When I was invited to be one of two speakers in a recent GRADtalks evening on tipping points in complex systems, I was excited. I thought “great, I just did an academic conference presentation on basically the same topic – tipping point in the energy transition – I’ll be able to pull this together without distracting from my work or taking too much time.” Well, I was wrong about the time.
Looking at my conference presentation materials and picturing twenty to thirty minutes with a general academic audience, I realized how far I was from a basic explanation of my research. My main conceptual diagram had abstract notation rather than clear labels, my tables were data-rich but were basically long lists, and my take home points were easy enough for me to talk about but they weren't easy to follow because I’m describing feedbacks. In the end I needed two whole precious days to work these points out and I hated diverting the time.
When I was finished preparing my GRADtalks presentation, I realized why I made myself take my slides to the next level. Sure, it was a profile talk (wine and cheese before hand!), but also, it wasn't really a distraction from my research. I knew I had failed in the past to motivate myself to pin down the big picture of my work in specific and tangible terms. How did I not have my central conceptual diagram properly labelled? I needed this “distraction” to see my work more clearly from a distance.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I’m alone in this. We all have unspoken understandings within our fields, or with our advisor and fellow students – things that we don’t need to explain because ‘we’ all know them. Well, it’s a funny thing to realize that sometimes we don’t know these things quite as well as we think we do – or we don’t quite know how they frame our research and its relevance.
For some, it might be possible to imagine a general audience or otherwise find a way to step outside the deep-dive of graduate research to gain perspective. But most people are typical social animals and need that real outside audience to force us to step back. This is why I think it is worthwhile to find opportunities, like GRADtalks, to give presentations for various audiences and take them seriously. Not just to have the presentation experience, but to also spend enough time on those presentations to advance your own big-picture view of your research.
Yonatan Strauch is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Environment. His research explores how links across technological, political and financial systems can accelerate the transition to clean energy.