Liz Gloyn – Turning a Chapter of Your Thesis into a Talk
Posted by Sarah-Louise Quinnell

This week’s guest post comes from Liz Gloyn, who has just completed her PhD in classics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. She blogs on her research, teaching and classical receptions in popular culture. You can follow her on Twitter here. In this post, Liz talks about turning a section of your Ph.D. into a talk.

At some stage in your academic career, you are likely to need to turn a thesis chapter into a talk. You may be speaking at an academic conference in order to put your research into a wider public arena, or you may have been asked to prepare a presentation on your dissertation for a job interview. Putting aside the general issues of constructing an oral presentation, like keeping to the time limit, changing a chapter into a talk poses a number of special challenges. PhD2Published normally talks about how to take things the other way, how to get research into a publishable form from a conference paper, but there are a number of reasons you might decide to road-test an idea from your thesis in a public forum before preparing it for publication. You might want to check out how a particular argument fares in front of a jury of your peers before committing yourself to standing behind it in print. You might want to get some general feedback about your work, especially if you’re revising your thesis for publication and want some ideas about how you might broaden its appeal. Whatever you reason for talking about your thesis research, here are some things to bear in mind as you prepare your talk.

Be selective and specific

You won’t be able to discuss a whole chapter within fifteen or twenty minutes, let alone an entire thesis. Pick something specific and memorable that will fit inside that time frame, instead of trying to cover everything and ending up being too vague for anyone to understand what point you were trying to make.

Be bold about your contribution

In a Ph.D. thesis, you often need to buttress your argument with the weight of previous scholarship on your subject and, depending on the conventions of your field, may need to be quite deferential to previous scholarship. In a spoken paper, however, you need to tell your reader what your main point is, why what you are talking about matters, as early, as often and as clearly as you can. You also need make sure your talk can stand on its own two feet rather than needing the whole of your dissertation to explain its importance, so be very specific what the central contribution of your paper in and of itself is to the scholarly debate in which you are taking part.

Think about your audience

The audience for a paper is very difference to the audience for your thesis. Your committee or your advisors have been reading with you every step of the way; in the UK system, your examiners will be experts in the field, or at least will have the opportunity to refresh their memories if you refer to sources or writers they are unfamiliar with. A conference audience has no such luxury. Think about who you are likely to be speaking to, how much background knowledge you can expect them to have, and how much information you’ll need to give them in order for them to feel comfortable with your argument.

Remember to give enough context

You are taking the prime sections from your chapter and presenting them, as it were, on a platter to your listeners. However, you are also chopping part of your carefully constructed argument out of the framework in which you originally built it. Make sure that your paper does not rely on a point that you argued in an earlier part of your chapter and you won’t be discussing in your talk. This may mean you may have to repeat basic information that you told your reader way back in the first thesis chapter, but that your audience doesn’t necessarily know. The only way to make sure that you aren’t assuming any unreasonably prior knowledge on the part of your listeners  is to get people who aren’t close to your work to read through a draft of your conference paper. They will be able to tell you where you are jumping from point A to point B, or making nonsensical statements that don’t appear to relate to anything else you say (although they made perfect sense in the original chapter). You will catch most of these, but you will inevitably be so close to your own work that you fill in the gaps automatically.

Watch your language

It isn’t enough to copy and paste a chunk of your thesis that’s a suitable length into a separate document and call it a talk. You need to think about the specific needs of oral presentation, which can be extra tricky if you have spent hours upon hours polishing up your best academic writing style. Oral presentation needs to use punchier, shorter sentences which are easy to pronounce. You also need to state and restate your main point several times throughout the talk, so that your listeners can follow your argument – unlike your thesis chapter, they can’t go back and re-read if they miss something. Also, watch out for phrases that belong in written rather than spoken English, like ‘as I said above’ rather than ‘as I said earlier’.

Sarah-Louise Quinnell. Posted by Sarah-Louise Quinnell


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