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Advice and wisdom from Graduate Students

Peer Advising - This program was started in the Fall of 1989 to help entering graduate students become acclimated to graduate student life at the outset. Several volunteer senior graduate students offer their guidance and friendship in this process. The senior graduate students advise the entering graduate students about what to expect in graduate school and the Twin Cities and give tips on how to cope and take advantage of opportunities and resources. There are several meetings held over the year in which the peer advisors cover a range of topics from selecting a research advisor to preparation for exams. The relationships built among these students during their first year are beneficial throughout their graduate career and beyond.

Tips For Effective Poster Presentations

Through the process of trial and error, scientific societies and veteran poster presenters have come up with the following rules of thumb for effective poster presentations.

1. Prepare a banner in very large type containing a descriptive title, the authors, and their affiliations. This banner should be situated high up on the poster so it can be seen above people's heads from a distance of 15 to 20 feet.
2. Bracket the poster with an introduction at the beginning and a list of conclusions at the end. Remember that many people will read only these two parts of your poster.
3. Make the flow of information in a poster explicit with the use of inch-high numerals. The flow of information should be organized in columns running down the poster, not in rows running across it.
4. The poster should be self-explanatory, so that its main points will be communicated even if you are not there. But don't load it down with large amounts of methodological detail or lists of references. Curious observers can ask you about these things directly.
5. Each illustration should have a prominent headline containing its take-home message in just a few words. The text below the illustrations should be in smaller type and should contain far more information than the typical figure legend. Only the most interested readers will spend time with this text.
6. Prepare a presentation of no more than five minutes (preferably two to four minutes) to walk interested parties quickly through your poster.
7. Make the poster well in advance and practice it with your colleagues, much as you would practice an oral presentation.
8. Taking into account Murphy's Law, bring extra push pins (not thumbtacks) with you to the meeting. And consider making up two complete copies of the poster. Mail one copy ahead or send it with a friend.
9. At the poster session, let people peruse you poster for 30 seconds or a minute before approaching them to ask if you may lead them through it. But don't be shy about introducing yourself, since the opportunity to meet people is one of the major advantages of poster sessions.
10. If you have a preprint of a article already prepared, consider having a supply ready at the poster session to hand out to people who are especially interested. If not, take down names and addresses and offer to send the preprint when it is ready.

Oral Exam Help Tips


  • Pick something that interests you; it will be easier to work on it.
  • The best topics are not just derivatives of known experiments (for example, a synthesis of the ethyl analog of the published methyl compound).
  • Pick something significant to your field.
  • Your topic doesn’t have to be earth shattering, just original.
  • If your division allows it, discuss your potential topic with your advisor so if s/he thinks it is inappropriate, you can find a new one.
  • Preparing and Writing (If you have to)
  • Items to think about as you prepare: What is the question(s) you will be asking in your proposal? Why is this interesting? What do we know now (i.e. background, current issues, unanswered questions)? How do you plan to answer your question (i.e. methods)? What might you find (list some of the possible outcomes and explanations)? What will you try next if your proposal doesn't work?
  • Get feedback from as many people as will listen to you or read your proposal. Everyone who has been through the oral was tripped up by something. Especially get feedback from people whose advisers are on your committee.
  • Have someone read your final proposal and presentation media at least a few days before it is due. Small errors will make a negative impression on the committee.
    Review class notes; anything is fair game (though this may vary by division--check your rules), and if you've taken a class from someone on your committee, she or he is likely to remember that.


  • It is almost certain that someone on your committee will not have read your proposal or abstract. They may even read it during the beginning of your talk. Be prepared for this and avoid being rude if they ask you something that's clearly stated in your proposal.
  • Don't be stubborn; don't stick with your first plan if your committee has a problem with it.
  • Be flexible and have a back-up plan or two for everything you propose.
  • Be willing to admit you made a mistake. You should be as prepared as possible, but you are still a student. You are not expected to know everything.
  • Prepare a few extra overheads as back-up for "obvious" questions, but don't go overboard. It's a waste of time to make too many, and committees like to see you think on your feet and use the chalkboard as well.
  • Take some time to think about questions before answering. Give it a try even if you don't know the answer. The committee wants to see your analytical skills as well as your at-hand knowledge, so talk yourself through it as much as you can.
  • There will be at least one question you cannot answer. This is very normal--your committee isn't doing their job properly if there isn't. Remember, you won't fail just because of one hard question.
  • Give a practice talk or two or three. Practice by yourself first. Start practicing early enough so you have enough time to make major changes, at least one week in advance.
  • Have your audience go through your talk slide-by-slide afterward for the best constructive criticism.
  • Do not work on anything related to your prelim the night before or the morning before/of the exam. Get plenty of sleep the night before.
  • Stay calm! Don't be aggressive or arrogant, but also don't let them walk all over you. And don't cry; the committee will NOT be sympathetic.


  • It's hard to be motivated to work on something so stressful and uncertain, but the more you get done early on, the less stressful it will be.
  • Set goals for every day, even two months in advance. Something as simple as browsing through a few issues of a journal for topic ideas early on in the game will give you a big jump.
  • Talk to others early about your ideas to give yourself time to refine your proposal or find a new one.
  • Keep lists of areas of your topic you need to research and think about and prioritize them.
  • Stay organized. It will be easier to stay motivated if you're not wasting time.


  • This may be one of the most stressful things you do in your life. Take care of yourself by exercising (especially useful if you are feeling very frustrated), eating well and sleeping enough. Take breaks. Set aside some time for fun.
  • If you are near your limit, see someone at University Counseling in Eddy Hall, at Boynton Health Service, or go out for coffee with a sympathetic listener.
  • Remember that the worst that can happen is you will fail this one exam. Even though it may seem like it, the committee is NOT judging your worth as a person.
  • Take a break to think about why you are in graduate school in the first place. This is something you have to get through to continue doing what you love.


  • University Counseling and Consulting has many resources, workshops, and support groups for graduate students. Call 612-624-3323 for information.
  • Reference Librarians. You've only been here 18 months; don't be afraid to ask for help in searching databases. It's better than missing a major reference on your topic.
  • Other members of your research group and senior graduate students.

General "Survival Skills" Resources for Graduate Students on the Web
good suggestions for writing proposals and giving talks

Compiled by the University of Minnesota Chemistry WISE Team from various sources, including the Web resources above, graduate students and faculty. 1/2002