trial by fire
hitchcoc at sfu.ca
Thu Jul 16 00:42:33 EST 1998
As a grad student, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to
develop my scientific presentation skills in a weekly lunch seminar
group. I didn't appreciate until much later how lucky I was, and
how helpful it was.
We were a smallish group -- 3 faculty, 1 long-time researcher and instructor,
a couple of lab techs, and a handful of grad students and post-docs.
Each week, someone got up to talk about work they had done, or work they
were going to do. The expectation was that we would all be engaged with
the seminars, that we would ask questions to clarify, and that we would
offer criticism of the basic experimental idea, the interpretation of the
data, or, sometimes, the presentation style. The criticism was always
meant to be helpful, and we grew to know not only how to give a better talk,
but also how other people think when they hear a talk, and what kind of
criticisms people may have.
Early on, most grad students were pretty nervous. But people gave one or
two of these a year, and professors took risks as well, putting out
ideas that were still germinating, and offering one another help with
the development of the ideas. It was a good model of how to build a
supportive scientific community, and it was clear that we all cared
about the science, and cared about one another doing the best science
we could. That is something that I wish there were more of in science.
Too often, questions at seminars seem more about male-male dominance
displays than about constructive criticism.
I agree, that it is important to equip students to think well on
their feet. I also think it is a good idea to ease them into it, and,
once they have a good idea of how to handle well-meaning criticism,
then start thinking more about the less helpful stuff.
Was this hazing? No, it felt like building and nurturing scientific
competence in students. And it was really neat to watch people get better
over time, and a good way to know what everyone was doing.
I figured everyone had that chance, but then did my post-doc and moved
to other places, and discovered that it wasn't always so.
What other successful experiences have people had? As I read this, I think
that it might also have been useful to talk about the departmental seminars
and how people asked questions, and what worked well and what didn't.
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