Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Do You Always Give the Same Talk?

My mother, who is not a scientist and not an academic and who therefore understandably doesn't really know what my professor job entails, recently asked me the question in the title of this post. She knew that I have given talks at different conferences this year, and she was wondering if I gave the same talk at each conference.

Just to clarify what she meant by the question, I asked her:

"Are you wondering if I give the exact same talk each time, or whether each talk is on a similar topic, but with updates of ongoing research?"

It turns out that she was asking whether I give the exact same talk each time. For example, when I went to a conference in City X/Country Y to give a talk last fall, and to a conference in City A/Country B to give a talk this spring, did I give the same talk?

I said no, I didn't give the same talk.

Then she said "But why not? The people who live in A/B weren't at your talk in X/Y, so you could give the same talk."

It turns out that she thought that only people who lived in the immediate vicinity and/or the same country as the conference site would have been at my talk in each place. She didn't realize (and why should she?) that these conferences were international and attended by thousands upon thousands of scientists (not all of whom attended my talks).

The fact that I traveled some distance from My City, USA, to go to these conferences might have been a clue that people came from all over the world to attend these conferences, but for whatever reason, this was not a clue.

I have been going to conferences and giving talks for decades, but it never occurred to me to explain to my mother what these conferences are like in terms of size or people or themes or what we even talk about when we give a talk.

I should have known. A few times over the years I have been invited to give talks at colleges and universities in the state of my ancestral home. Each time my mother asks "Did they invite you because you are from here?" So I did have some inkling about the depths of her misunderstanding, but I never really explained how these things work (talks, conferences etc.).

I always think it is a little weird when I see someone's parents attending their conference presentation (unless, of course, one or both parents are scientists or the offspring is getting an award), but I guess one way to show our non-scientific/non-academic relatives what our world is like is to bring them along to our conferences.

I think I will skip this particular mother-daughter experience and attempt instead to do a better job of explaining more about my work.

Tomorrow's topic: more on giving the same/similar talks at conferences.

25 comments:

DrDoyenne said...

Funny you should ask...

I just submitted an abstract to give a paper on a topic I had presented previously, but this one would be to an entirely different audience (little chance of overlap), and I will change the focus and add new data--so not exactly the same talk. I don't make a habit of this, however.

Coincidentally, the conference I just registered for will be held in the city where my sister lives ...and I was contemplating inviting her to attend my talk. I've never had a relative hear me speak (or visit my lab), so they are pretty clueless about what I do. We'll see....

A colleague once brought her mother to a meeting, and she attended her talk. I was in the same session and was curious to hear her mother's impressions.

Colleague's mother turned out to be quite a feisty lady.

She happened to sit next to an elder male scientist in the audience who kept snorting and making unflattering comments under his breath during my colleague's talk; he also asked some pointed questions.

Colleague's mother was outraged. I was afraid she was going to bash this guy in the head (but would have been secretly happy).

After the session, she wanted to know if this guy's behavior was common practice or if it was just her daughter. I assured her that there was nothing wrong with her daughter's talk...that the guy was a jerk. It took a while to calm her down and prevent her from tracking him down to give him a piece of her mind.

On second thought, maybe he could have benefited from some motherly advice.

mOOm said...

I've seen other similar things where people don't understand how globalized academia is in some ways. Though this is probably declining now in the internet age. People who couldn't understand how I went to the US to do my PhD. People asking whether the journal I published in was an American journal or a British journal... Well the editor is in the US, the editorial board is all around the world, the publisher is based in the Netherlands, the typesetting is done in Ireland, and it's available online everywhere (yes there are specific national journals put out by national academic societies). There are probably more of these.

Anonymous said...

I know many colleagues who DO give the exact same talk at many different conferences (though with slightly different titles but essentially the same data and same "story"), even though the conferences state that you are not to present work that has ALREADY been presented elsewhere. Still, it seems to be common practice that everyone turns a blind eye to.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

There was recently a very interesting discussion of this topic, and the differences in practice between the sciences and the humanities, at Historiann:

http://www.historiann.com/2010/04/24/professional-presentations-can-you-recycle/

unlikelygrad said...

Wow. Growing up in an academic household, this was something I never thought about--my dad took us to conferences sometimes. (Though I never sat in on his presentations, I once got very bored in one of his committee meetings. He was usually pretty good about seeing that we were entertained elsewhere.) He took my mom to ACS several times, but I think she spent most of the time shopping or sightseeing. :-)

I do know that my friends outside of academia really have no clue what conferences, publications, etc. entail. Once, bemoaning my lack of publications (the guy I worked for last year is notoriously slow to publish and probably won't write up my work for a couple of years), a friend told me I should write about her unusual health issue.

She seemed shocked when I told her that I didn't have the credentials--I know zippo about physiology--"but you're so smart!" And when I told her that "writing an article" was not the same as getting published in a peer-reviewed journal, she was flabbergasted. I *have* published an article in a consumer magazine before; she couldn't believe that it wouldn't count with the NSF reviewers!

I think I need more friends in academia.

Anonymous said...

Just the other day, I went to a defense in which the most insightful questions were asked by the candidate's (beaming!) father. (We committee members reserved our insightful questions for the private part of the defense). I'm a big fan of inviting family members to talks - as long as they aren't disruptive and/or bash any GMoS in the head!

bolinit said...

I had a family member attend a talk of mine recently. He has a science background and the conference was in his hometown, so he snuck in (they weren't really checking badges so this wasn't hard to do). He was genuinely interested in learning about my science as well as experiencing what a scientific conference is like. I would not have allowed him to attend if I thought that he would cause a commotion of any sort.

In contrast, my father is the type of guy who couldn't keep his mouth shut if his life depended on it. He also *thinks* he knows what I'm talking about because he took a circuits class once. Even if I'm at a conference that's held in the house next door to his, I'm not telling him that I'm going to be there.

So, it depends on the person. But I think it's good to give non-scientists as taste of the life every so often. That way maybe I'll stop getting these damn emails (from my father) saying that global warming is a conspiracy concocted by scientists in order to get more funding!

Average Professor said...

On your last point, last month I gave a talk on the work of a former grad student who was killed in a car accident, and her father came to the session. Not only did I not find that weird, I thought it was nice. (High pressure for me, though.)

Once I was at a final master's defense as a committee member, and the candidate's seven-year old son and both her parents attended the public portion. At first I thought it was extremely strange, but actually the seven-year old asked really interesting questions.

female Science Professor said...

Parents/friends at defense talks is a different issue than at conference talks. I wrote about the defense issue in some ancient post, and readers were divided over whether they wanted parents etc. at their defense.

Anonymous said...

Aren't most conferences pretty strict about limiting attendance to registered attendees? I can't see my parents paying $500 each to listen to me talk, even though they do try to take an interest in my work.

Jen said...

A friend who is a postdoc/mom/wife was nursing during a busy summer when she was asked to give talks at three different meetings. Her husband couldn't take time off work to go with her, so her mom attended each conference to have more time to spend with her grandchild. My friend was able to focus on her session, knowing the baby was in good hands. The mom did sit in on a few talks and met her daughter's postdoc mentor for the first time (she is not an academic, but definitely believes in being a "life-long learner"). I kind of want my parents to attend a meeting (knowing full-well they never will) just to demystify the whole process for them.

mOOm said...

The only time I saw parents etc. at the defence was in Sweden, I was the opponent. But it was just one huge party all night (it didn't get dark) after that. Here in Australia we don't have a defence unless there are issues and then it is just a closed door meeting. I think it is a pity that PhD's don't get to give a final presentation of their work.

Anonymous said...

What about departmental talks? I'd never repeat a conference talk, but I do give the same 'department' talk at different Universities. I change the slides/ story a bit when I update the data & spin it a bit for different departments (EEB vs. general biology) -- but it's the same talk. Is that unusual?

Anonymous said...

Somewhat off-topic, but the topic of family members in talks reminds me:

When I was in college, my algebra professor (think commutative rings, not quadratic formula) once brought his eight-year old son to class. At some point 20 minutes into the lecture the boy asked a completely reasonable question about what his dad had just said. Since the prof had a reputation as having been something of a child prodigy himself, we were all left wondering if this was a gag they had rehearsed or if the kid actually understood at least part of the lecture.

Anonymous said...

My mom went to one of my conference talks, when the conference was held in my hometown. I think it really impressed her that I could get up in front of such a crowd and speak coherently for 15min, even if she didn't understand the content fully.

John V said...

My mom watched many of my talks, but she was a prof in the same field as me.

anon @ 9:37

often guests can get visitors' badges for free - I think the idea is that they should be people not attending professionally - kids, friends, relatives.

anon @ 5:15

I don't know anyone who cares much if a talk or abstract was given at a previous meeting. Often, when submitting an abstract, we don't even know what we'll say by the time the day of the talk comes around.

Anne M. Archibald said...

One grad student couple I knew had trouble finding babysitters so they would occasionally bring their ~8-year-old daughter to the geometric number theory class we were all taking. She didn't exactly ask questions, more just sat there colouring, but I swear some lectures I didn't understand much more than she did.

I'm glad to be out of that field now...

a physicist said...

My parents came to see me give a seminar talk once, when I spoke at a university near them. They enjoyed it. (My father has a PhD in engineering, so my parents are fairly familiar with how my career works.)

They also sat in on a lecture class I taught, once. My students were amused (several of them noticed my parents and correctly guessed who they were).

bolinit said...

My parents, sister and brother-in-law, and a few nonscience friends were at my defense. I wanted them to see what I had been doing while I was ignoring them for the past X years. My advisor asked me to introduce them to the rest of the audience, which I thought unnecessary, but seemed to be the norm at my university. In that respect, every place is different, but (in the US) a PhD defense is a public presentation of your work, so of course any member of the public may attend.

Anonymous said...

On the flip side, I recently spoke with an academic friend in another field who has been bringing his son with him to a particular conference for the past several years (think 5-10 years old). He has his son sit through the talks (although I don't think he makes any comments or asks any questions). Seems like a good way to teach kids about the academic environment as well as the skills necessary to sit politely through boring talks without disrupting those around you (a skill many of my academic colleagues have yet to master).

Ursula said...

My father still sometimes asks when I'll finally be finished with school (I am a staff researcher at a university).

He also still thinks of me as a chemist, even if I have been in biophysics for nearly 20 years now.

You people are lucky to have parents that are interested in what you are doing!

Madscientistgirl said...

I got a good one from my mom recently. My mom is a psychologist. I'm on one of the experiments at the LHC. My mom found out that there was a physicist at her university that was on one of the experiments at the LHC. "Do you know him?" "Mom, there are about 5000 of us."

Anonymous said...

I'm the first person in my family to go to college, let alone to get a PhD. I am often uncomfortable by how much in awe of my supposed accomplishments my parents are. I'm a struggling postdoc who can't get a job and who gets exploited by and spat on by the PIs. Yet my parents think I have a lot of authority and power and influence because I have a "dr" in front of my name. When I explain to them that in my work environment and culture I'm essentially pond scum, they don't understand how that could possibly be.

Bagelsan said...

Regarding parental perceptions of research, I was talking to a fellow student in my lab the other day about his mom's insistence that he "hurry up" his Ph.D. (To clarify, he's *very* likely going to graduate in only 4 years -- the average is about 6 years -- and will be doing thesis writing once he finishes tweaking the paper he's submitting to Nature. So, yeah, not exactly a slacker. :p) But she's convinced that all he has to do is write something pretty long and that'll suffice for a thesis ... the whole "data is necessary" thing has her unconvinced.

Karina said...

My parents aren't academics either, so after some deliberation I decided to invite them to read my blog. They have a much better idea now of what it is like to be working on a Ph.D. in biology. It means I can't blog about my relationship with them really, but I'm glad that they are able to get regular insight into what my life is like as a grad student.