Read my lips. Who's in charge.
A comment on my last post regarding whether or not postdocs should be presenting their own work brings up a topic I've written about before, but which I think is important enough to keep repeating.
I went to a talk the other day where an older (though maybe only 60-ish!) guy presented the work of two of his postdocs (out of how many in his lab, I don't know).
In the talk, he did something I've only rarely seen PIs do: pointing out that one of the postdocs was present and available to answer questions "since he knows the work better than I do". I wasn't sure whether to be happy or sad that he said that. Maybe a little of both.
And since then (and the comment on my last post about who would you rather see present the work, the PI or the postdoc) I've been thinking about this quite a bit.
In one way, yes the more experienced PIs can often be better speakers because they don't get stage fright, and they've given these talks hundreds of times. They have a certain amount of authority. You get a polished product, maybe a little more historical perspective (I'll come back to that), and maybe another benefit: 1 PI can talk about 2 or more projects in a single talk. And it's perfectly acceptable, maybe even expected, for them to do so.
On the other hand, you can't ask them anything technical, usually they don't know the answer. I actually saw a guy do this at a talk once, with what I think was deliberate aim: he asked several technically challenging questions in quick succession, and the PI speaker was basically stunned into silence. I was hysterical with silent laughter.
And there is this other aspect that most PIs don't want to admit: a senior postdoc is basically the same as a junior PI. Admittedly, junior PIs don't get to give talks as often as senior PIs, but they give talks more often than postdocs.
The point of this comparison is that in at least some (!) cases the senior postdoc proposed the project, did the project, and has lots of ideas for where her project will go next, since it is presumably the subject of her future grants and lab studies. Senior PI guy might not know those things, and might not, in some cases, really appreciate the importance and implications of the work that has already been done.
In general I was thinking about this because I was noticing once again how it seems like the postdocs and grad students are actually driving the research behind the scenes, and the PIs are really just figureheads. They're not exactly puppets, but in a way they could be. In some labs they are.
The historical perspective aspect is an important one, and I can't emphasize enough how much it annoys me when a grad student or postdoc is asked a question about the history of their own field and can't answer it.
The other day I asked a question like this and the speaker (a postdoc) looked at me and said very dismissively, "That's very philosophical" and continued on without even attempting to answer. Sheesh! I actually know a little more about her field than she might realize. I know she could have answered my question succinctly, in just 1 sentence that conveyed the traditional thinking as well as her personal take on it.
Instead, I am left to conclude that she hasn't read the classic papers in her field (even though I have!). Which made me wonder if she's not one of these glorified technician types that some PI commenters are always complaining about (?).
I'll agree, I don't want to see that kind of postdoc presenting talks. I'd take a senior PI over that sort of person any day. But I think most PIs know that, and that's why they don't generally give their talk slots away to their postdocs.
Having said that, sometimes I'd rather hear one, complete story from an articulate postdoc than a bunch of snippets from a breezy world-traveling PI who can't answer questions effectively. I always feel sorry for the postdocs who did the work, because I know the talk rarely gives them the credit they deserve.
Will I give talks away to my postdocs? Sure, when they're good speakers and have a good story to tell. They might not come into the lab that way, but I'll make sure they gain those skills quickly and practice them sufficiently before they leave.
I like to travel, but I already know that most PIs are invited to more meetings than they can possibly attend in a year, and their labs suffer when they're constantly out of town. A handful of meetings a year is enough! I'd much rather send my postdocs to some of them. To me, that's a win-win.