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When I was a doctoral student, one mentor secretly sent their friend (another professor) to my poster at a professional conference to ask the most difficult methodological and statistical questions about my research content. I think my mentor viewed this as an initiation of some kind to the academic presentation experience. Suffice it to say, I have not continued this tradition with my own students.

But I do spend a considerable amount of time and effort in coaching my undergraduate students to present their research effectively. In my discipline, these presentations are typically poster sessions, during which conference participants walk around and dialogue with presenters about their study. Understandably, students feel a certain level of anxiety around this rather esoteric endeavor of academics, and as a mentor, I try to help them best prepare for their poster sessions.

When I think about the type of mentoring that I am likely to engage in, I am struck by how so many aspects of my coaching  focus on making a quick, even immediate, impact on the audience. For instance:

  • My students and I spend a considerable amount of time strategizing the aesthetics of the poster.
  • I make observations about whether the assigned physical location of our poster is ideal for catching conference attendees’ attention.
  • When students ask me about things like dress code, I share detailed advice based on my own experiences.
  • I coach students to answer questions quickly and effectively. I encourage them to formulate their 30-second elevator pitch to convey the most compelling aspects of their study.
  • The content-related questions that I have students practice answering have to do with what is apparent and readily answered in a few moments (e.g., “What was the main analysis?” or “Was your prediction supported?”).

Again, notice that all these endeavors are marked by a motivation to make the presentation glitzier (e.g., poster design) or the delivered content to be more immediately digestible (e.g., elevator pitch), to woo the listener.

I do not dismiss the importance of attractively packaging complicated research content as an academic skill – after all, conference presentations are about presenting oneself and one’s research; we need to teach our students how to do this work effectively. At the same time, in my recent reflections about teaching, I have been wondering about how I might encourage my students to better reflect on and articulate the “non-flashy ” aspects of conducting psychological research.

From a Biblical perspective, it’s about seeking to emulate God’s heart who “looks at the heart” instead of “the outward appearance” (1 Samuel 16:7; NIV). It’s the extension of the Christian calling to do good works (e.g., giving to the poor) in an unnoticeable way that does not permit “your left hand [to] know what your right hand is doing” (Matthew 6:3; NIV). It’s the idea that there is a bigger standard of Christian excellence than what is behavioral – the heart also matters (see Matthew 5:28).

With this perspective in mind, I have been experimenting with altering my usual approach to helping students prepare for research conferences. Specifically, I have modified my lengthy list of practice questions that I encourage students to think about ahead of time. Instead of devoting most practice questions to content, I ask students to think about and articulate the following:

  • Is there a personal or communal connection to what you did? If so, tell me this story.
  • How might you do things differently if you were to do the study all over again?
  • What was most challenging about what you did? Rewarding?
  • Tell me about a time you felt stuck and how you worked through it.
  • Tell me about the people on your team.
  • What did you learn about yourself or your community by doing this study?

In the Christian classroom (e.g., in my research method class I require a poster presentation as a final exam), I might add these questions:

  • What did you learn about loving God and loving others through this project?
  • How did your Christian vocation shape your research questions? Your implications?
  • What were some difficult decisions you had to make along the way that were shaped by Christian perspectives?

Note that these questions are unlikely to have “glitzy” responses that will captivate a research presentation audience. My graduate school mentors certainly did not focus on these types of questions when they trained me to present at research conferences. But although the responses to the questions that I just listed might not be content that immediately captivates an audience, I would argue that they are just as meaningful, if not more, to student learning.

In closing, let me share a brief example from my teaching and mentoring. A former undergraduate student in my research team, Marcella Locke, published a study1 on Asian American emotion regulation processes, religiosity, and mental health stigma. Beyond recognizing the immediate accomplishment of this peer-reviewed publication, I encouraged Marcella to process and share some of the deeper questions that might not be apparent to the reader. We accomplished this through a recorded conversation2 on personal, cultural, and faith-based connections to the research questions that we tackled in the publication. It is certainly not a flashy product, but it is something that I use as a template for my research students who are thinking about how they might articulate their bigger-picture questions in relation to their research endeavors.


  1. Marcella, A. Locke and Paul Youngbin Kim. “Emotion, Religious Coping, Stigma, and Help-Seeking Attitudes Among Asian Americans: Examination of Moderated Mediation,” Journal of Psychology & Theology 52, no. 1 (2024):18-36.
  2. Paul Youngbin Kim. Interview with Marcella A. Locke. Teaching Cross-Cultural Psychology. Podcast audio. January 5, 2024.

Paul Y. Kim

Seattle Pacific University
Paul Youngbin Kim is Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology, Family, and Community at Seattle Pacific University