Angus Ferraro

A tiny soapbox for a climate researcher.

Academic posters – does anyone like them?


Today’s poster. Click for a higher-resolution version.

Today I presented a poster to members of my department as part of the welcome programme for incoming PhD students. The idea is to give new PhD students a flavour of what is going on in the department and where they could end up in a couple of years, and to plant seeds for collaboration. The poster session is a standard part of academic conferences. People put up posters about their work for others to look at. Some presenters loiter by their posters to give verbal summaries and to answer questions.

Poster sessions are useful because it allows a large number of people to present their work simultaneously and provides plenty of opportunities for interaction with the most relevant people. An oral presentation, by contrast, is principally a one-way flow of information in a formal setting. Posters are more efficient at getting information to those who need it.

But I don’t like them.

When academics present posters they generally struggle to work out what information really needs to go on it and what can be witheld. The purpose of the poster determines the content. A poster is not an academic paper on a single big sheet of paper. It is an illustrated abstract. I use a poster to answer the following questions:

  1. What has this person done?
  2. Why is it important?
  3. Is it relevant to me?

I do not want details of the methology (unless the poster is about a novel methodology, of course). I can find out about those details should I want to, by asking you or by reading your paper. Your poster is a concise, visual summary. Its purpose is to attract attention, not to bore people by telling them everything you did. I suspect I have a lower tolerance to this than others, but I don’t bother looking at most posters because they are walls of densely-packed text interspersed with a few figures, written in a style which suggests it has been lifted straight out of an academic paper and put into a different layout. If the title sounds interesting enough and the author is around I will ask them to explain their work to me verbally instead. They usually explain it well and point to figures for reference. They never point to the text. They render the vast majority of the space on their poster superfluous. Don’t bother including text unless people are going to read it. If it is written in the same manner as a paper or a book, they won’t.

A poster should be concise and visual, and crucially, it need not be rigorous. I suspect some scientists would call me out on this one. Academic papers should be written in great detail so others may replicate the results. However, no one is going to use your poster to replicate your results. Most of the time the detais of your experimental setup does not provide answers to my three questions above.

This post wouldn’t be complete if I did not invite criticism of my own poster. It is embedded at the top of this post. Please have a look and see what you think. Does it do what you think a poster should?

UPDATE: The posters on display at the ‘conference’ were of excellent quality. The key thing was: not too much text! That said, I think all of them (mine included) could have been trimmed a bit. I also noticed quite a few typographical errors in my poster. There are 6: a prize (maybe) if you can spot them all!


Author: Angus Ferraro

Trainee secondary physics teacher and former climate research scientist.

5 thoughts on “Academic posters – does anyone like them?

  1. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your weblog and wished to say that I’ve truly enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. After all Ill be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again very soon!

  2. Reblogged this on Academic / Scientific Posters and commented:
    Not everyone likes academic / scientific posters, but I think the author doesn’t like them for all the right reasons: to much text, too much detail, looks like a newspaper … Hopefully we can do something about that & change the way people approach an otherwise ( 😉 ) popular medium !

  3. Thanks, this is a nice post and will definitely used a lot of your tips for my presentation. BTW, I love the layout of your poster, so hopefully it will be OK for you if I use it!

    • Thanks! Glad you found it useful. The poster is based on the template provided for us by the designy types at the University of Reading, so I can’t take much credit. In retrospect, I think there’s still too much text on this poster! I feel like my posters improve each time I do one, much like my oral presentations.

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