Presenting: From Bad to Good (1 of 2)

Attention conservation notice: Advice on how to give better academic presentations for undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members–anyone who has to convey academic research (especially in the social sciences) to non-hyper-specialists at conferences or other situations.

Most people are bad at presenting

Let’s get the obvious point out of the way: most presentations you will see are bad. As we’ll see later on, there are many ways that we can interpret the word ‘bad’, and there are many more ways to interpret the word ‘good’, but I think there are some consensus traits to labeling a talk as ‘bad’:

  • going over the allotted time. This is a deadly sin–maybe the deadliest–because it not only affects you but the other presenters and the audience.
  • lack of clarity. By the end of the first 60 to 75 seconds of close to 99% of all talks, the audience should know
    1. your research question/puzzle,
    2. your answer,
    3. the significance of your answer, and
    4. the methods you used to discover your evidence. (In a pinch, you can omit #4.)
  • elementary failures of presentation. Is your talk monotone? Are you too shy to make eye contact (or at least pretend to, using the failsafe ‘look at their foreheads’ method)? Do your slides have more words on them than the average paragraph? Did you read your slides?
  • failure to practice. Is the first time you’ve given this talk the ‘live’ presentation?
  • reading a paper. Sorry, political theorists: this is just as much a failure as submitting a PowerPoint deck to a journal would be.
  • not recognizing an audience’s reactions. Are you so wedded to your outline/script that you can’t change even when the audience is plainly confused?
  • disrespecting yourself. Are the first words out of your mouth “I’m not really an expert in this”? If so, then please don’t waste our time anymore. If you’re really not an expert, then shut up. If you are an expert–at least in this narrow corner of human knowledge–then why would you disqualify yourself in the audience’s eyes?

In my experience, a solid majority of academic presentations, and obviously a much larger share of undergraduate presentations, fall into at least one of these categories, and often more than one.

Three Rules To Give ‘Good’ Presentations

This is not a bit of advice about how to give The Best Talk Ever. This is a simple intervention to stop me from wanting to just Twitter the entire time during bad talks. Here are the three rules:

  1. Practice with a timer until you routinely finish within 90% of the allotted time.
  2. Practice your first 60 seconds two to three times as much as the full talk.
  3. Prepare your presentation as a text distinct from the paper.

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Advice for Ph.D. Job-Seekers in Political Science

One surprise of having recently been hired as an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst is that now I’m the guy that Ph.D. students (sometimes) ask for advice. that’s weird, and probably counterproductive for both me and the student. In seriousness, I’m not really seasoned enough to be giving advice–and I have no standing whatsoever to offer advice to anyone outside of the IMRAD-paradigm fields (so I cant say anything about the job market to theorists).

In general, my view on the subject is that students should recognize:

  1. The job market for political scientists is not very good, but also not very bad: eventually, most people from a reasonably ranked Ph.D. program will, if they persist long enough, get a job as a professor of political science at some university.
  2. Many fewer people outside of top-ranked programs will get a job as a professor of political science at a doctoral/very high research university (an R1).
  3. Even fewer people will get what are, in some ways, the even better jobs on offer at highly selective liberal arts colleges (Williams, Wellesley, Amherst, etc).
  4. The limiting factor for almost all programs outside of the community college sector is research productivity. Teaching quality is hardly universal but most programs don’t want excellencecompetence is more desirable (and sustainable). And teaching competence is, in fact, becoming pretty common.
  5. You should discount any individual professors recommendations pretty strongly, since all of our advice is merely biography presented as wisdom, and that means youre getting only a partial (in both the incomplete and the biased sense of the word) view from any individual scholar.

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