Preliminary Exam FAQs
Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently asked questions about the HCDE PhD preliminary exam.
Q: Can I present in-progress work?
A: Yes! The main thing is that it should be sufficiently developed to have a conversation about it, and so that faculty can evaluate it according to the criteria. Students have successfully presented work at all stages (e.g., study designs, completed studies, literature reviews, and systems contributions). We recommend using some of your reflection (and presentation) to orient your evaluators to the state of the work. This can help avoid misunderstandings.
Consider, for example, a student who presents a literature review. It could be that this literature review was intended as a preparation for a particular study that is in-work -- in that case, it will be important to communicate the overall research goals, how the literature review informs the study design, and what the in-work study could contribute back to the literature. Alternatively, the literature review itself could be the contribution, in which case it will be important to communicate the contributions of synthesizing the knowledge in this way and what the reader should learn beyond if they had individually read the papers included in the review.
Also, one specific risk for in-progress work is that you can overstate claims before you finish the analysis. If you are presenting ongoing research, you may need to take extra care to communicate what you don’t yet know and which potential findings are still speculative.
Q: Can I present collaborative work?
A: Yes. You also do not need to be the first author. In your reflection, you should make your contribution/role clear. In your presentation, you might then focus more on the parts in which you had a greater role.
Q: I have more than one project/paper I could submit/present. What might I take into account in choosing?
A: If you have more than one option for submitting/presenting, that’s a great position to be in (though, yes, definitely comes with perhaps some stress around choosing!).
Some things to consider:
For some, it might make sense to choose the project/paper with which you are most comfortable and confident since that can reduce stress and ensure you enjoy the experience. For many students, this is the most complete work, since that’s often the most familiar “genre” of talk.
For some, it might make sense to choose the project/paper that is most closely aligned with the direction you are interested in going. In other words, you might choose based on what you want faculty and others to know about you.
For still others, it might make sense to choose the project/paper that you are most interested in discussing with others.
Q: Can my presentation differ from my paper?
A: Presentations often have a different focus than the paper. For example, presentations often go into detail on just a subset of the findings.
If some time has passed since you completed the work, you may wish to spend more of the presentation on ongoing extensions / future work from the publication (but you don’t have to!). If you do this, we recommend using some of your reflection to discuss this too, so your audience can better understand the connection between the presentation and the talk; also, make sure that the talk includes enough of the previous work and findings that the audience can appreciate the conversation about future or ongoing work.
We discourage presenting on a project or topic that differs from the paper topic. This confuses the audience/evaluators.
Q: What makes for a good reflection?
A: In the prelim, the reflection helps orient evaluators to your work. This can include:
- Describing your role in / contribution to the work
- Describing the audience for the paper and how this work contributes to that audience.
- If published, describing what has happened since the publication (any notable press? follow-on projects? next steps?)
You might also talk about some things you would do differently. For example, I (Sean) published a paper with one statistical analysis, but later learned that another method would have been more appropriate and updated that analysis in future reflections on the work.
Q: Do you have any other advice?
A: As a milestone, the evaluative part of the prelim is meant to check that you are successfully engaging in research and in scholarly communities. As a result, the most successful prelims are the ones in which you do that: you share your work, help the audience learn from it, and get some good questions and feedback.
Compared to papers and presentations you have done before, one of the biggest differences is likely to be that this paper and this presentation are about the knowledge generated (i.e., the research), and less about products created. The primary goal of your paper and presentation should be to communicate the knowledge generated (or, if it is in progress, the knowledge that will be generated) in a way that helps the audience learn from it, trust the results, and appreciate the value of the work.
Practice your talk. For your presentation, I (Sean) encourage you to consider four goals:
- Feel: What do you want people do feel during the talk? A lot of bad academic talks (and writing, for that matter) make the audience feel stupid; don’t be that person. You might want the audience to feel inspired, you might want them to feel more cautious about a technology or technique, you might want them to feel curious.
- Understand: What do you want the audience to understand during the talk? E.g., for a completed project, you will want people to understand your results, why your methods should make them confident in the results, why the problem is important, and the limits of your results.
- Do: What do you want them to do as a result of your talk? Yes, for the prelim, you want the evaluators to recommend that you pass. You might also want them to start using a new method or design pattern, or to stop using a problematic one, or otherwise apply your findings. You might want them to give you advice on next steps, or to help you -- for in progress work -- choose among different possible analyses.
- Remember: What do you want the audience to remember from your talk? People don’t remember most of even the best talks. Often, you want them to remember that you have some work on this topic that they can turn to when they need it in the future, or you may want them to remember that you are doing interesting work in this space so they check out your website to see your latest work in the future.
Should I present from my own laptop? What connectors are there in the Allen Auditorium?
A: Given that we have lots of time for Q&A (during which we can switch computers) and that changing computers can alter the appearance of slides in ways that aren’t fun, please plan to present from your own laptop. You may wish to bring / borrow a remote, as the room has a giant / awkward podium (really a cubicle, see website).
For connectors, the website lists an HDMI cable and a VGA cable as being available.