Friday, December 17, 2010

Uninvited Speaker

Imagine this scenario:

You are organizing a conference session and thinking about possible invited speakers. You want a mix of old(er) superstars and dynamic early-career people.

One of the early-career candidates for an invited talk has told you that she plans to drop out of academia soon because she is moving to the city where her husband got a job. She might teach a bit but has no plans to continue as an active researcher, despite getting a PhD in a high-profile program and doing excellent and significant work.

Do you invite her anyway because her research is interesting, or do you give the invited talk slot to someone whose career prospects would benefit from the invitation and visibility?

Should a person's stated lack of interest in a future career involving research be a factor in this decision, assuming that there are other possible candidates whose research is as interesting and as compatible with the theme of the conference session? Or is the only thing that matters the research topic (and maybe also the individual's speaking ability)?

I think I would invite the quitting-research person anyway if she is clearly the best person for the session, no matter what her stated career goals. Even if the invited talk slot wouldn't benefit her career, it might benefit others in the audience (e.g., students or others who would learn something from her talk) or it might benefit the session overall to have a diverse group of invited speakers ("diverse" could refer to research topic, methods, career stage, gender etc.).

If, however, there were other excellent candidates who would give a similarly excellent and useful talk and who would also personally benefit from the invitation, I might well tilt towards inviting one of them instead.

One of my colleagues has been in this decision-making situation recently, so I was thinking about this type of scenario.

What would you do? (and why?)

40 comments:

Estraven said...

Invite her/him. I've seen it done, and it makes sense to me. You never know before who is going to stay in academia, and who's not. Maybe their spouses will lose their job/die/run away with someone else.
Plus, if in such a case it would be a man (say with a homemaking wife) to uninvite a woman (with working husband who loves his job) in order to invite a man (whose girlfriend has an easily relocatable job)... well, that would be all kinds of wrong.

Anonymous said...

Maybe she couldn't get a job in the new city, but with the invited talk she might look better and get a job easier. Give the slot to her. She can turn it down if she has truly lost interest in research.

Anonymous said...

give the slot to somebody who really needs it and wants it.

Anonymous said...

I would invite the best speaker for the topic. Our job as researchers is to advance our knowledge about topics; of course supporting junior colleagues so that they can continue to do research is important and indirectly furthers the first goal, but it is still secondary.
I know not everyone agrees because I know organizers often accept off-topic papers for workshop/conference sessions because the research is of higher quality than the submissions that are on-topic, or their author is a name, but in the end it doesn't advance our knowledge of the topic.

Anonymous said...

People's plans can change. Maybe if the young star sees how appreciated her work is, she may feel more welcome and decide to stay in academia. Either way, it will presumably be nice to have her, she will contribute to the conference, and then her future is her business.

Anonymous said...

Would you give a grant to someone who states that she/he will be dropping out of academia? Obviously not. Conference money should also be considered accordingly. If this person will do absolutely nothing with the opportunity to speak at your conference (get feedback, find potential collaborators, etc.), there is no point inviting her. Most likely she will decline, and if not, I don't see her having the motivation of giving a stellar talk (one that would inspire the audience to continue the research she is abandoning). Now, if she is only leaving academia temporarily, things are different.

Anonymous said...

Well, you never *know* what will happen, or how giving the talk might help her. For example, if she decides in a year that she wants to return to academia. Of course, if she sees no value for herself, it is likely she would turn down the invite anyway, right? Not extending the invitation to her seems a little like giving an A to the student who really, really wants it and really, really needs it to get into grad school.

GMP said...

My immediate gut reaction (and a pretty strong one) was to uninvite her. I think the reason behind this visceral reaction is the following:

Invited talks at conferences are
(1) great honors, (2) supposed to show the best research from the groups that will continue to advance the state of the art. There are always a number of possible, very meritorious candidates for any given invited talk slot. I feel that the invited talk (a shiny bullet on one's CV, which is especially important for junior people), should go to someone deserving who will actually continue to develop their research program.

Anonymous said...

An invitation like that might change her course... as I was depressed this November and thinking about leaving academia, I got a talk invitation, and the idea that someone gave a rat's ass about my research did change my thinking a bit. (I am a bit isolated in my current position so don't have the best perspective on how my research fits into the field right now. Working on it.)

The word verification is "grantio" -- clearly that supports my idea!

Anonymous said...

Perhaps - just perhaps the meeting will inspire your colleague, and the invited talk always looks good on a cv, and the potential for her to meet others in the field might open up previously unknown opportunities (e.g., what if they could both move to a city in which they could both be employed happily?).

BugDoc said...

I agree with GMP - if possible (given the topic) give this opportunity to someone whose career will materially benefit. It's unlikely that one invited talk will make the difference between this person's getting offered a job or not. Although I am sympathetic to the idea that maybe this invitation might bring this person back into research, I didn't see anything in the post that indicating why she was leaving academia (I deliberately am not using the word "quitting"). Unless FSP knows that she is leaving research reluctantly, it's just as likely she is leaving because her husband's move provides her an opportunity to teach or otherwise develop her career in a different direction. I have known some terrific scientists in my career that just really really didn't want academic jobs. They are very successful in the careers they have chosen and an invited talk would have made absolutely no difference to them.

Alex said...

If you were going to invite her because you thought she has interesting things to say about science, then invite her.

Also, although she says she won't be staying in basic academic research, does that mean she won't be staying in science? There is more to science than academia, and so I wouldn't judge somebody's suitability for a scientific conference based on whether they stay in academia.

Besides, when somebody accepts an invitation to give a talk, or an award, or even a grant, is there any sort of explicit promise to stay in academia for the long haul? If somebody got a grant, did the project, got some interesting results, disseminated them to the world for follow-up...and then stopped doing academic research in that field, has any promise been violated? If that person decided to change fields when the promised work was completed, or focus entirely on teaching after the promised work was completed, or even (gasp!) get a job in industry after the promised work was completed, the grant wasn't wasted.

Academia is not a cult to which we swear a life-long blood oath. And I say that as somebody who would be quite happy to stay for my entire career.

Anonymous said...

I am really torn on the issue. It could really help someone who wants to be in research and it sounds like that isn't her at the moment, but it's that 'moment' that seems an issue. People change and I have friends who left academia and now clearly regret it while others are very happy with their decisions. Also if her research is really good it would be a benefit to the audience (who are actually the focus although we all tend to lose sight of that). I think though that GMP's comment that it should go to someone "deserving" is wrong. If this woman's research is good enough to attract the attention of the organizer and get her invited - that's what makes her deserving. None of us know what will happen in the future - best laid plans and all - and judging people on what they may or may not do instead of what they've actually done is one of the serious barriers women face. Somehow for so many women no matter how much they've accomplished there are a lot of folks that are just waiting for the slow-down (for babies, husbands, yoga retreats and cooking, whatever). She's said she won't continue research - if she's very serious about this I assume she'll turn down the invite (unless the conference is in Paris or Antigua) - if she's trying out the thought of leaving (b/c of finding a job in a new locale, wanting kids, or burn-out) she may gain a new appreciation for her place in the field. Judge people on what they've done not on what they may do in the future and then let them be rational actors about whether they accept the opportunity or not.

Alex said...

Analogous question: What if you know of two really good undergrads in your department with similar academic strengths. You have room for one more person in your research group but not two. On whatever basis, you pick one of them to work with you. Then you find out that this person plans to get a job after college rather than going to grad school, but the other person is interested in grad school.

Either person would learn useful skills and probably be a productive member of the group (at least by the standards of undergrads). Should you reconsider your decision?

Ms.PhD said...

How about an analogous scenario? Let's say you have two young researchers with exciting projects, one who has several job interviews already lined up, because she's coming from a famous and well-connected lab, and one who has none, because she's coming from a lab no one has heard of. Both are great speakers.

You only have one slot.

Do you invite the second person because she needs it more?

No. Nobody ever does that.

Also, I'd caution strongly against assuming you're sure you know what this person's career goals are. Did she say herself that she's definitely following her husband, who definitely already has a job lined up? Or is that just a rumor someone else started?

On the other hand, in my experience, giving good talks that are well-received won't necessarily lead to any job prospects anyway, so what difference does it make.

Or, here's a third alternative- you could axe one of the old farts and invite both young people. They BOTH need it more than any old fart does! And in my opinion, the meeting would probably be better for it.

Anonymous said...

This part of the post seems unambiguous, although some commenters are right that we never really know the future:

"One of the early-career candidates for an invited talk has told you that she plans to drop out of academia soon.."

That statement kind of rules out second-hand rumors, though.

Anonymous said...

What is the stated purpose of the conference?

If it is to advance the knowledge in the field, you invite her/him as they are the cutting edge of the field.

If it is to advance people's careers, you disinvite.

I really do think it is fairly simple here - look at what the purpose of the conference is. Surely there is a mission statement (or something similar). That should guide you - not what any other university faculty think.

GMP said...

I think you invite senior and junior people for different reasons. Senior people because they are well-known, established, with a long track record of significant contributions to the field. You invite junior people because they have done interesting work during their short careers and therefore hold great promise to become the next big names and continue to advance the field.
Bottom line (simplified): you invite senior people for the great amount of good work they have done, you invite junior people for the (comparatively small) amount of good work they have done but the great promise this work shows.

I think inviting someone junior who has no interest in continuing to do research is not in the interest of the discipline and the community.

Among junior people there are always at least several equally meritorious, only a few of whom go on to make it big. The woman in question is probably very good, but her lack of interest in continuing with her program clearly eliminates her as promising.

While I agree with Alex that science is not a club to which one must join for life, I would say that when someone explicitly says they want out of the club, the club no longer has obligations to extend benefits/favors to that person.

Regarding the two undergrads: if they were 100% equal (never the case IRL), I'd pick the one who will go to grad school. The advantage of work in my lab is more salient for that student's career goals, so all things being equal, that's the student I'd pick.

Bagelsan said...

The advantage of work in my lab is more salient for that student's career goals, so all things being equal, that's the student I'd pick.

They could get hit by a bus...

Which is to say, I'm not keen on trying to predict the future in this kind of situation. Presumably the non-future-grad student wants to do undergrad research for a reason, right? Surely they have an idea why it's salient to their non-grad goals. Why should their reasons be less legitimate just 'cause they aren't planning on grad school?

Alex said...

So, if the conference got funds for bringing in early-career speakers, and one of the criteria established was career advancement of academics, OK, disinvite her. Or, if her response to the invitation was "Oh, I plan to leave the field, I don't really want to hang out with you guys", well, that's obvious.

As to whether she's "leaving the club", the post doesn't make it clear what she plans to do beyond a bit of teaching. If the answer is "Nothing else in STEM", i.e. she's either going to work in some other area or spend time on family and domestic matters, OK, I guess she isn't planning to spend time in science. If the answer is "Industrial work related to her area of training" then I consider her part of the club, and I'd leave it up to her whether she thinks the conference would be useful for her.

And with the undergrads, if somebody works in my group, gets some technical skills, and decides to use those technical skills for something other than graduate work, well, hey, I just contributed to the training of a future member of the workforce. Ain't nothing wrong with that.

Hermitage said...

If her work is blow-the-hinges-off-doors good, I'd say she still deserves the slot. If she only moderately/slightly favored over other candidates that actually want to stay in academia, I think she should be replaced. The fact that an invited talk at that stage is a Big Deal cannot be decoupled for the conversation at hand.

BLG said...

Wow. All I can say is that this makes me WAY less willing to ever tell anyone that I might be considering a career outside of academia. It appears it might become a self-fulfilling prophecy, since I will no longer be a candidate for talks or awards.

coraifeartaigh said...

I think it would be a pity to use someone's stated intention against them, if the work is good.
Besides, if he/she is thinking of leaving academia, isn't that all the more reason for her voice to be heard while it's still feasible?
People often leave academia for various reasons, only to do excellent work elsewhere
Cormac

Cloud said...

Well, if she ends up taking a position in industry, the invited talk will definitely still help her career. Yes, even if she takes a position that is not directly involved in research- for instance, a business development position.

You have no idea where her career will take her. Invite her and let her turn it down if she is leaving science altogether and just doesn't want to do it.

inBetween said...

I was in this situation recently and invited the person who was pretty decided on leaving academia. His work is really interesting and I knew the audience would like it. Plus, I figured a positive response from the audience might give him a little encouragement to reconsider. He did seem pretty reinvigorated by the response, but I'm not sure it will change his mind. I still feel like it was the right decision -- it was a very good talk that worked well for the symposium.

Anonymous said...

At this time last year I was trying to decide whether to stay in academia or not, but made sure to keep my mouth shut for this exact reason. It's unfortunate that people will write you off so quickly if they feel that you're (even considering) leaving the fold.

Personal circumstances can change, especially where carefully negotiated dual-career decisions are concerned. I think it would be unfair to write her off for her plans - she could very easily be back in a year.

Anonymous said...

I know of a woman scientist who wasn't admitted to a certain university (in the 60's) because women wouldn't stay in science - they would quit to get married and have babies. She ended up going to a different school... and her graduate work changed the way my science is done.

Don't disinvite her based on rumors and assumptions. If she's done work worth hearing about, invite her.

Anonymous said...

What if there are no 'rumors' involved and the woman in question has said to the potential inviter "I don't want to do research/science anymore." ?

Anonymous said...

FSP indicated it's not a rumor, but information straight out of the horse's mouth: "One of the early-career candidates for an invited talk has told you that she plans to drop out of academia soon because she is moving to the city where her husband got a job. She might teach a bit but has no plans to continue as an active researcher, despite getting a PhD in a high-profile program and doing excellent and significant work."

AnonPCChair said...

I think it's an easy call. The purpose of an invited speaker is to benefit the audience. When you think about it that way, who cares what their future career plans may be? We should care whether they will give a great talk that will energize and excite conference attendees.

The purpose of inviting an invited speaker to speak at a conference is emphatically NOT to benefit the speaker; that way lies madness (like inviting our friends because we think it will help their career....ugh!).

Anonymous said...

That's true, but it doesn't help with the 'all other things being equal situation".

Anonymous said...

Invited talks are meant for the audience to know about great research done by great researchers.
Not for the purpose of becoming someone's resume point. At least not primarily, Or at least that is how it should be. Today, in academia (and also elsewhere i guess), everything is converted to resume points.
Whether this person is going to leave research or commit suicide the day after the talk -- how does it matter? If shes done good work that she would like to give an interesting talk about, that should seal the decision.

Academia really is crappy in some ways -- instead of doing awesome research and letting its fragrance attract fame naturally, people add invited talks as Resume/prestige points!! Reminds me of what Churchill said "Academic politics are the lowliest kind of politics -- because the stakes are so LOW!!!". This astute observation alone is enough to seal his status as a great politician :D

Anonymous said...

I would make the decision based on the content of the talk and speaking abilities of the speaker, not on their personal plans (career or otherwise). What they plan to do in their career is simply not my business nor anyone else's.

And besides, people can and do change their minds about their personal plans, or they may not be voicing their true personal plans to you (unless you are very good friends with them) and just making small talk. Thus all the more it shouldn't factor into the choice of selecting speakers.

Grumpy said...

Unless this is a very prominent plenary talk then I don't understand why career goals should play much of a role.

There are lots of meetings out there and invited talks are a dime a dozen for talented people even if they are 'junior'. IfI were the organizer I'd just invite whoever is interesting and I haven't heard a million times in the last couple of years.

At least that's my 2 cents as a (current) postdoc.

Anonymous MSP said...

Many people in this comment thread seem to have a romanticized view of academia: you should do good work and everything else takes care of itself. That would be nice but doesn't work like that (academia or anywhere else for that matter). Resume points matter, connections and favors matter. Propelling yourself and others matters.

One of the primary purposes of conferences is networking, which benefits individuals and the community, and it's these interactions and collaborations that come from them that advance the discipline. It's never about "the best person to give a talk" -- there are plenty of good people who can give nice talks. The community does not particularly benefit from any one talk -- there are journals, you can always read up on whatever you want. Well-selected talks at important conferences give the big picture of how the field is developing (overview new trends, introduce up-and-commers). If a person has explicitly stated she won't stay in research, that sounds like she's pretty sure (usually people on the fence don't disclose this information). Not sure exactly why her talk would be so irreplaceable, especially if she's a very early career person. This statement won't make me popular, but the more junior the person is, the more replaceable (typically!) he/she is, as there are lots of people with similar qualities still in the running.

Alex said...

I think the best points in this thread were made by BLG and anonymous at 7:36pm. If people will decide whether or not to invite you to talk or give you an award based on whether they think you are sufficiently interested in an academic career, then anybody considering a non-academic career will be that much more cautious and secretive about it.

That isn't good.

Anonymous said...

If one of the criteria for issuing an invitation is that the person's career prospects will be enhanced, then for crying out loud please DIS-invite all the named professors and anyone over the age of 65. The old farts could be quitting science or keeling over dead at any time. And the named-chair types can't get any more famous than they already are. Give their slots to some additional up-and-comers.

Only half kidding here.

Anonymous said...

If you want to ask her, ask her, and she'll make the decision. It's her decision then.

Reminds me of the situation new moms can face. I'm a musician, and sometimes women who've just had babies won't be asked to play gigs because the contractor makes assumptions that they're taking time off.

I know this situation doesn't really have to do with her being a woman, but it still reminds me of this, so I would instinctively not take her future into account.

Hire the best speaker. Hire the best musician. Same thing.

SomeRandomProf said...

Wow. I feel that disinviting this person (or declining to invite her) because of her future career goals is unjust, discriminatory, harmful to the field, and totally inappropriate. Invitations should be based upon merit and upon value to the conference. If I was on the program committee for a conference that disinvited an invited plenary speaker for this reason, I would resign in disgust and make a big fuss. Regardless of what it did to my reputation, I would feel obligated to take a public stand against such an action.

I realize that the strength of my emotions are not a logical argument -- but I feel the logical arguments here are overwhelming.

Frankly, I'm taken aback that so many people think someone's privately expressed future career plans is a reasonable thing to take into account. I sure hope no one would argue in favor of allowing that to factor into a decision of whether to accept a scientific paper at a conference or journal, too. I feel dismayed that there is such a large segment who find it acceptable and unobjectionable to take this into account when selecting an invited speaker. Discriminating on the basis of irrelevant qualities of the person feels so horribly wrong to me. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

Bagelsan said...

I think this would also exacerbate the gender bias in science, and the "leaky pipeline" -- women are more likely to quit/take time off/assume they'll have to quit than men are, right? By dis-inviting people who aren't sure about a future career in science you could end up dis-inviting a lot more women than men.