Conference thoughts #1: PIs, support your students!

Summer conference season is nearly over. This is the first of three posts, informed by some reflections about the nature of scientific conferences.

Students often feel under a lot of pressure when giving their first public presentations. PIs, for whom a conference is as much a chance to strike deals and go drinking with old mates from grad school, usually don’t. This is a mistake – who realistically expects the first-year grad student (who’s probably never been to an international scientific conference) to smash it and give a fantastic, polished, relevant, clear, concise talk?

Getting it wrong

Students, who may well only have experience of lectures on taught courses and lab meetings, usually approach their first conference talks in one of two ways: Firstly, the ‘incredibly nervous and over-written’ model. In this version, they burn midnight oil for hours on end, cramming everything but the kitchen sink into a 12 minute presentation, and writing a complete script running to many pages. In the second approach, the student (who is probably fairly bright, confident, and may have watched too many TED talks) is hopelessly underprepared, with perhaps a handful of raw graphs and only a vague grip on the facts of their experiment.

Needless to say: both students come easily and embarrassingly unstuck in the glare of a 200-seater-plus auditorium of professors…

Getting it right

Now, everyone reading this with even a couple of conferences under their belt will have recognised these two scenarios. You’re probably thinking ‘so what? Easy to fix – and there are dozens of help resources online. Plus – everyone has to dive in at the deep end: I did!’

My point is that, yes, these are easy to remedy – and it’s the PI’s job to do this. What does it say about your mentorship, if your students – who may have an interesting result, and for whom their first public talk marks a seminal coming-of-academic-age – can’t shine, not because of a fault of theirs, but simply because you haven’t imparted a clear idea of what is expected, and how to deliver it?

Whenever I see a young grad student floundering, I immediately look for the supervisor. They’re rarely even in the room, and I think this is telling. Supervisors – your students are not free labour! You have a deep responsibility to them as colleagues. So I would like to suggest the following:

  • Be clear. Make sure the students know, early on, what presenting entails; who the audience will be; and what standard is expected. Get them to attend seminars, not for the scientific content but to observe how the talk is presented.
  • Be hands-on: The point of a PhD/DPhil/DEng is to build independence, sure – but there’s a difference between a student’s first paddle in the academic ocean, and throwing them in. For this first talk, be their water wings: make sure you iterate a couple of versions of their talk, long before the conference, so you can give timely, accurate feedback.
  • Be rigorous: Above all, you have a responsibility for your trainee’s content. In the heat of the moment they may slip-up, or mis-speak. But never, never, never let your student present things which are flat-out factually wrong. At a recent presentation I watched in horror as a student (presenting some barplots with N=3) repeatedly described their results as ‘significant’. I had to resist the urge to drag their PI out of the hall then and there, because this student has obviously never had any feedback from their PI (not to mention training in stats – but that’s for another post), or worse still, the PI didn’t even notice the error…
  • Be supportive: A student’s first presentation is a major milestone in both their academic development – and yours. Make sure you’re there in good time to wish them luck beforehand, and stay to the end!

In conclusion

I’ve a feeling poor graduate student instruction stems from a series of equally rubbish experiences we all had many decades ago. It was sub-par then, and it’s sub-par in 2019. Support your students, give them a great learning experience, and you’ll reap the rewards!