On Preparing an Elevator Pitch as a PhD Student: Challenges and Strategies

Tadayoshi Kohno (Yoshi Kohno)
16 min readAug 22, 2023

It can be challenging to prepare an elevator pitch as a junior PhD student — as someone just embarking on a research career. Nevertheless, junior PhD students are often encouraged to prepare elevator pitches about their work. I both think that this is good advice (people will ask students about their research, so it is good to have an elevator pitch prepared, and the process of preparing an elevator pitch can be educational unto itself) and potentially stress-inducing (in general, it is much harder to prepare an elevator pitch as a junior PhD student than as a senior researcher).

Thus, a question arises: What strategies might one use to create an elevator pitch as a junior researcher?

In this post, I (1) discuss one reason why preparing an elevator pitch can be difficult for people just beginning their research career and (2) discuss how to approach creating an elevator pitch as a junior researcher. Naturally, of course, and as with all my posts on the PhD process, the following are my perspectives and others may disagree. (I write more about how to interpret advice in another post.)

This image is titled “Elevator Pitches”. The image shows three people thinking, “How should I describe my research?”

What is an “elevator pitch”?

In academia, we often talk about “elevator pitches”. An “elevator pitch” is a short, succinct summary of one’s research. It is called an “elevator pitch” because it is designed to take less time than an elevator ride.

A commonly mentioned motivating scenario for an elevator pitch is the following:

Suppose that you are at a conference and get in an elevator with another attendee (e.g., another PhD student, a senior professor, someone from government). They ask you what you are working on. They press the button for the 14th floor, and you’re on the 16th floor. You have until the 14th floor to explain your research, i.e., to give your “elevator pitch”.

Elevator pitches are useful in other contexts, not just elevators — e.g., standing near someone in a conference buffet line, after being introduced to someone during a morning coffee break, and more.

Elevator pitches are reflections, and reflections are difficult.

A key reason that it can be difficult to prepare an elevator pitch as a junior researcher is that an elevator pitch is not just a short presentation of the technical elements of one’s own research. An elevator pitch is:

  • (A) A reflection of the current state of a research field, including existing research;
  • (B) A description of how one’s research fits into that broader space.

As a junior researcher who is still learning about their own research field, it can be difficult to know how to create the reflection (A) and hence also difficult to situate their own research within that reflection (B).

Contents of an elevator pitch.

The above starts to explain why preparing an elevator pitch can be difficult for junior researchers, but it does not yet describe the actual contents of an elevator pitch.

While there are likely different perspectives on what belongs in an elevator pitch, I see the following as the four main components:

  • What the research project is about, i.e., what problem the researcher is trying to solve or what questions the researcher is trying to answer;
  • Why the project is meaningful to the researcher (optional);
  • What approach the researcher took / is taking (optional);
  • Some hint at the project’s findings or implications (optional).

A concrete example may be useful. For this example, I turn to my paper on ethics and computer security (with Yasemin Acar and Wulf Loh). Here is an elevator pitch for that work:

The computer security research community cares deeply about ethics and morality. However, much of the computer security research community’s approach to ethics and morality has been best-effort and not informed by the rich history of ethics and moral philosophy.

I believe that our community’s approach to ethics and morality — the types of decisions we make, as well as how we have conversations about ethics and morality and how we make decisions — can be improved if we build explicitly and intentionally on the foundations of ethics and moral philosophy.

Thus, in collaboration with Yasemin Acar (another computer security professor) and Wulf Loh (an ethics and moral philosophy professor), we embarked on a research program to bridge this gap. In our first paper, we developed computer security-themed moral dilemmas inspired by philosophy’s classic “trolley problems”. These are scenarios in which a decision-maker needs to make a decision, but all decisions lead to undesirable outcomes. We analyzed our scenarios using different approaches to ethics — under different ethical frameworks — and find that the application of different ethical frameworks do, indeed, result in decision-makers making different decisions.

Understanding how different approaches to ethics and morality can result in different decisions is, I think, an important takeaway for our community.

The first paragraph in my elevator pitch gives a summary of what the project is about: it is about ethics and morality in the computer security research field.

The second paragraph explains why I find the project meaningful.

The third paragraph in my example elevator pitch describes our approach: to develop and explore computer security-themed trolley problems under different ethical frameworks.

The end of the third paragraph and the fourth paragraph also start to hint at the project’s findings / implications to the computer security research field. The second paragraph also hints at the project’s findings / implications.

Naturally, there can be variations in the order in which the components are presented.

On the word “meaningful” in “why the project is meaningful to the researcher” (second bullet above) (brief aside).

I wrote “why the project is meaningful to the researcher” as the second bullet in the list of components of an elevator pitch.

I could have written “why the project is important”, but I dislike the word “important” because the word “important” can cause people to ask the question “is my work important enough?” For junior PhD students, and — actually — for researchers at all career stages, I believe that it is better to work on projects that one finds meaningful than to work on projects that are “important”. If the researcher finds the project interesting and meaningful to them, then work on it! (In a future post, I hope to talk more about project selection. Among my past posts, perhaps the one most closely related is my post on the different types of PhDs and PhD projects.)

For the second bullet, I could have also written, “why the researcher cares about the project”.

I could have also written, “why the researcher finds the project interesting”.

I center “the researcher” in this discussion — e.g., above, I wrote, “why the researcher finds the project interesting”, rather than “why the project is interesting” — because the goal of the elevator pitch is not to convince the listener that the project is interesting. Research communities are so large, and different researchers (naturally) find different projects interesting.

The above point is worth stressing: It is okay if the listener does not find the project interesting. It is more important for the speaker to make it clear to the listener that they (the speaker) finds the project interesting / meaningful.

Also, sometimes the explanation of “what the research project is about” includes a less explicit (more implicit) description of why the project is meaningful to the researcher. For example, I could replace the first two paragraphs above with:

I am really interested in the intersection between ethics + morality and computer security research. Much of the computer security research community’s approach to ethics and morality has been best-effort and not informed by the rich history of ethics and moral philosophy.

Another perspective on the contents of an elevator pitch.

The following is a reframing of the components of an elevator pitch. After hearing your elevator pitch, someone should know:

  • What you are working on, i.e., what problem you are trying to solve or what questions you are trying to answer;
  • What motivates you as a researcher (optional);
  • What you have found (optional).

More on “what motivates you as a researcher”.

One might ask: is it important for the listener to know what motivates the researcher and / or why the researcher finds the project meaningful?

It is not essential, which is why I wrote “optional” in the bullet list above. Conveying motivation is harder than conveying the technical details of a project, so my suggestion is to not worry about it too much if it is difficult to do.

Still, I should explain why I emphasize motivation as an optional component in an elevator pitch.

When I interact with people at conference, I am not only interested in what they are currently working on, I am interested in creating more lasting connections. When I understand what motivates someone / what someone finds meaningful, I am in a better position to create a connection that extends beyond the lifetime of any individual project.

Additionally, suppose that someone’s technical research directions are very different from my own. When I understand what motivates them, I am better able to engage in follow-on discussions, e.g., about brainstorming future research directions that overlap our interests even if I don’t understand the technical details of their current project.

It can be difficult to have confidence in one’s reflections of a community.

Let’s now return to bullets (A) and (B) above, which I repeat here. An elevator pitch is:

  • (A) A reflection of the current state of a research field, including existing research;
  • (B) A description of how one’s research fits into that broader space.

In the example elevator pitch above, I (A) made broad, sweeping statements about the computer security research field and (B) described the role of our work in addressing a present gap in the field.

The field is much more nuanced than I could summarize in just a few sentences. Thus, making such broad statements can be very nerve-wracking, even for someone with extensive experience in a field. It can be even more nerve-wracking for someone new to a field. For example, while preparing such a statement, one might wonder:

  • Could there be some element of the field that I don’t know about?
  • Am I exhibiting an unknown (to me) naivety of a field in a broad and incorrect summary?
  • What if the person I’m talking with disagrees with my summary?
  • Do I really know the field well enough to make this summary?

The above are very real and natural questions. It is because of questions like the above that it can be very difficult for those just beginning their research careers to prepare elevator pitches. (I believe that the previous statement is also true for many senior researchers, especially but not only when they embark into new research areas.)


Given the above challenges, I now make several recommendations for junior researchers preparing their first elevator pitches.

  • Recommendation 1. Know that everyone senior in the field has had to experience a time in which they were new to the field.

The above is both obvious and easy to forget at times. But it is true — all senior researchers were at one point in time a junior researcher. This means that anyone you talk with should understand that preparing an elevator pitch is difficult and, as a result, they should give you grace.

  • Recommendation 2. Keep in mind that senior researchers are also still human and, while they may have more experience, they still struggle with figuring out how to “perfectly” summarize their research and, in fact, they probably know that there is no such thing as a “perfect” summary.

It can also be easy for junior researchers to not realize that senior researchers also struggle with the same things that junior researchers struggle with. Of course, they bring more experiences — including both things that they might consider successes and things that they might not — to bear, e.g., when they prepare an elevator pitch. But they are still human, they still struggle with elements of the research process, and hence they should have compassion and understanding for any (junior or otherwise) researcher as that researcher gives their research elevator pitch.

  • Recommendation 3. Have kindness toward yourself as you prepare your elevator pitch and each time that you give it.

This recommendation is perhaps one of the most important ones in this essay. It is easy to be self-critical; it can be hard to be compassionate to oneself as they do something unfamiliar and unknown, especially if they think they are being evaluated as they do so.

Hopefully recommendations #1 and #2 make it easier to implement recommendation #3.

  • Recommendation 4. Be okay with imperfection.

Recommendation #4 is naturally closely related to recommendation #3, but I feel like it is important enough to call out explicitly.

One important difference between junior researchers and senior researchers is that senior researchers have much more experience with situations “that could have gone better”. E.g., a senior researcher has probably delivered many elevator pitches where, afterwards, they think to themselves, “I wish I said such-and-such differently”. Sure, such situations means that they have more experiences to draw upon when they prepare their future elevator pitches. But, more importantly, such situations means that the senior researchers also know that it is okay to not give a “perfect” elevator pitch and, hence, it can be easier to show self-compassion for “that wasn’t perfect” as one gains more experience.

While it can still be hard to be okay with imperfection at any career stage, I hope the above paragraph helps junior researchers understand that imperfection is okay.

  • Recommendation 5. View the preparation of an elevator pitch as part of the educational growth process.

It may be tempting to view the elevator pitch — the final, prepared and practiced elevator pitch — as the goal. Sure, the elevator pitch may be a goal. But, I believe that it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the educational value associated with the preparation of the elevator pitch may actually be just as or more valuable for the junior researcher than the actual, in-hand elevator pitch.

Preparing an elevator pitch is difficult, as discussed above. Thus, as one prepares an elevator pitch, they often learn more about their broader research space, about how their project fits into that research space, and about themselves as well (what motivates them, why they find the project interesting, and so on). Thus, even if a researcher ends up never giving their elevator pitch, I believe that the process of having prepared one can be very valuable.

  • Recommendation 6. Work with your advisors on preparing your elevator pitch.

The PhD process should not be one of isolation. Rather, a PhD student should have advocates — their PhD advisor(s)—who are invested in the PhD student’s career and best interests. Your advisors likely have extensive experience in preparing elevator pitches, and I hope that they are available to help you work through the preparation of at least the first few. (If for some reason your advisor(s) are not available, I hope that you are in a position to find other advocates.)

  • Recommendation 7. I encourage you to prepare written drafts of your elevator pitches, not just practice them in your head or verbally.

Others may be different, but I find it valuable to prepare written drafts. The written drafts could be outlines, or they could be full scripts. Sometimes, I might even use a screen reader or an editor’s built-in “read aloud” capability to read the text back to me, so that I hear how it sounds.

  • Recommendation 8. Practice with others.

If you are going to a conference with a number of other PhD students, for example, I encourage all of you to practice delivering your elevator pitches to each other. Through practice and interaction with another real human being, it is possible to better understand what parts of your elevator pitch “work” and what parts could use improvement.

Additionally, after practicing an elevator pitch multiple times with other real people, it becomes easier to know how to organically / naturally deviate from a script. This makes the presentation of the elevator pitch more natural-sounding / less artificial.

  • Recommendation 9. Have fun.

Suppose that you are going to a conference and are preparing your elevator pitch in case anyone at the conference asks you about your research. It can be so easy to get focused on the details / logistics of what goes into an elevator pitch and thus forget the bigger details: you are (hopefully) working on a project that you enjoy and are interested in, and in a research space that you enjoy and are interested in. At the conference, you will be meeting other people who enjoy and are interested in the same broad research field.

My recommendation: enjoy those meetings and those interactions, enjoy the conference, and (repeating recommendation #3), be kind to yourself along the way. If you find working on an elevator pitch to be stressful or take up too much time, then you might consider skipping the preparation of an elevator pitch entirely. Actually, in my opinion, one does not need an elevator pitch at a conference. If you have one, great! But if you do not have one, that is fine, too. There will hopefully be future conferences, at which point you will have more research experience and more to talk about.

  • Recommendation 10. View the giving of the elevator pitch as an opportunity for growth.

I suggest keeping in mind that one grows as a researcher each time they interact with someone else. So, even if the delivery of an elevator pitch in a real-life situation doesn’t go exactly as you hoped, you have become a stronger researcher and communicator and have grown. Recall also Recommendations 1, 2, 3, and 4 above.

Length and delivery strategy.

Now back to some more logistics. I don’t know if there is a “standard” recommendation for how long an elevator pitch should be, but one common (or at least not uncommon) recommendation is:

  • Prepare a short, 30-second elevator pitch;
  • Prepare an additional 90-second or less expansion (total 2 minutes or less) if the person one is talking with expresses interest and wishes to learn more.

Naturally, the person one is talking with may ask questions, in which case the conversation may diverge from the planned “pitch”. In general, I would encourage the person giving the elevator pitch to embrace and enjoy such divergence — it means that the other person is interested and engaged with the research — even if it results in not being able to deliver all portions of the “pitch”. Said another way, I encourage the viewing of the elevator pitch as the start of a conversation — a dialogue and an engagement with someone else — and not a one-sided presentation.

What if you are just starting your first project?

Creating an elevator pitch is challenging unto itself, even after having a full, completed project to discuss. It can even be more intimidating when one is the middle of their first project. If one is just beginning or in the middle of their research project, they may not even know for sure what the research will actually be about.

For example, in the computer security field, maybe the researcher knows that they want to do something related to online advertising, or automobiles, or mobile phone security. Maybe they have a unique approach that they think they might want to try. But maybe they haven’t fully formulated their research questions yet or determined the precise methodology they wish to follow … or maybe they are not sure if their methodology will successfully answer their research questions.

In this case, I would encourage the researcher to focus the summary on their vision — what they want to do (what problem they hope to solve), why they care about the problem (why they find the problem important and interesting), and what general approach they are currently exploring (even if they have not settled on a final direction).

It is okay for the researcher to acknowledge that this is a new project for them and that they have not determined the entire shape of the project yet. Here, I encourage the researcher to not equate “not determined the entire shape of the project yet” with “inadequacy”. That is, as a PhD student who is committing to a research area, you are a growing expert in your area. Yes, you might not have determined the full shape of your project yet, but every senior researcher has also had the experience of not knowing the full shape of their project at some point in time, and a senior researcher should not judge you for not knowing the full shape of a new research project. (Recall the self-compassion and other recommendations above.)

What if you do not want to or can’t talk about your research project yet?

Sometimes, people don’t want to or can’t talk about their current research project.

In the computer security research community, one common reason is the following: one’s current research project revolves around the discovery of a new vulnerability in an important system and, before one can discuss that research and that finding publicly, more research needs to be done and the relevant company (the company that made the important system) needs to be notified and given the opportunity to develop a defense. Of course, there are many other reasons as well.

In such situations, one option I recommend: discuss (1) a different project or (2) a project direction that you are considering (even if you haven’t made any progress on that new direction yet). Then, incorporate the advice in the above section on “What if you are just starting your first project?”


Preparing an elevator pitch is challenging enough unto itself. I consider the comments here to be “extensions” — not necessary to consider, but something to possibly consider as one gains more experience with elevator pitches.

The first extension is an awareness that the conversation may be interrupted at any moment — e.g., you might not know which floor someone is on (you might be on the 16th floor, but they might be on the 3rd, the 10th, the 14th, or the 20th, you just don’t know), or someone might interrupt your conversation while you are talking over coffee. To prepare for such interruptions, lead with what you consider to be the most important thing for the listener to know.

You might consider tailoring your elevator pitches to different audiences. For example, while the example elevator pitch above might be reasonable for a generic audience of computer security researchers, it might not resonate with researchers in other fields (who do not have direct experiences with ethical dilemmas in computer security research) or people in industry. If I were to talk with someone from industry, for example, I might lead with an example dilemma:

In the computer security research field, we often encounter ethical and moral dilemmas. For example, suppose that researchers find a vulnerability in a wireless implantable medical device that — because the manufacturer went out of business — cannot be patched. What should the researchers do? Should they disclose the vulnerability to the public, so that patients are aware that there might be a vulnerability? Or should they keep their discovery secret because, as I just mentioned, the vulnerability cannot be patched?

In collaboration with Yasemin Acar (another computer security professor) and Wulf Loh (an ethics and moral philosophy professor), we are seeking to inform how the computer security research community discusses and makes decisions about how to proceed when faced with moral dilemmas such as this.


I learned so much about the PhD process from my own advisor, Mihir Bellare. After obtaining a faculty position, I continued to develop my own philosophy on advising and the PhD process through the advising my own PhD students. Much of my thoughts on advising and the PhD process have also been shaped through the co-advising of PhD students with UW Security Lab co-director Franziska Roesner. Thank you to all the students and postdocs that I have advised, past and present! Thank you in particular to Prof. Franzi Roesner and senior PhD student Kentrell Owens at UW for an insightful and motivating conversation about the challenges that junior PhD students might encounter when preparing elevator pitches.



Tadayoshi Kohno (Yoshi Kohno)

Tadayoshi (Yoshi) Kohno is a professor in the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. His homepage: https://homes.cs.washington.edu/~yoshi/.