A Ph.D. Pitch Deck

You’re at Ph.D. student at a conference, a professor has just finished their talk, and you walk up to them afterwards, excited to ask questions but also wanting to tell them about your own work. You want them to know you, know what you do, why your work is relevant, and you want their feedback.

Your Ph.D. advisor is hosting an an important visitor to your research lab at the university, and you’ve been asked to talk about your work. You’re at a job interview for a faculty position, and your interview schedule includes a sit-down with the Dean of the college.

In all of these situations, your audience may have 5 minutes to make up their mind if they want to hear more. You have 5 minutes to make an impression. You have 5 minutes to stand out.

Polished, prepared, professional.

Enter the Ph.D. pitch deck.

What goes into a Ph.D. pitch deck?

Just 10 slides. Start them in the first year of your Ph.D. Keep them updated until you graduate and land the job of your dreams.

Title slide

Introduce yourself and your work.

Put your Ph.D. thesis topic title as the title. Underneath it, in smaller font, list your name, your email information, your department, your university, and, yes, your twitter handle, on the slide. Put your advisor’s name as “Ph.D. Advisor: <name>” under your contact information.

Use good typography. Use a good presentation template, something not overly cheesy or distracting. Make sure that your title stands out. Use a single compelling image, if you have one.

Image by mohamed ramzee from Pixabay
Slide 2: Motivation

Make the case for why your work matters.

What is the field and the area that you’re working on? What sorts of challenges exist in the area? What is the potential impact of your work? Why do this work at all?

Use anecdotes and examples here, especially if you have recent and memorable ones. Quote market surveys, statistics, numbers (always with footnotes to acknowledge the source) here. Use images, if they help to make your case and if they come from real-world examples. You’re setting the stage for why your work matters.

Slide 3: The Problem

First, describe the problem you’re solving in layperson language. Describe why this specific problem is intriguing, interesting, impactful. Describe the breadth of the problem, and why it’s difficult.

Next, on the same slide, describe the problem more technically, to demonstrate your depth of understanding and also the fact that you’re working on something of substance.

Slide 4: The Research Hypothesis

Throw down the gauntlet.

A research hypothesis is a statement about the expected outcome of the scientific study in your Ph.D. The expected outcome is often testable and measurable.

A hypothesis predicts what your research will find. It is a tentative, and as-yet-untested, answer to the problem (slide 3) that you’re focused on. A hypothesis is not a wild outrageous guess — it’s an informed prediction based on your understanding of the field, your knowledge of what has been done already, and your intellectual reasoning of what’s out there in the field. A key to a good research hypothesis is that it must be testable and measurable (if at all possible), so that you can prove or disprove using scientific methods such as experiments, field studies, data collection, data analysis, theorem proving, etc.

The research hypothesis is a single, crisp sentence that says what it means, in a matter-of-fact way. This slide contains that sentence. And, underneath that sentence, things that influence the research hypothesis: the dependent and independent variables that you’re going to have to play with, to test the hypothesis.

Avoid hyperbole, avoid qualifiers such as: extremely, highly, very, ultra. Any adjective or adverb that is not measurable or testable should go out the door.

Slide 5: My Approach

This is where you show how you plan to test your hypothesis.

There are many ways to test a hypothesis. There are many scientific methods to choose from. It can range from mathematical methods and theorem-proving to determine whether something is true, to field studies to collect and analyze data from real-world subjects. You might be building a system or a test-bed to see if the hypothesis stacks up. You might be observing a phenomenon over multiple days, multiple environmental settings, both in the lab and in the field. You might be modifying an existing system to observe the effects of your intervention. You might be applying an algorithm to a massive data-set. If you’ve got diagrams, experimental testbeds, etc., here’s a good slide to show pictures of those.

Describe how you intend to set about proving or disproving your hypothesis.

Slide 6: Novelty

This is where you show how your Ph.D. is different, unique, novel.

Be bold, be audacious, explain why you’re the first at some aspect of your work. What you want to show is how your work stands out, how your approach is different, why you’re the first to solve the problem or the first to solve the problem in a certain way. Your research hypothesis may be the first of its kind, or your methods of proving/disproving the hypothesis may be the first of their kind. Your results from testing your hypothesis might also be the first of their kind. Do this without disparaging others’ work.

Slide 7: Results So Far

Show the progress you’ve made with wrestling with your hypothesis.

Show how you’ve started your journey, what you’ve done so far, the initial promising results you’ve seen, the negative results you’ve had. Spill your guts here to talk about the kinds of things you’ve undertaken, the experiments you’ve run, the systems you’ve built, the phenomena you’ve studied, the statistical analyses you’ve run. Yes, one slide may seem not enough space for all that you’ve done, but it’s important to learn to condense your thoughts into a single slide.

Pick one major result and highlight it somehow. Images and bold/italic fonts are your friends.

Slide 8: My Contributions to the Field

Show what new understanding exists in the field because of you. This is the slide that shouts from the rooftops, “Because of me and my work, we now know this …..”

The title of the slide may sound like you’re bragging, but it’s important to view yourself as someone who’s making contributions to our collective understanding of the field. If you view yourself as a contributor, others will, too. If you feel it’s premature to write this slide, skip it, but keep it around and fill it out with every new research result you have.

Slide 9: Ongoing and Future Work

Show that you’re not done yet. You’re still testing and learning, and there’s more to do.

No scientific field is ever done. No Ph.D. thesis wraps up things in a pretty bow. The best Ph.D. theses lead to more Ph.D. theses. This slide is also good for job interviews for faculty positions. It says that you have more work to do, more research projects and ideas knocking around in that brain of yours.

Slide 10: Summary

If you have only one slide to show people, this is the one.

Recap the problem you’re going after.
Recap the hypothesis.
Recap your initial results.
Recap the novelty of your work. Mic drop.

Backup Slides

Once you’ve got people’s attention with your pitch deck, they will ask you more questions and want more information. It’s good to keep building up these backup slides because they will come in handy.

  1. Separate slide for each research result. Create a single slide for every research result, and explain each research result in detail. This is for those who are more interested.
  2. Separate slide for each scientific method you used. Create a single slide for every research method you used, and explain each in detail, with the dependent and independent variables, the configurations and settings you used, the parameters you varied, the parameters you kept fixed.
  3. List of (intended) publications. This is an optional “evidence” slide. I consider this optional because Ph.D. students early in the career are still building up a publication track-record, and that takes time. You can, and should list, all of your publications.

Things to remember

Tone matters. Integrity matters. Character matters.

Passion is infectious. If you’re passionate about specific aspects of your work, show it. A speaker who wears their heart on their sleeve, engages and captivates.

Avoid hyperbole. Words like “highly,” “extremely,” “ultra” have no place in a scientist’s vocabulary. Precision of language matters. If you use an adjective or an adverb, make sure you can measure it.

Avoid passive voice. You did the work. It’s okay to say, “I observed that …” instead of “The data showed that ….” Own what you do, what you have done, and what you’re going to do.

Avoid name-dropping. You are selling your work on the strength of your ideas and your intellect, not on who you know or where you worked at. You diminish who you are in the present, if you’re talking about your past or about other people.

Be positive. When you ask for feedback, you have to be prepared for it. You will encounter people whose words will discourage you, whose feedback may sound harsh and negative. It’s okay. They are not walking the miles in your shoes. Don’t let them put you off your goals. Stand your ground, don’t be deterred, don’t get defensive.
Them: “Well, that idea will never work!”
You: “Well, that’s what a hypothesis is for. I don’t know what will work and what won’t, and that’s why I am doing a Ph.D., to go find the evidence.”
Them: “Well, there’s nothing new in your idea. It’s already been done.”
You: “That’s great to know. Can you get me the references for where this idea has already been done, so that I don’t waste my time chasing something that has already been solved?”
Them: “It may take you years and years to solve this.”
You: “I’m so glad I picked something challenging for my Ph.D. What’s the point, otherwise?”
Them: “I have so many unanswered questions and doubts about your work.”
You: “Let’s hear them. Your questions about my work may spark more ideas in me.”

Take the high road. Never disparage others in your field. You don’t need to succeed at others’ expense. You’re going to succeed because you’re awesome, not because others aren’t. It’s your Ph.D., nobody else’s.