Not every scientist is above average

My invitation to FTB caught me at a busy time. Last week, I was at the APS March Meeting, which is the largest physics conference in the world of the year. There were about 10,000 attendees, and about 50 simultaneous sessions throughout the week, with no lunch breaks.

Of course, I manage to find break time anyway. Quite frequently, it seems that there is not one single session going on that would be of interest to me. I just wouldn’t understand them.

In previous years, I used to find this very depressing. On my conference app, I’d bookmark all the sessions on superconductivity, which is my area of study. Then I’d sit in on a session, and find that I understood not a single talk, not even a little. And every 12 minutes there would be another talk, and another, and another, for hours. Then I’d try going to a different room focused on superconductivity, and the same thing would happen again.

It’s no wonder that impostor syndrome is so common among physicists.

And who is to say that we’re not impostors? Almost half of physics grad students enter grad school wanting to get university jobs, and we’re strongly encouraged to pursue it. But the reality is that during an average professor’s career, only one of their students could ever come to replace them. All I’m saying is, more is expected out of physics grad students than is mathematically possible. A lot of us really are here on false pretenses.

I got pissed off the other day. Someone said that popularizers of science got to where they are by being mediocre at scientific research. You know, I can guarantee that said popularizers have more publications than I do. And if they are indeed mediocre at research, so what? Not every scientist can be above average. If you really want to listen to successful scientific researchers, I recommend sitting in on a real physics conference until you’re cured of the desire.

I had a more positive experience at March Meeting this year. I’ve gotten better at attending conferences, and not necessarily because I understand more of the talks. Instead, I’ve become better at selecting talks that I’ll understand. I’ve gotten better at taking breaks. And now I understand that the small number of positive interactions with fellow researchers is more important than all the rest.

It does leave me wondering why so many people make their talks incomprehensible. Maybe other people besides me are better at processing talks? Maybe people are just bad at talking? Maybe they’re targeting just those handful of bigshot professors, who presumably understand everything? I for one try to make my talks comprehensible, but I wonder if I’m just as bad as everyone else.

I feel good about my talk though. I got multiple questions, and someone asked me for my business card. I’m gonna blow this high-temperature superconductivity mystery wide open! Chortles all around.


  1. says

    @Anders Kehlet,
    Conventional low-temperature superconductors are already well-understood within BCS theory. High-temperature superconductors must arise from a similar theory, but the particulars are still unknown 30 years after their discovery. (In practice, many theorists think we already have the right answer, but nobody can agree on what the answer is.)

  2. Miki Z says

    I’ve had similar experiences in attending mathematics conferences — the Joint Mathematics Meeting is about the same size and format. I’m a few years out from graduation — I did a post-doc immediately after I graduated, and I’ve been working at a for-profit venture in academic publishing for a while now.

    From my experience, I’d suggest that most other people are probably not better, to the degree that it matters, at processing talks. What I think happens is a few things in combination: (1) most people are, in fact, bad at talking (some in preparation, some in delivery); (2) 10-minute talks have to assume that you already know all the background information — but they’ll present it anyway; (3) the purpose of most talks is to build interest for the related paper; (4) to most people, what they’re doing seems intuitive, so they don’t realize how difficult their talk is.

    I prefer longer talks, but they’re not the only format that works. I learn a lot from 3-hour talks, because the presenters can take the time to build foundations. But I can also learn a lot from (some) short talks where the paper is distributed in advance, since I can prepare. And if I’m attending a talk where someone is describing exactly my little pinhead, I can understand pretty well — almost invariably, I already know the speaker at such talks or have colleagues in common, since we’re likely to read each other’s papers.

  3. anothersara says

    The one academic conference I have attended (which was humanities, not science) had tons of bad speakers. As in, they made basic mistakes which they would not have made if they had spent even a couple weeks in a good public speaking class

    This probably is not the entire issue, but I suspect that part of the problem may be that our educational system does not put enough emphasis on teaching basic public speaking skills. Not everyone can be a brilliant public speaker, but even basic training – which most people do not get even in 16+ years of formal education – can make a large difference.

    And one basic public speaking skill is a) having some clue about your audience and b) tailoring your speech to make it comprehensible to said audience.

  4. says

    @Miki Z,
    I’m always happy to hear about similar experiences. One thing that helped me feel a lot better about scientific conferences was hearing grad students, and even my own professor, confess to not understanding talks at all. I wish I could find some social science research on the subject so I could just show it to everyone.

    In my experience, longer talks are easier to understand, but even there I’ve had bad experiences. My best experiences are with posters. And even with posters, it also takes some willpower to tell a presenter that you have no idea what they’ve been saying to you.

    Part of the issue is no one ever knows who the intended audience is. The experts make up a small part of the audience, but they’re also the most important people. More than anything, you want to reach people working on similar research, but then those same people are also the most likely to already read your papers.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    The first physics conference I attended (Banff Summer Institute on Particles and Fields, 1981) was a humbling experience for a first year PhD student. Even listening to postdocs chat at coffee was disheartening. One of them was from Oxford, working with Chris Llewellyn Smith, and he told me later that he’d had a rather low opinion of me until he learned I was merely a grad student. Hey, it’s an apprenticeship. Takes years to even learn how to listen.

  6. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    I got pissed off the other day. Someone said that popularizers of science got to where they are by being mediocre at scientific research.

    That would piss me off, too. I think science popularizers are are as important as researchers for different reasons. As with most things, we need both and they tend to be different skill sets.

  7. says

    Presenting well is definitely a skill; some professors have it and work hard with their students until the students become good presenters, as well. Each of my grad students has two dry runs (more with newbies) in front of the group before every conference talk; we scrutinize each slide, both the layout and what was being said. My group works on several fairly disparate topics, so there is a good diversity of students, which makes them good mock-audience for each other. We are pretty relentless with in-group feedback, but I always get a lot of compliments on my students’ presentations from people who’ve heard them talk.

    It’s very, VERY important to present well, in a way that gives an optimal balance of background for people not in the field, what the open problem is and why it’s worth solving, with enough technical details for experts and a crisp take-home message for everyone. If you present well, you will be ahead of the curve when the time comes to interview for postdocs and faculty positions; I can’t stress that enough. The skill is something really useful to focus on and spend time improving. And, as you get better at presenting, you will get better at listening, too (both have to do with widening horizons and improving one’s ability to identify/formulate a take-home message). Good luck!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *