Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Doctoral researchers working with industry

There are at least two perspectives for doctoral researchers contemplating working with industry. First is the problem of negotiating access for data collection and second is developing networks of industry contacts for the purposes of further career development. Many researchers feel that practitioners may be nervous about disclosing commercially sensitive or personal information. It is useful to understand such nervousness and deal with it. This requires clarity and honesty about why data is needed, and a careful data collection strategy that avoids giving the impression that data is being trawled on the chance that something useful will emerge. Some participants seem responsive, others don’t. Therefore, do not worry about unresponsive individuals but focus on finding the responsive ones. Many companies fear that they may give away time that they cannot afford, or, worse, reveal confidential information that might weaken their competitive advantage. It helps take an approach where they stand to gain from participation. It also helps if we talk like someone who understands and appreciates the nature of commercial confidentiality (like you mean it). Generally speaking, companies may not be interested in the intellectual aspects of research but they will be interested in problem-solving. So, try to think about what you might give them in return for their participation that helps with problem-solving. It will probably not be the same material that you incorporate into your thesis, but that’s usually a good thing. In terms of networking, it helps your data collection and negotiation of access if you are not a complete stranger. There are strategies for developing networks, inviting industry people to seminars on campus about your research (involving your supervisors and other academic staff as well as alumni of your School or Department), setting up discussions on serious social networks like LinkedIn and so on. Some time ago, a researcher in USA, Phil Agre, wrote about using the internet for developing research and professional networks and he updates it from time to time. It is worth looking at: http://vlsicad.ucsd.edu/Research/Advice/network.html

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Conference posters

After submitting your paper to a conference, instead of being invited to make a ten-minute presentation, you may be invited to present a poster instead. This is a good opportunity to put your work in front of others, and it should involve different techniques to those involved in making a presentation.

The first thing about posters is that your message about the research you are doing is more important than any corporate or brand image of your institution. I would avoid the habit of cluttering up your valuable piece of paper with logos, names of research units, collaborators and so on. You may find that there are certain requirements of some funding agencies and some institutions to have a clear acknowledgement of their support. These should be adhered to. But don't add unnecessary logos and associated names unless they are really needed.

Next, it is good to use graphics and large fonts. A good poster will focus on one aspect of your work, rather than trying to put everything across. There is no need for bibliographical references, and it is good to avoid jargon and complex sentences; big fonts, nice graphics and short messages. Graphical communication works best when you avoid fussy and unnecessary embellishments such as 3D, shadows, gratuitous use of colour and so on (most of the default settings in Microsoft Power-point and the like need to be changed to remove many of these features; it was developed for business presentations, not research presentations). An overriding principle is that the density of data in a graphic should be greater than the equivalent text that might alternatively be used to represent the same data. So pie charts are a complete waste of paper, because the message in a pie chart can be put across in one sentence of text. Histograms are frequently better portrayed as a list of labels and numbers. Your audience is not innumerate, and they understand the relative sizes of numbers. (You don’t need to draw me a picture to explain that 75 is much bigger than 10.) Graphics work best when every line, colour, symbol and label perform a function that is more concise than writing things out. There is some really good advice and detailed exposition on the use of graphics for conveying information by Edward Tufte; get hold of it if you can.

It is interesting to type “scientific posters” into Google. That is how I stumbled upon some useful guidance from North Carolina State University where it is emphasized that there are basic principles of scientific poster design: Focus, Graphics, Order. I like the advice given there. Also, I recommend a good PhD Blog, called the Thesis Whisperer, where there is further good advice.

To summarize, this is a good opportunity to develop a skill-set that differs from making presentations. Posters should have minimal clutter. There should be a clear focus, good use of graphics and a clear sequence of ideas. This will make it easier for observers to ask questions and for you talk about your research. Finally, it is OK to be uncertain about research that is in progress.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Guidance on delivering a paper

The purpose of a conference presentation is to tell people what your work is about, why it is important, how you went about it and what you discovered that we did not already know.

Conferences run to a tight schedule, typically allowing only ten minutes for each presentation. Find out in advance how much time you will be allotted for your presentation. In such a short period, it is impractical to put over more than three real points. Remember that the audience have your paper and that they will be able to read it later. Your aim in your presentation is simply to get them sufficiently interested in your work to generate discussion during the discussion period and to get them to want to read more, later. The golden rule is to simplify what you are trying to say and then exaggerate the points in order to generate interest. Forget the detail. Make sure that your talk progresses through a series of logical steps, so that you finish with a clear conclusion. The worst thing is to finish by saying "I was going to say something else but I have run out of time"! If you are not sure how much material will fill a ten minute presentation, practice it first with friends or colleagues.

Repetition is essential in a spoken presentation. People cough, sneeze, nod off or whatever; they miss things. The significant points must be introduced before they are made and reiterated afterwards. Towards the end of the talk, summarize the main points. People will remember most the first things and the last things that you say. Therefore, speak at your loudest and clearest when you first open your mouth. Do not fumble through notes or with trying to get your PowerPoint slides to display; get these ready beforehand. If possible, try out the room and the visual aids in a break before your talk. Also, if you are not the first speaker, you can practice talking to the particular audience by making comments or asking questions on other presentations.

If you are using slides or presentation software, do not use too many. Two or three are more than enough to fill ten minutes. Do not put lots of small text on them that cannot be read. If you are just making a summary of the main points of your paper, you should not be drawing attention to the fine detail of the data.

If you are using power-point, please avoid excessive animation and flashy colours. They serve only to distract the audience from the point of your work. (It is useful to remember that power-point was developed for business presentations, not for scientific presentations, which are very different.) Better still, do not use slides if they contain only your own notes in bullet point format. There is no need to show your notes to the audience. Doing so will only draw attention to the things you have to miss out when you run out of time. Moreover, it will be difficult to adapt your sequence and flow to suit the way that the audience appears to be reacting to your talk. Use the slides only for graphical portrayal of things that are not easy to express in words. When you are ready to start, and your power-point file is open, remember that typing the function key F5 will start the slide show; this is much easier than trying to find and click on the little icon to start the slide show, which is in a different position in different versions of power-point. Practice this on your own computer, before you get up to speak. Get used to operating power-point in slide-show mode. Some people only use it in editing mode until the day they stand up to make their presentation!

With any form of visual aid, switch it off once you have finished referring to it. (In powerpoint, simply pressing the letter B during the presentation will turn the display all black; press any other key to bring it back.) Avoid passages of text on a screen, unless you are going to keep quiet for a few minutes while people read it. Also, never stand in front of the screen. There is no point at all in putting things on the screen and then obscuring them with your body. Stand next to the screen to avoid this problem.

Finally, be yourself; do not try to stop moving about the stage or using gestures, if that feels natural, and do not force behaviours that do not suit you. You only have time to make a few points and to raise the general level of audience interest in your work. The main aim of the conference is not the presentations, but interaction with your peers.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Supply-led procurement

I am interested in how new developments to procurement and business practice will impact roles in construction projects. For example, I can see a strong and compelling case for distancing architects from the construction process even further than they are now, so that their focus would be more on the art and less on the technicalities of building. I am developing my research along the lines of Supply-led procurement (a more robust development of the industrialized building agenda). This basically means handing over responsibility for innovation (and the rewards for innovation) to the supply chain. Either architects become more technical and get involved commercially with innovative producers of technical solutions, or they step aside from the commercial process completely, and develop a more advisory role. The idea of an architect co-ordinating and certifying work in progress may become a thing of the past. Indeed, I would like to go further and suggest that construction work should not be based around labour and materials paid for on a work-in-progress basis. The supply chain has an opportunity to get its act together and become truly innovative and integrated. It may be that architects and the professions are the main obstacles to developing new models of finance, new contracting methods and new business models. What would a fit-for-purpose construction sector look like in the Third Millennium? What kind of obligations are suppliers willing to take on, in return for a closer relationship with construction clients and users, and the opportunities to introduce technological innovations without having to route their work through layers of intermediaries?

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