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Recommendations for a Successful SPE Student Paper Contest Participation

Recently, I served on the judging panel of the SPE Middle East Region Student Paper Contest held in Bahrain. I took part in the bachelor, master, and doctoral divisions, which made up for an intense couple of days. Though it was my first time partaking in these contests as a judge (I represented Penn State University as a student participant in the past), most judges expressed their satisfaction at how the contest was organized from the abstract-review stage to the final day of presentations. In this short review, I would like to share recommendations based on my observations throughout the process that may be useful for future student, judge, moderator, and organizer of industry conferences.

For Students

The road for many students to the international contest at the SPE Annual Technical Conference and Exhibition starts in their schools where they compete alongside peers for one of the two spots awarded per school. When the number of potential candidates is too large to fit in the regional event, the organizers may recruit judges to rank the students based only on their presentation abstracts. Therefore, students should play close attention to the writing of their abstract as this short document has the potential to make or break their chances early in the run.

Some general advice on writing the abstract that applies for all divisions:

  • Make the context clear from the beginning: Why is your research important? If this point does not come across clear from the start, you may lose a large number of the judges irrespective of how solid your research is.

  • Focus on your own achievements: Do not spend too much time describing the work of others in the abstract.

  • Write the abstract on the results you already have, as opposed to describing future work.

  • Make sure the abstract does not have any typos or other informal writing. This should be easy enough to address, but seems to be a recurring problem.

For those selected, the fun part begins as students prepare to deliver their talks to the judges. Students that deliver a competitive performance at the international level of the contest typically present talks that are curated to the extent that they can easily be confused for a TED Talk. This means that those students have practiced their presentations hundreds of times, and the earlier they start practicing the more intuitive their delivery will be.

As you prepare for your presentation, the following points may be useful:

  • Keep your introduction as general as possible. Remember that judges may not be familiar with very particular details about your research, so it will benefit you to have easy-to-follow starting thoughts.

  • Though having a relevant and up-to-date literature review is important for a conference or journal paper, during your presentation the focus should be on the gaps in the literature. This should help motivate your research in a clear way.

  • Organize your results in such a way that there is a clear story. The best presentations are not about data reporting but about storytelling.

  • For your departing thoughts, emphasize the novel contributions of your research and how they add value to the petroleum industry.

Though the presentation is completely within your control, the question-and-answer (Q&A) session is not. However, you can anticipate some questions by being critical about your work during practice, and by practicing with your peers, professors, and even family members. Of course, focus on answering the questions honestly: It is much better to say that you are not familiar with a given concept or that the question falls outside the scope of your work than to make something up on the spot. Most judges will be able to see through that, which will surely hurt your overall score.

For Judges and Moderators

Judges at the regional level should take their role very seriously, as they are ensuring the selected students will do a great job at representing the region. Judges should be extra cautious at keeping their bias in check, especially when judging students from their alma mater. Judges are the only ones that can ask the students questions (the audience is not allowed to participate in the Q&A), and they should make sure that their questions are self-contained, without voicing their overall opinion about the presentation. Comments, disguised as questions, about the quality of the presentation are strongly discouraged as they may help bias the judging in a certain direction. The moderator should be skilled at preventing this from happening. Finally, judges should account for their scoring privately and then share the scoring sheets with the moderator without prior deliberation with other judges, which is something the moderator should enforce.

For Organizers

Organizers have the most challenging task of making sure all the events run seamlessly in the face of countless uncertainties. From communicating with students and judges to locating an event venue, there are many things that could go wrong from the organizing point of view. For example, when the contest involves international travel, some students may opt to present via videoconference. In these cases, connectivity issues may pose a threat for the success of those presentations. The organizers during the recent Middle East region contest were quite resourceful in dealing with such issues by doing numerous tests prior to the scheduled times. For those candidates with truly poor connectivity, they were able to share the slides ahead of time and the students delivered their presentation via phone. This was very ad hoc, but with some coordination it was successful.

In short, SPE student paper contests at all levels are very enriching experiences for all those involved. Paper contests are an important avenue for knowledge sharing, where students can teach the judges, and judges can take the opportunity to pay it forward while mentoring students. Hopefully these tips help you in whatever capacity you participate. Good luck!


Victor Torrealba a postdoctoral fellow at the Ali I. Al-Naimi Petroleum Engineering Research Center at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia. His research is focused on chemical enhanced oil recovery (CEOR) and simulation of naturally fractured reservoirs. Torrealba is originally from Venezuela. After a stint at Simon Bolivar University studying chemical engineering, he transferred to Pennsylvania State University where he continued his education in petroleum engineering, earning BSc (Hons), MSc, and PhD degrees. During his PhD he interned twice at Chevron Energy Technology Company, where he worked on CEOR simulations.

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