I recently met with Dr. Mehmet Toner to discuss my PhD project and he gave me great advice on developing a proposal for my oral qualifying exam (or, more broadly, for any scientific presentation).

There are two key elements one must nail at the beginning before the committee lets you go on explaining your proposed aims and experimental methods: 1) What Is and 2) What Is Possible.

What Is” breaks down into two components:

1)   Significance represents the emotional appeal of your project. This is where you tell stories about the pain point you are addressing, how many people suffer from the disease you’re tackling, the cost of the problem, its global reach, etc. You must convince your committee that your problem is important. The time and place for pulling heartstrings in a scientific presentation is here.

2)   Background is the analytical portion of your story. It’s where you talk about the state of art, the existing literature, and what is currently known. This is where you show your committee that you’ve done your homework on what exists and carved out a niche for yourself in a landscape of opportunities.

The delta between the picture you paint of “What Is” and the picture you’ll paint in the rest of your presentation of “What Is Possible” represents your Wow! Factor. Maximize the Wow.


Dr. Toner left me with some final wise words:

“All PhD projects are like Swiss cheese. They are full of holes. What we [your qualifying exam committee] care about is that you can plug the holes.”


Diagram created by me based on a sketch that Mehmet Toner drew during our meeting. Brain icon adapted from iconsforlife.com