Today’s Kickin’ it Old Skool Blog-a-Thon prompt is to tell the tale of some ‘first time’ experience in your life.
We’ve all had a series of firsts in our lives: first word, first steps, first car, first (and hopefully last) marriage, first broken bone, first snow, first day of school. One could go on and on (and for a moment there, you were afraid I would go on and on, weren’t you? But I’m not done!). Some firsts are stressful, like the first time you speak in front of your class, or the first day that I ran the mass spectrometer and there was no one there to help me. Eeep. It almost seems trivial now. You look back at those things and wonder what the big deal was. But at the time, HOLY CRAP!
In writing that rambling list, it does bring to mind one of the zillions of ‘firsts’ I have experienced. It was one of the most stressful moments of my graduate career, and now in retrospect, was a little funny.
This is the first time I gave a talk at a professional meeting.
Let me explain what professional meetings in the sciences are like. People present their research-in-progress at these meetings to get feedback and to perhaps collect some collaborators. Sometimes, you’re trying to attract a student to work on your project. Sometimes, you’re stuck somewhere and need advice. Sometimes, you’re looking for a job. These things are always in the back of your mind when you’re giving a presentation, so it can be a little stressful, no matter what.
At these meetings, you can present your research in one of two ways. You can do a poster, where you lay it all our in a 3 foot by 5 foot rectangle and stand in front of it during specified hours of the meeting. I’ve done lots of posters, and yeah, the first time was stressful. Now, it’s like falling off a log. I’ve realized that most geoscientists (which I am one) are pretty friendly and chatty, and much of the time, they have a beer in hand while talking to you. It’s pretty relaxed. (I can’t really speak much for other sciences, but they are generally pretty relaxed in poster sessions as well. Geology is in general, more relaxed than most sciences. We dig in the dirt and camp for months at a time. No need to be uptight.)
The other option to present your results is a platform presentation, meaning to give a talk. Because there are often so many people at meetings, the talks are usually very short. You’re given 15 minutes to present a year’s worth 0f research (or maybe your whole dissertation), and in that 15 minutes you have to allow some time for questions. You basically, you get 12 minutes. But no pressure.
The first time I gave a talk, I was presenting the results of my doctoral studies. Yes, I was summarizing four years worth of research in 12 minutes. I had done posters before. They were no biggie. But this was huge. I stood in front of a room full of professional paleontologists, many of whom were fossils themselves, trying to convince them that I knew what I was talking about after only four years of study.
The talk itself wound up being fine. I had rehearsed the heck out of it. Then came the questions part. One man stood up and asked a question. I didn’t have an answer, but I remembered something I read and basically parroted that back. He nodded, satisfied and sat back down.
Later that day, I was chatting with my graduate advisor. He was pleased with my presentation. Then a man came up – the same man who’d asked the question – and congratulated me on the talk and told me he liked my answer. I looked at his badge and chuckled on the inside.
As it happened, the response I had parroted back to his question came from a paper he himself had written. Of course he liked my answer, because it was his answer.
I learned something that day. When in doubt, if you can think of something relevant, quote someone else. You never know who might be asking the question.
The other thing I learned, from watching others, was that if you don’t know the answer, just say you don’t know. It’s ok to not know.
So that was my first professional talk. I’ve done many since. Now I make jokes and don’t worry if someone else’s slides appear instead of my own. I hardly ever really rehearse in advance. I enjoy giving talks. I’m a ham.