Next week my students are presenting the outline of their research project. Most of them have an idea of project, some rather focused, others less, but the point in this course (Molecular Biology) is to address the molecular level of their topic. As I write the instructions of the outline, the questions that reverberates in my mind is “so what?”

I remember that question clearly from my grad student and especially post doc years. It was something along the lines: your presentation should say “what,then what, and so what.” Meaning, you will present the problem-issue-background of your plan, then you will explain what is that you will do about it, and what is its significance. The “so what” part was indeed the most critical: what is the impact, usefulness, advantage, or importance of your plan?

Here is an expanded version of this advice, directed to research proposals.

While it is always better to have a narrowly focused research topic, being too broad right now is not a big problem. There will be time to develop a focus on something, and the different courses give students the chance to look at their topic from different angles. For this course it is the molecular angle, which is not difficult once you correlate a characteristic with a function, which immediately connects with function.

Of course there is a need to keep our eyes on the big picture too. Because otherwise we lose the “so what” test. The study of a particular function of a particular molecule is not done just because it is fun. There should be a rationale for it. Sometimes the rationale is an immediate application, which is nice. But sometimes it is about clarifying an issue that is controversial, or explaining a phenomenon that is unclear. But remember, to convince your audience you need to pass the test. And while today your audience is that of your classmates, next time it may be a future supervisor or a hiring committee. So it is good to be prepared!

And here is a video I was going to show during my research presentation, but ran out of time. It is about a Ph.D. thesis, but I guess it is not that different for Masters. Enjoy!