Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Helpful Pit Bull?

A recent graduate of our department has a 1-year teaching job at a school a couple hours drive from here. He has a job interview coming up for a tenure-track faculty position -- his first ever interview -- and I asked him if he wanted to come back to the department here and practice. He was very enthusiastic about this idea, and came over today. He wasn't my PhD student, but I was on his committee and was very involved in part of his thesis research. Also, his advisor is an administrator, and is rather detached from the department. Despite not interacting much with his advisor or even having much research support, he did well in his thesis research because he was so independent and motivated. He hung out with my research group, so he wasn't totally isolated. Neverthless, I was concerned that he had missed out on some of the advising that you get when your advisor is available to talk to and interact with more closely.

So I invited him to come over and he gave his practice talk today, and it wasn't so great. He is a very good speaker -- he speaks clearly and well, he intersperses clever analogies in with the science, and the images he uses in his talk are good (not too much text). But the coolness of the research did not come through at all. He breezed through first order things and spent a lot of time -- a lot of time -- on technical details of the analyses. I said some nice things about his practice talk, but then I basically ripped it apart and suggested some ways for how he could grab the audience at the beginning of the talk, keep them with him through the main data parts of the talk, then wrap it all up nicely at the end. He still has plenty of time to rethink the talk and graphics. The research is great -- it's all in the packaging at this stage. I could clearly see how it could be turned into a great talk with a bit of work. I also tried to ask him questions that I thought he would be asked about his research, and some of them he was unprepared for, but will work on between now and the big day.

I think it was good that he did this practice, but I also think he was kind of stunned by how critical I was. As I left the room, I had a sinking feeling that I'd just undermined his confidence.

Another member of the research group was there as well, and I asked her later if she felt I'd helped him or depressed him. She said "both". I am sure she is right, so I sent a follow-up email with some confidence boosting (but sincere) compliments about the research and the talk. I hope that by the time he has the actual interview, he'll have pulled it all together and the stars will align and he'll get the job.


Mr. B. said...


The problem is that he was probably shell-shocked by your comments. If you only see him "once in awhile" and feel that you have to get him into battle condition based on this, it may come across as pretty brutal.

With your own students, I would guess, you have an opportunity over the years to "work on them" in order to get them up to the point where they can do a good job. With time to do this, it can be pretty painless, at least in my experience. Students can go from pretty bad to very good over the course of a couple of years.

But as long as you made it clear, and I am sure that the student realizes this, that you were trying to help him do the best possible job he could with the material at hand, then I think that you did the right thing here.

Don't beat yourself up over this.

Mr. Bonzo (an elder chemist)

Liberal Arts Chemist said...

He may never appreciate it but that was essentially the best thing you could have done for him. When I was a graduate student I gave a departmental seminar on a topic not related to my research. I was unaware that I coasted into the talk convinced of my own brilliance and that I had not prepared for the talk as I should have. In the words of the other graduate students that attended the seminar what followed was a "ritual dis-embowelment". I was so emotionally scarred that I could barely return to the department. The experience both humbled me and ensured that from then on I would be prepared when I spoke in public.

To get to our level a persons ego has got to be durable enough to handle fair criticism if it comes from a colleague or a reviewer.

Ianqui said...

Tearing apart our talks with fangs was a hallmark of my graduate department. But we all knew that they were doing it because they wanted us to be the best we could be. I can guarantee you that no department has ever been as brutal as my graduate department was, and I am eternally grateful to them to this day.

catswym said...

i would have two thoughts after what you described:

1. at least the audience felt it was solid science and

2. thank god i practiced this with this audience.

if the person really wants to give a good talk they should be glad you were harsh.

Female Science Professor said...

This former student and I wrote a paper together, so he was pretty familiar with how I ripped apart manuscripts during the various stages of editing. And I'd asked a lot of questions at informal talks he have given in the department, so my detailed criticisms shouldn't have been TOO much of a surprise. But I think he thought his talk was in better shape than I thought it was, and that's what shook him up. In any case, he sent me a nice email today thanking me and saying he knows that my comments will result in his giving a better talk.

prof j said...

This is a constant issue in our department. The graduate students complain that the faculty are too tough on them when they give talks, and they avoid giving them. The faculty feel like we are preparing them for the real world and there is no point in false praise. Round and round it goes.

Anonymous said...

Science has three essential parts: doing experiments, interpreting experiments so as to develop new hypotheses, and communicating your results to the rest of the world. All are equally important aand good mentoring is essential in all three.

Having been in this business more than 30 years, I think helping people learn how to communiocate their work to a general audience is one of our key tasks, and we all can continue to learn from constrictive criticism. I generally receive it now with manuscripts rather than talks, and it can still be painful. But if it improves the "final"product and makes the story more interesting and compeeling, its invaluable, and also can avoid pain when reviewers (or a job seach committee) see flaws that could have been removed by early criticism. No one is going to get a job with a detail oriented talk.

Perhaps my best ever postdoc got a great job last year, and in prepping for his job talks he gave several practice versions that got critiqued in detail by me and a number of other lab members. All of the comments were along the lines of yours, and by the time he incorporated them it was a great talk, and even though he was going out early, he got two superb job offers. Of course, he was already a great experimentalist, something I had little impact on, but I am proud of how he developed in his ability to communicate clearly.

I still understand your reticence about this, however. I am often the person in a thesis committee meeting who is the most "critical", and at times students do not react well. However, I am also on the second largest number of student committees in the Department, and thus I think over time people appreciate the feedback.

Anonymous said...

I think criticism can be pretty overwhelming at the time and you can leave the room feeling that everything is wrong and be a bit depressed. When you've got home, had something to eat and a bit of a mope and sit back down to work you quickly get motivated again when you see how much better things are getting as you address each point of criticism.

So it probably takes at least overnight to really appreciate someone ripping your talk apart. Then you'll probably be really grateful that they took the time.

Anonymous said...

The grad students and postdocs in my department have organized their own internal seminar series so that they can practice giving talks to an audience of their peers without fear of being "ripped apart" by professors. The tone of the comments at these talks is generally one of constructive feedback, which we all very much appreciate. It's a very good venue for students and postdocs to rehearse such things, and one often goes on to give departmental colloquia and other more formal talks after a dry run at the student seminar.

That said, I think you did a terrific job, and it sounds like the student has realized the value of your constructive criticism. I've given 13 talks in the last five months, and I'm still improving. Nothing beats an actual audience giving actual feedback to help you refine your presentation, and even after giving the same talk so many times, I still benefit from a quick run-through in my hotel room the night before.

One more thing: I've been told that the majority of job talks are quite mediocre, so if one can shine there, it will go a long way toward getting the job offer. Plus, it helps one feel much more confident about the whole rest of the interview. Good luck to your student! He's fortunate to have such a conscientious mentor.

44now said...

sounds to me like you gave him the kind of help he needed! When I am in that position, I try to start my criticism with a compliment first. you know like, "that is a great slide but you need to give it more of a punchline", etc. It took me longer than it should have to learn that the data and interpretations do not speak for themselves! Learning to toot one's horn isn't always easy. And even saying things like "the take home message here is..." or "this is really important because..." gets peoples attention without actually spoonfeeding them :-)

Laira said...

Good job. Not only do I appreciate having my talks "ripped apart" before I stand before the live audience I need to communicate to, I'm sick of sitting through others' talks that go through technical minutiae that, frankly, I don't give a rat's ass about, especially if there's an exciting big picture to be had. (I mean, if all you HAVE is technical minutiae... you have a bigger problem than the talk itself.)

Ms.PhD said...

You did the right thing. His reaction is perfectly normal. If you're not braced for criticism- and you always should be, in science- you're going to be surprised at your own sensitivities. But most of us can pick ourselves up and go on, with a little sharper weapons and a little thicker armour.

Having said that, my stomach just turns at people having only a PhD and 1 year of experience after that. Why are they telling us in my field that we're 'not ready' for a faculty position, when I've been a postdoc for so long???

I also really enjoyed everyone's comments on this post. Very educational.

anon said...

ms. phd

I really think it depends on the field. Biosciences are very saturated it seems. We've had interviews for a faculty position here just a while ago for protein people, and all the candidates that came were really good and gave excellent talks (as well as having Sciene and/or Nature pubs). It's a promising and exciting new field, so all the best people go there, like you probably. In my department's defence, the protein fetish started before the Noble Prize that Kronberg got.

Other areas are not so saturated though, and the area of FSP is probably one of those at this point in time. So the best people can get interviews after their degree and a year or two of post-docs.

I wish you luck, but for my part, I'm going to stay away from biosciences due to my experience of reading your blog and seeing similar struggles faced by students and post-docs in my department. (That, and it doesn't excite me that much I guess...)