Pre-registration talks – and why they’re great

Camilla Woodrow-Hill, Psychology, University of Manchester (2020 Cohort)

One hurdle many early-stage PhD students may encounter is being unable to present at conferences until later in their PhD journey due to a lack of study data. Fortunately, with the increasing awareness of open-research practices, some conferences are inviting researchers to submit pre-registration posters or talks. This means exactly what the name suggests – researchers are given the opportunity to present research that they have not pre-registered or collected data for yet. This gives researchers the valuable opportunity to present their current research plans and collect feedback from the academic community at a point when they are still able to make changes and improvements to their study design. It also increases awareness in the academic community of research that is currently in the pipeline, and reduces the chances of HARKing once data is collected for these pre-registered studies, increasing the rigor of the research. Importantly, pre-registration presentations also give early-stage PhD students the opportunity to practice presenting their work to various audiences to enhance their presentation skills – something that doesn’t come naturally to many.

I, myself, am a first-year PhD student at the University of Manchester, currently designing a study which I hope to collect data for over the next few months. My PhD focuses on observation and imagery of action in Parkinson’s, so when I saw that RIO (Research in Imagery and Observation) were inviting pre-registration abstracts for their 2021 online seminar series, it seemed a great opportunity to talk about my current study plans.

My abstract was accepted and I was invited to do a 15-minute talk on my study, with a 10-minute period allowed for questions. With this being the first talk of my PhD, I definitely felt like a fish out of water and was incredibly nervous. A couple of weeks before my scheduled talk, I presented a draft presentation to my lab group over Zoom, which was an excellent way to get feedback before the actual day, and the positive feedback I received from my lab group really helped boost my confidence and ease my nerves before the presentation at RIO.

In particular, I was quite nervous about questions I might be asked. I was worried I wouldn’t know something others thought was obvious and that my study plans would be laughed out of the seminar for being ridiculous and unfeasible, or that I wouldn’t be asked any questions at all. One of my supervisors emailed me a lot of feedback on my general study just a day before the talk at RIO and though that made me worry, it also made me prepare more fully for questions I might be asked, which I think really paid off.

On the day of the online seminar, I was the first speaker – I was really glad of this, as I figured waiting for others to finish first would make me more nervous! The presentation itself went by in a blur. I had practiced so well, I knew it back to front by that point. When my talk finished, my worry about no one asking any questions quickly dissipated, as I was asked question after question. The other members of RIO were incredibly positive and encouraging, whilst raising some really interesting things to consider in my experimental design that I hadn’t previously thought of. In fact, when my 10-minute question session was up, instead of going for a short comfort break I stayed to answer more questions! Whilst other PhD students went through their talks, I received some further questions in the Zoom chat, and the genuine interest in my research was very encouraging.

Overall, the experience was exhilarating. Although currently many conferences are still operating online, I highly recommend to any PhD students to continue to attend where you can, because the chance to discuss your research with other academics in similar fields is such a valuable and rewarding experience. Plus, if you have any fear or nervousness around public speaking, presenting online is a great way to ease yourself in gently, when you are not standing in front of a physical audience.

Presenting my pre-registered study allowed me to gain crucial feedback from a community who could become peer reviewers should I submit a paper for publication. The experience also gave me newfound motivation to continue revising my experiments for the better, and reminded me why I chose to complete a PhD in the first place. I would highly recommend all researchers, at any career stage, consider submitting pre-registration abstracts in the future.

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