Map your project

“I live in a house with garden in North America”. What is preposterous about this sentence? If you speak about your garden, you would not expect the whole of North America as a location. You’d expect something like “I live in a house with garden in the District D, Town T, Canada”.

Well, that is the level of introduction that you get in many papers and scientific presentations: let me make up one. “Quantum computers will have capacities beyond those of any classical computer. Here, we study how a bi-exciton decays in the quantum dots that our group has been trying to fabricate for 10 years with moderate success” (the last half is usually phrased differently, but everyone knows what that means). The point I am making here is: there is a world between the grand dreams of the field and the specific research topic one is dealing with. Following up on a point of a previous post: it is very useful to take some minutes to locate your project on the map of science, with a gradual zoom:

Continent – Nation – Town – Street – House

or, if you prefer:

Grand field – Big challenge within the field – Approach to the challenge – Specific technique [here is “the specifics of my boss”] – My project


Quantum computing – Experimental quantum coherence – Artificial atoms, Quantum dots – Self-assembled GaAs quantum dots – decay of the bi-exciton

Once you have established this map, here is my advice on how to structure a 20 minutes (10 slides) presentation, according to the circumstances. Take it with flexibility of course 🙂

  • Undergrad project: 1-1-3-2-3 [your project is probably an incremental step in your supervisor’s field, so it’s better to take a close focus; but two or three slides on the bigger picture are necessary]
  • PhD Thesis defense: 1-2-2-1-4 [your project is more relevant, so it should contribute at least a bit to the “big challenge”, if not to the grand field]
  • Generic conference: 1-3-3-2-1 [people should remember that “you work in that challenge”, they will forget the details]
  • Conference of your grand field: 0-2-3-3-2
  • Conference of your big challenge: 0-1-2-3-4
  • Specialized workshop: 0-0-1-3-6 [here is where people really care about your technicalities]
  • Grant defense: 5-3-0-0-2 [fine print will be lost, but you have to show that you are doing everyday progress]

A last word: contrary to geography, starting from your project you may zoom out in different ways. For instance, a study on quantum dots may also be seen as belonging to material science, or to quantum optics, rather than to quantum computing… Some people like to bring up all those maps at once: it’s a dangerous option, because it may confuse the audience on your motivation and also give the impression that you are trying to “play up”. The safe option consists in choosing one of the possible maps (the one that your public may like most) and stick to it.


About valerio

Principal investigator at Centre for Quantum Technologies and professor at National University of Singapore

Posted on March 20, 2012, in Talks & presentations. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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