outcome. I am very grateful for your input, which you can see was useful.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Nice slides !! I'm now inspired to do something similar (interweaving talk and meta-talk) for my group. $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2011 at 16:42
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks. Great. You'll realise while giving it that some meta-meta-talk also creeps in. But let the students identify that. $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2011 at 17:29
  • $\begingroup$ and perhaps just as importantly, what tool did you use to create those slides? $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2011 at 23:43
  • $\begingroup$ Slides were created using Keynote (the most recent version). $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2011 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ Slides no longer available, I moved institution. $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2016 at 9:46

3 Answers 3


It sounds from your question (the use of the word 'willing') that one deterrent is the unwillingness of students to present. Since it's in your research group, I'm assuming that being scooped is not something they need to worry about :). So the real reason is that they feel afraid: of seeming clueless, of not knowing the answer and having someone else find it in 5 minutes after they start presenting, or of people deeming their ideas to be uninteresting.

In other words, the imposter syndrome.

One of the most important transitions a grad student has to go through is the point when they realize that they can actually play in the research world, and make contributions of their own. This often comes when their first paper gets published, but can also happen the first time they talk to a "senior" researcher and realize they know more than that person about their topic of interest, or even the first time they prove a brand new result.

One advice for you might be to give such talks of your own, where you show "how the sausage is made" and show how ill-formed your own initial ideas might be. That gives them a model to work with. At the very least, you can give them examples of the winding path a research project takes.

A second advice you can give them is to remember that most likely no one knows as much about their problem as they do. They may not internalize this just yet, but repeated reminders might help :)

When they actually give the talk, Sylvain's advice is very good: however I don't think the 1/3 rule applies here since in your research group there are probably no outside experts and probably no generic audience. But I'll mention a line I heard yesterday in the context of journalism, but which applies very well for talks by inexperienced people:

Don't overestimate the audience knowledge, and don't underestimate their intelligence.

In other words, provide all the background they need, and more. But don't prove teeny little lemmas from scratch.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks Suresh, this is great advice. My plan was interleave two presentations, one presenting work-in-progress, the other "going meta" and discussing various aspects of the work-in-progress presentation. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2011 at 19:02

I would and have advised as follows: "Of course there is risk of getting your ideas stolen, but if that risk keeps you from sharing you are losing out on a large part of the enjoyment in the scientific endeavour."

  • $\begingroup$ That is indeed true. At present the students will only be presenting within their own research group. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2011 at 15:25

In the following "you" is a student :)

The WWH (What ? Why ? How ?) approach is always good to structure the presentation of a work in progress.

  • What? My opinion is that it is best to first describe the precise problem that you are dealing with. To the contrary, giving first a very broad context has the risk to lose the audience quickly. If you start by something focused, people listens to what you are saying.

  • Why? The next step is then to assess the interest of the problem. Not the interest of the work you have done to solve it, but only why this is important to address the issue.

  • How? It is now time to present YOUR work: techniques, tools, ideas that work, ideas that don't work and why they don't. It is also the time where you ask for help if you need help.

Also, keep in mind the 3 third rule : 1/3 of the talk is for everybody, 1/3 is for people from your (broad) area, and the last third is for the other experts (you can put the technicalities here).

edit following Dave's comment:

Presenting ideas that are not clear is indeed difficult, even for faculty I think. In the past we used to proceed in 2 steps with our students. As a second step, we had formal talks according structured with the WWH and 1/3 rule, it was called the doctoral seminar. In this seminar, students presented almost finished work in progress. For the first step, we had informal lunch talk by students on the early stages of their ideas. Typically, it consists in a bunch of people eating pizzas, sitting in front of a whiteboard + projector screen, listening to a student that wanted to formalized his/her ideas.

I asked my PhD for this talk to prepare slides where the "formal things" where written next to a natural language sentence explaining thoroughly the "formal thing". The whiteboard was used for rewriting things all together (students + faculty). Each speaker had a limited time, so the idea is that on your first talk you try to make a few things more precise, then you come back for a next round the week after, etc. We stopped that because sometimes, with some people, this approach can lead to troubles (think about co-authorship issues for instance).

  • $\begingroup$ Do you (Sylvain) have any ideas about how do present ideas that are not entirely clear in "your" (student) mind? $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2011 at 15:34
  • $\begingroup$ edited accordingly. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2011 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ Another idea for 'not yet fully baked' research: try to make the line of reasoning clear: i.e "I want to prove this lemma, and this technique might help for so and so reasons. It relies on cracking this conjecture first, which seems to be related to this well studied problem". The wishy-washy words are in the connections, but the entities themselves are well defined. That I think help makes things clearer and also helps the student do a sanity check. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2011 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your input @Sylvain and @Suresh. I used it (almost word for word due to preparation time restrictions). $\endgroup$ Feb 1, 2011 at 13:34

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