OK, let me start this by saying that I’m a PhD student in Condensed Matter Physics. I’ve been lucky to attend a lot of conferences (9 as of writing) during my PhD and it’s taken me a long time to realise I actually don’t like them. At first I figured it was just my own shortcomings because, hey, no-one else seems to have any complaints about them. It’s only when I started asking questions with other students, who are comfortable opening up to you as a peer, that you realise you’re not alone. I’d like to have an open discussion: Conferences can be terrible, at least in my field, and over the next few blog posts I’ll outline the reasons why.
Firstly, the harsh truth: a large number talks are poor quality.
Reading tiny unexplained graphs or pages of equations ‘clearly’ showing something according to the speaker. Check. No motivation, explanation or clear message of why this work is important. Check. Speaker reading ad verbatim from a wall of text on a slide. Check. You get the point. These problems are so widespread that you can now play bad presentation bingo thanks to the RSC (http://prospect.rsc.org/blogs/cw/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/bingo.jpg).
For the first couple of years I was convinced I must be the the only person in the room who didn’t really understand many of the presentations. This ended thanks to a lunch break at a recent conference chatting to some PhD student friends. There was the reluctant admission that in fact none of us had understood much of what’s been said for the entire morning session. While it’s comforting to find you’re not alone, it raises the question of what is the point of spending many hours and hundreds, maybe thousands of Euros for travel, boarding and conference fees for the opportunity to sit through hours of talks that many people in the room don’t get much value from?
It’s a problem we don’t like admitting to
This lack of understanding of conference talks is a huge, common problem that we don’t like admitting to, because it calls in to question your ability as an academic. Talking with friends who are PhD students or more senior and also in other fields reveals a similar story – it’s a norm that we silently comply with. I feel this is a massive failing of the academic community. It is contradictory that in academia we encourage the questioning and critiquing of ideas but to do the same with someone’s presentation skills is unheard of. More critically, it is both alienating and really inefficient to waste the time of young researchers.
Take notes from science outreach programs
I’ve heard the advice to simply skip talks that you aren’t familiar with and go off exploring, but to me this seems like sticking your head in the sand. It’s more than a little crazy that this is the common advice for academic conferences in 2015, a year when excellent communication and outreach programs like Thesis in Three and Pint of Science exist and the emphasis is on clear and concise communication of your research. Conferences should be the strong backbone of every academic field – it is after all the best opportunity to meet with your peers and tell them what you’ve been up to. In my opinion at least, the entire current process needs an overhaul, and taking some notes from successful science communication programs would be a great start.
What are your views of conferences? Have you ever been to a conference where the organisers did something different and interesting you think worked well? Comments below or send me a tweet @Owl_Meat