Monday, January 29, 2007

Introduction to Introductions

This winter I will be traveling around a bit to give research talks at other universities. I have 4 talks coming up in the next month or so, and have just been checking out these universities' webpages to see what talk titles I gave months ago when I agreed to do these.

I like giving talks about my research, and I like visiting other universities and meeting new people. The most difficult part for me (not counting the random things like flight delays and the occasional unpleasant person one encounters), is The Introduction part of my talk. I don't mean the part when I introduce my topic, I mean the part when someone introduces ME and relates my academic life story to the audience.

There are many flavors of these introductions, depending on the whims of the introducer: if they know me or not, if they are comfortable speaking or not, if they are prepared or not, if they talk to me about the introduction before the talk or not, and so on. These are the main types, from shortest to most epic:

1. the terse introduction: Professor X is from the University of Y and she is going to give a talk about TITLE. [I am fine with this type of introduction]

2. the slightly longer introduction, with information gleaned at random from my CV or faculty webpage: Professor X got her Ph.D. from University Z and is now at the University of Y (some mention my previous faculty position at University W and some mention dates). [I am fine with this introduction as well as long as it is fairly short]

3. the even longer introduction by someone who has delved into my webpages at length, has my CV, and/or knows me: Professor X was an undergraduate at A College, got her Ph.D. from University Z, was a postdoc at University M, a visiting professor at B College, and Assistant Professor at University W, before finally moving to the University of Y, where she is now a Professor. She works on PHYSICAL SCIENCE TOPICS, and is here today to talk to us about BLAH BLAH BLAH. [This is not my preferred introduction -- it goes on for a long time if all of my academic historical sites are mentioned + other info, and I don't know where or how to look -- bored? interested? humble? bemused? The one good thing about these long intros is that you sometimes discover connections with some people in the audience and this can generate interesting conversations later.]

4. the Epic Introduction including all the above plus mention of various research and teaching awards and positions in professional organizations, journal editor positions, and mention of the date of every step in my academic career, and a statement to the effect that I am impressive. [I find these introductions painful; all that information can't possibly be interesting, and saying that I am impressive right before a talk raises expectations perhaps unreasonably high that my talk will BLOW EVERYONE AWAY as opposed to being merely interesting and/or cool.]

My ideal introduction, which seldom happens unless the introducer specifically asks me what I want said, is a rapid list of my career path. I think that this can be useful information for students and postdocs to see how someone got from point A to point B in their career. If the introducer asks me what awards I'd like mentioned, the only one I typically list is my NSF CAREER award, as this is an award people have typically heard of.

The most interesting introduction I ever had was years ago (early in my career) when the introducer told the audience that I was perhaps best known for having killed my advisor. This information seemed to stun the audience, and it stunned me as well, in part because my advisor was alive, and is in fact still alive. The introducer was referring to the fact that one of my committee members, an angry and bitter old man who disagreed with me (and most other people on the planet) about just about everything, died soon after I gave a talk on the major findings of my preliminary research. He definitely became very enraged during my talk (and was not shy about showing his feelings), but his death 3 weeks later was from cancer. In any case, if given a choice, I prefer not to be accused of murder when being introduced for a talk, even if it does get the audience's attention.


Anonymous said...

I would send a summary of how you would like to be introduced. Don't wait for them to ask you for it. Or have a copy ready for the person who is introducing you. Be firm but polite - this is how I would like to be introduced.

Anonymous said...

I gave eight talks at universities across the country this past fall, and the weirdest intro I got was:

[after standard career-path history] "Last year Dr. X did something very bold: she declined an offer of a tenure-track faculty position in order to continue as a postdoc at the University of Y."

I honestly can't remember whether the introducer mentioned the name of the place that had offered me the job, but I was truly stunned by this. This information isn't a secret by any means (my field has a very active rumor webpage, and I've told plenty of people myself), but I've never heard a career decision announced so blatantly to a large group of people. And this was from a senior woman who in other respects has shown herself to be a good mentor to younger female scientists. Was she trying to make me seem like more of a hotshot by implying that I can afford to turn down jobs? Was she hinting to people in her department that I might make a good candidate? (They don't seem to be hiring this year, but maybe in the future...) It made me feel uncomfortable, in any case. I guess I could have complained to her later, but I didn't.

I like the idea of writing your own introduction, but even that doesn't protect you against people adding their own unexpected comments!

Female Science Professor said...

I prefer to gamble with introductions -- I always hope that it will be a good one, but if it's not.. oh well. I'm at a stage of my career where it really doesn't matter. Despite the annoyance of the occasional strange/embarrassing introduction (e.g., the epic ones that make you feel like you traveled for 20 years like Odysseus before finding your academic 'home'), it's kind of interesting to see what happens.

Anonymous said...

Try having a last name of "Last" when people are introducing you. Very few can resist cracking a joke about it. I've taken, as a standard policy, critiquing said joke in response.

Highest praise? "Wow. I actually have not heard that one before."

Anonymous said...

I usually look for some unusual but humourous scientific fact about the speaker, almost always gleaned from the person themselves. I feel that this is a good way to personalize the speaker and their research rather than an impersonal listing of career stops and accomplishments. For example, once I had to introduce a speaker who originally hailed from Hungary. I noticed that his subfield was dominated by Hungarians and I asked him why it was so. He had some quip about Soviet-era suppression having something to do with it. I worked this into the introduction, which brought the house down and got everyone comfortable. The talk ended up being very lively and interactive.

Anyway, focusing on why I find the speaker's research fascinating and insightful usually works.

Douglas Natelson said...

I introduced two speakers earlier this year who happened to have the same first and last names as people listed in the IMDB. It was pretty fun to introduce Prof. So-and-so, who has been at University of Such-and-such for 14 years, and apparently starred in an action movie with Keanu Reeves.

Rob Dejournett said...

Speaking of deceased people...This almost exact same thing happened to me. This is true, so help me God. I just got my PhD December 05. To get there was challenging at the end, since my adviser refused to look at my dissertation until the night before teh defense, then she wanted it rewritten. And the end of the semester was in a week and a half. And she didn't have funding for me to continue. And she expected me to work on the dissertation for several months, while working in her lab, for free. And i was leaving the lab to move to another person in her field, which of course was a huge threat. Anyway! So, a few days later, she got into this bizarre auto accident (the driver was going the wrong way down a street, hit her vehicle, then took off). So she was in pain and on drugs while i was trying to get her revisions out. Finally it got done, but the committee member who was a bone in my side for 4 years running died a few weeks later of another odd thing, septic shock. The whole episode was very bizarre. I eventually graduated and am having a productive postdoc with her 'competitor' who is now 'collaborating' with her. I use the terms in a loose sense, since this collaboration isn't much of one (thank god).