POSTER SESSIONS 101
A primer for Mathematicians negotiating the learning curve for
conference poster sessions
Mathematicians don't do poster
This isn't completely true; applied mathematicians have been
doing so for ages, particularly when presenting at meetings in applied
sciences. At pure mathematics meetings posters have not been a
big deal, in general. Most mathematical conferences do not
feature poster sessions. Thus, many of us in the Mathematical
Sciences are behind the game when it comes to this activity, endemic to
the rest of the sciences. So I have put together a brief
collection of miscellaneous thoughts and advice. As I am not one
to speak (I am negotiating the learning curve myself!), I
solicit input and helpful links from visitors to this page.
In particular it would be helpful to have examples of posters done by
students in more "pure" fields of mathematics.
Why should we start now?
I can think of no definitive answer. Here are some thoughts.
What does a poster session involve?
- Everyone else is doing it. (I got this idea from my
- More to the point, posters are an investment in the visual
representation of science. Every effective poster becomes a
resource for the future. Walk through many departments of Science
that have an active program encouraging student (or faculty)
involvement in poster sessions and you will see a rich and attractive
legacy of their research prominently displayed. The better
projects tend to be kept around and prominently used in outreach
programs or just to beautify the department. Departments of
science tend to have a strong visual presence on campus partly because
of the legacy of poster presentations. In terms of competing for
students and maintaining public presence, a steady program of
participation in poster sessions provides a department of Mathematics
with an invaluable resource. NOT having such a program places
math departments at a competitive disadvantage relative to the other
- Should mathematicians not be learning, experimenting and
developing better ways of visually representing the subject?
Perhaps the fact that other sciences have a better media presence is
related to their commitment to training students and researchers to
condense and visually present their work.
- Travel subsidies to conferences given by universities,
departments and faculties often come with a requirement that the
student present their research at the meeting. It is not always
possible for the student to give a talk. Indeed, although most
meetings are suitable for this, some meetings have limited speaking
slots, and cannot accommodate any or all speakers. If there is
competition for these slots, students are unlikely to have priority.
- Students or research fellows may or may not be comfortable or
experienced enough to give a live presentation of their research.
They may find an scaled-down format more friendly. A poster
session is a gentle introduction to the presentation of one's work.
- Posters are recyclable, and can evolve, improving in quality and
presentation. A poster used at one meeting can be updated and
used in other forums. When a talk is over it is over; but when
one takes down a poster after a poster session, one's first thoughts
should be: "What shall I use this for next?" "How can I
improve the poster, given the feedback I've received?" At many
schools there are multidisciplinary
Poster competitions for students -- NSERC, for one, sponsors such
events. The expectation at such competitions is that students
will recycle posters presented at professional meetings.
- While one generally doesn't use the same poster at two different
conferences in a given field, a poster may go through several revisions
and be reused over time, reflecting improvements in presentation and
the progress of the research being reported on.
- Posters are more appropriate for reporting "work in progress"
than live talks. They are also good ways to solicit input on
Poster sessions are done differently in different sciences; a poster is
either a free-standing presentation, or one hung on a wall, generally
no more than 3'x6', and usually somewhat smaller than that, although a
freestanding presentation might be a bit larger. A poster should
major on visual presentation of information, with relatively short
boxes of explanatory text. Use of colour and diagram is key to
good visual impact. Small handbills may accompany a poster (this
is completely optional!); in mathematics one might even prepare entire
preprints of an article for distribution, but it should not be expected
that all, or even many, visitors will want to delve this deeply into
one's presentation. As far as the nature of a "live"
presentation, sometimes each poster is allotted time for an oral
presentation; at other times there are featured posters allotted
segments of a session.
I advocate a more "passive session", in which posters are simply put up
in a public area and presenters asked to be on hand to answer questions
at certain times, and no oral presentation is prepared
beforehand. This way a poster session can happen simultaneously
throughout a conferences, with participants browsing casually as their
interests carry them.
How to get started?
There is no better training for the creation of posters than looking at
what others have done. Visit poster presentations in other
sciences, or browse departments that display what they consider to have
been very good posters in the past. Also, before you begin you
might consider what other uses you will make of the poster. Is it
a candidate for permanent display in your department? Will it be
entered in a competition? Will it be modified for subsequent
uses, or evolve with the research? Might it be seen by the
general public by being put in a library, museum or travelling
display? These considerations should affect the content,
presentation style, preparation time and quality of materials that go
into the poster.
Some of the most impressive posters are produced as a single physical
sheet, composited on a computer and printed on an oversize
printer. Most university printing centers have the appropriate
equipment and paper -- all you need supply is the image.
NOTE: You can expect to pay for what you get! An oversized
full-colour printout on high-quality poster paper can cost
something in the $100 range (but don't forget -- you are likely to make
use of the poster more than once; regard it as an investment).
Any software capable of handling large-scale images is suitable for
this purpose. For example, some have found
PowerPoint to be an appropriate tool. Depending on the
the project, a small-scale printout of the same image might serve as a
suitable accompanying handbill.
Here is an example of a
poster-sized image prepared using powerpoint, for a project in
(SUGGESTION: YOU MAY USE THIS FILE AS A
TEMPLATE FOR YOUR OWN PROJECT)
Here is a PDF image of a
poster in applied mathematics (Mathematical Biology) by a graduate
What does a poster in PURE mathematics
This is a good question, and I sincerely desire that you help me answer
it -- by encouraging your students to produce some high-quality
examples for display at upcoming meetings with poster sessions, such as
2008 and PDMW
2008. This will demand inventiveness, creativity, and
"thinking outside the box" -- all important traits for a