Academic Posters: A Student’s View

Mads Linnet Perner, University of Copenhagen


Again this year, the Annual Conference of the Social History Society accepted poster presentations, and I had the great honour of winning the Postgraduate Poster Prize based on my work on the residential patterns of pre-industrial Copenhagen. This blogpost compiles some thoughts on the genre of academic posters, what they are good for and how we might learn to embrace them in the humanities.

I am writing as an undergraduate student. SHS was my first history conference experience and it was a great pleasure to attend and to contribute with my own poster. Academic conferences can seem quite intimidating to newcomers. As a particularly shy student (I am sure that I’m not the only one), I really appreciate the intimate one-on-one encounters that a poster presentation facilitates. For undergraduates who would not feel comfortable in a panel discussion just yet, I can recommend submitting a poster for a gentler entry to the conference scene. There is an additional benefit post-conference, namely that your poster can be shared widely on social media after it has been presented.

Christian Gedde’s grand elevated map of Copenhagen was finished in 1758. I used this incredibly detailed map, which measures 2.5 x 2.5 meters, as backdrop for my poster to set the scene of mid-eighteenth-century Copenhagen.

Poster sessions are a common feature of conferences in STEM-fields where they are often held in conjunction with lunch or coffee breaks. In the humanities, however, they are rare. Apart from SHS, posters are typically only accepted in the digital humanities and in the quantitatively-minded branches of history. Posters are all about the visuals, and it makes sense to assume that they are better suited for those fields where graphs and figures are a key part the argument. But this should not prevent us from presenting our historical research visually. Posters can be great formats to outline the sources, promises and limitations of a particular project.

Showing the relative status of each street in Copenhagen in 1711 and 1845

Personally, I use posters to kick off my writing. As there is a very limited amount of space available, the format forces you to think about the most important points to get across to the reader. As such, the poster serves as a first draft of the outline of the written end product.

A poster should, like a conference abstract, briefly outline the background, approach and initial findings of your research. However, the amount of text should be kept to a minimum and it’s important to keep in mind that text, on a poster, is only secondary. The primary element of a poster is the visual content which aims to catch the eyes of the audience. Readers will not necessarily begin with the first text box in the upper left corner (as if they were reading a multi-column page). They are more likely to start with an interesting figure, so try to arrange your poster in a way which guides the reader from a piece of visual material towards the sections of text.

If your project is qualitative in nature, chances are that you have no maps or graphs to put on display. Try instead to incorporate some sources, maybe some quotes or even a diagram to simplify your theoretical framework.

Showing the relative change in social status in each street. A darker background marks the areas that burned in the great fires. On the right map, there is an immediately clear connection between the area that burned and streets with rising social status.

We can take the poster which I presented at SHS as an example. The maps are large and central to catch the eye of the audience. The text box explaining the maps is situated to the left and the text is in bold to draw the reader in this direction. At this point the reader should have a reasonable understanding of my findings. I have placed less emphasis on the sections in the left part of the poster. I consider these ‘extras’ for particularly interested readers. My experience is that most people will only read part of the poster. Make sure you grab their attention.


Click here to see the full-size pdf of the prize-winning poster

You can find out more about the poster prize by clicking here.


About the author: Mads Linnet Perner is a final-year undergraduate at the University of Copenhagen. His first experience of an academic conference was presenting a research poster at the recent Social History Society conference at Keele University, which won the prize generously supported by Bloomsbury Publishing for best student poster.

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