Phil Dee, is desperately seeking a Ph.D. somewhere in the South West of England. But he knows that it's about more than research. His dispatches from the lab trace his quest to develop the skills that will take him beyond his doctorate and into the world of work.
When telling nonscientist friends how much you enjoyed making your new poster, expect them to look rather puzzled. After suffering some very subdued reactions, I now believe that most people think a poster is only a worthy undertaking for a primary school project on 'Life in Our Pond'. The truth is that posters form an intrinsic part of scientific life. They're an advert for your research and a seriously effective way to get yourself noticed. And that is important in any field. Complete strangers may end up being your collaborators, best critics, generators of Ph.D.-saving ideas, or even your future employer.
Start with a short and informative title. It may be hard for people unfamiliar with your field to tell if they should bother to read your poster, so your title should arouse as much general interest as possible. Try not to use the long-winded title of your project!
Back up your title with an eye-catching poster summary. Direct the minds of your readers to your message with short, punchy bullet points. Don't simply reproduce your abstract. At most conferences, delegates will already have a book of abstracts, so why waste precious poster space including it again? Distilling your abstract down to a single message will also help you get the knack for recognising what your message is. This skill is absolutely fundamental to selling yourself. As far as the rest of the content goes, as long as you explain your key results really well and say what you are planning to do next, the rest is up to you. Don't be afraid to be selective--you don't have to include everything.
So, what overshadows good content and makes a poster 'look' bad? The next time you are at a conference try 'cruising the boards' to spot some poster howlers. The most common and painful error is the inclusion of paragraph after paragraph of mind-numbing text. Let's be frank, if they're that interested they'll ask for your detailed Materials and Methods. You may be convinced that key workers in your field will want all this detail. But are you sure even they will be bothered to read it all? The brain tends to dismiss blocks of indigestible text, so dream up new ways to say it with a picture or diagram. Where you can't avoid using words, cut to the chase and use short bullet points. These are all good skills to acquire in today's fast-paced world. Learn to be inventive and be very critical of what you create. Just remember how billboard advertising gets its message across using minimal words and strong images--it's a multimillion-pound business for a reason. If your poster is merely a scientific paper stuck up on a board, it'll have little impact.
Once you have your content in place, it is important to create a visually appealing poster. Now is the time to check the dimensions of the poster boards. Make sure your poster won't encroach onto your neighbour's board or leave its bottom hanging in mid-air. If you can, do your poster layout with a good presentations software package, like Microsoft PowerPoint. Each section of your poster should have a separate panel. But don't cram the panels full of facts. Leave big margins, say, 15mm around your boxes and 40mm around the perimeter of your poster. As advertising executives say, 'white space sells'. And try to avoid gaudy colours and funny fonts. They can be fun to use, but they may be off-putting to more sober members of your community.
Arrange the boxes so they tell a logical story. You can even number boxes if they make more sense in a particular sequence. The 'look' of your poster will also improve if the individual boxes are lined up correctly; bad alignment at the margins just looks 'wrong'. Developing an eye for these details will impress everyone who sees your poster, including potential employers.
Once you have the whole package assembled, print out a draft copy. Your computer-generated poster will look very different on the wall. What seems like a reasonably large font size on your computer screen may appear tiny on an A0 poster, particularly when it is viewed from a distance of 1 metre. Then get as many people as you can to give you their first impressions.
Consider sending the finished product off to be printed and laminated. Your nearest print shop should be able to help you with this. Although critics rightly point out that single-sheet posters can't be updated with new results, a laminated poster is almost always more impressive than separate panels. If it's an important conference, take the plunge. It's worth the extra money to give your poster that professional look. At your next conference see how many of the 'top' posters are now prepared in this way.
Finally, get your poster up early. It's your advertisement, so sell yourself! After all your hard work getting your poster just right, the scientists who spot it on the Tuesday lunchtime should be so impressed that they remember to search you out for a chat at the poster session on Thursday evening. By then, you should be camped out by your work of art 'touting for business'.