The academic poster

By Marcus Wilson 16/09/2010 1

I was having a conversation this morning about the status of the poster at an academic conference. At most conferences there will be one or more ‘poster sessions’. A ‘poster presentation’ is an alternative to an oral presentation – instead of preparing power point slides to send your audience to sleep, you do the same with a poster – maybe A0 size – in lots of colour. During the ‘poster session’ you stand by your poster, glass of wine in one hand (the other is left empty to wave and point enthusiastically at your masterpiece), and try to waylay – Ancient Mariner style – any poor conference attendee passing by and inflict the story of your academic research upon him. (At physics conference it is, usually, ‘him’, rather than ‘her’) 

Just how a conference organizing committee allocates presentations to ‘oral’ and ‘poster’ is one of the mysteries of modern science. For example, at the last three Australian Institute of Physics conferences I have been given a poster presentation slot, whereas my colleague has been given orals (actually, to be precise – he didn’t go to the last one – so it’s too of the last three). Why? I have no idea. So I was pleasantly, I think, shocked to get an email yesterday saying my abstract for AIP2010 had been accepted for an oral presentation. What did I do differently? Who knows. Interestingly, my PhD student, who also put in an abstract, has been allocated an oral presentation too.

There is a view amongst some people that a poster presentation is inferior to an oral presentation – i.e. being invited to give a poster is a bit of a snub at your research. I’m not sure whether there is any truth in this, but I would say that posters range from lousy to excellent in exactly the same way as oral presentations can range from lousy to excellent. 

There are a couple of advantages to a poster, however. First, is that you can spend time with the people who are really interested, and discuss in exactly amount of detail that they want. You don’t have the problem of talking to an audience that has both experts and non-experts in it. And secondly, you get to take it back home with you, and stick it on the wall of your lab, office, corrider, or, if very sad, your living room.  Posters are great for provoking interest in your research amongst undergraduate students, and thus are one method for persuading the best of them that they really want to do a PhD in your area. 

With this in mind I’m busy rearranging some of the physics posters our research group has amassed over the last few years. A bit of strategic placement is in order, methinks…

One Response to “The academic poster”

  • Scientific meeting are usually called conferences, because they are venues for discussion.

    The value of scientific posters to new trainees and established scientists should not be under estimated. A poster provides the opportunity for direct feedback to the presenter on their research and opens the possibility of collaboration. A poster really acts a venue for meeting new and old colleagues, hold engaging discussions, and to allow presenters and viewers to exchange new ideas and insights. Trainees may even first meet future mentors at such events.

    At major scientific conferences, I rarely attend the talks but spend most of my time at the poster sessions and visiting vendors. I find that most of what I hear at the talks, often by the same group of notables, is usually published work. There is also little opportunity for real discussion at the conclusion of each oral presentation.

    From an efficiency standpoint, I can quickly determine if a poster is of special interest to me, and move on without offending anyone if it is not. Most abstracts of scientific talks are not as detailed as poster abstracts. When I go to an oral presentation, I have to be prepared to sit it out for 15-20 minutes at time so as not to discourage the presenter. I’ll take the posters over the talks anytime.

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