Wednesday, 2 November 2011

You're Invited

Speaking of talks, I am reminded of an invited talk that was given by an early-career scientist at a conference in the past year or so. I was very happy to see this talk on the schedule. I am a big fan of giving invited talk slots to the youngsters, as they might actually have something new to say, and I admire this particular person's work.

Invited talks by senior scientists can be quite interesting and useful as well, even if they are mostly a review of published work. But, as I've discussed before, there is a difference between giving a thoughtful review talk that integrates a lot of information and gives some perspective gained through time and a review talk that consists entirely of recycled, old material, resulting in a talk that could have been given at any time in the last 28 years and be exactly the same except for the number of wrinkles on the speaker's face.

The aforementioned invited talk by the early-career scientist was a big disappointment to me for the same reasons I have criticized talks by more senior people. It turned out to be a 'review talk', except that the amount of time represented by the work being reviewed was of course much less. The talk I saw could have been given 4-5 years ago. The figures were all excerpted from published work, none of the information was new, and there was no attempt to synthesize or reflect.

I wondered if my opinion of this nothing-new talk was so negative because I had higher expectations of the speaker than I would for a more senior scientist. That is, I guess I wouldn't be surprised if certain senior scientists gave a recycled talk, but I wasn't expecting it from this younger person, so I was even more critical than I would otherwise have been. Maybe.

So then I tried to think of reasons why this early-career scientist might have given a nothing-new, recycled talk. My purpose is not to criticize this individual (more) but to discuss the general issues raised (at least, in my own mind) by this incident.

I should note that the individual in question does not have a tenure-track job (yet) but is searching for one. This is one obvious reason why it's not a good idea for an early-career person to give a lame conference talk, invited or not, whereas a more senior person might not be harmed at all. But perhaps I am being too negative (again). Let's consider:

Reasons why such a talk may not have harmed the early-career person's chances of employment, with parenthetical statements undermining my attempts to come up with such reasons:

1. No one with any role, however indirect, in hiring decisions that could affect this person was in the audience (I consider this unlikely, but I don't know);

2. Even if there were potential future colleagues in the audience, they may not have been familiar with this work and so didn't know just how recycled the talk was (maybe.. but the speaker gave correct attribution to all the figures, and it was clear that they were all from a publication from > 4 years ago);

3. The main thing is that he was invited to give a talk, demonstrating the esteem in which he is held (I share this esteem -- even now -- but note that the conference session organizer is a friend/colleague of his);

4. It was just one talk; give the guy a break (OK, but I saw some excellent talks by other early-career scientists competing for the same jobs; to the extent that these conference-impressions are important, it's clearly better to give an awesome talk than a boring recycled one);

5. Maybe he was asked to give a review of his old work? Maybe that's what fit best with the theme of that session and he reluctantly agreed, although he has lots of cool new work he would rather have presented. (Sure, that happens, but I think if I were in that position I would be certain to explain the situation at the beginning of the talk. I'd say something like "I've been asked to talk about my work on xxxx, although most of that dates from a few years ago now", and then I would try to add something new -- make some new figures, synthesize some old and new results and ideas..)

If the individual in question was a tenure-track professor, being asked to give an invited talk, however boring it turned out to be, might outweigh any negative effects of having given a lame talk. Invited talks can be listed on the CV as such, and, aside from the possibility that a cranky letter-writer might have sat through the dismal talk, the most people reading the CV and making an evaluation won't know anything about the content of the talk beyond its title.

I don't have a problem with that. If the recycled talk was a one-time thing, it shouldn't harm anyone's career if things are otherwise going well. And if the recycled talk was yet another sign that an individual has not had any new ideas or results in 5 years, then there will be other evidence of that.

But: If someone who is still applying for jobs is given the opportunity to give a talk at a high-profile conference, whether or not the talk is invited or is one of many selected from submitted abstracts, if at all possible, don't blow the chance to say something new and interesting.

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