The purpose of posters
Poster sessions have always reminded me that Everything I Needed To Know I Should Have Learned in Kindergarden.
But didn't. I always really sucked at that stuff. That's why I was in science. If I had been good at cutting, pasting, drawing, etc. I would have majored in art.
I always got the impression that girls were supposed to be good at that stuff. I had more than one male advisor tell me they were surprised at my complete lack of skills in artistic pursuits. I told them I was in science because I got kicked out of girl school.
Towards the end of my postdoc, I finally started getting compliments on some of my posters, just as I was starting to be chosen to give talks at major meetings. So of course by then it didn't help or matter anyway.
I think the culture has changed somewhat, at least in my field. Posters are only useful for
• those working on the truly obscure
• those whose work is already in press but who hate public speaking
• chumps who want to get scooped.
Anyone who wants to get anywhere had better be invited to give a talk, or stay at the bench.
But I have been thinking a lot lately about whether I stayed in science longer than I should have, and why I stayed despite multiple setbacks.
One of the first things that should have been a clue that I did not fit the existing science mold was my graduate program's annual retreat. There, the students were required to submit an abstract, do a poster, and if we were lucky, present a talk.
From the very first one, it was obvious to some of us that:
a) Prizes were awarded based on publication, not on the quality of the poster or talk
b) Publications were largely a matter of
• timing (picking up the end of a project that had already burned out several postdocs and completing it during a summer rotation)
• politics (working for someone who happened to be on the editorial board of a Major Journal, for example)
• isms (it was probably not a coincidence that males seemed to have more opportunities to get on the perfectly timed, high-impact project in the highly connected lab than did females)
c) The best way to get through these events was to bring alcohol, start drinking early in the day, and escape as soon as the Administrative Psycho had finished noting our attendance.
Our program was very secretive about how this all went down. We didn't know which faculty were judging the posters, so we had to try to be standing there talking to any and all of them if we wanted a chance to win the coveted $500 prize, to be spent on travel or supplies. We had to at least pretend to laugh at their lame jokes.
Of course, the irony was that those of us who were most desperately in need of money for supplies or travel were also the least likely to have completed and published our rotation projects, much less working for a politically influential PI.
So in that sense, I should have known. It was really kind of a hopeless feedback loop, and hard work alone would never get me unstuck.
But this post was inspired by a comment, which described an anecdote where a highly accomplished female student was initially overlooked for a poster award in favor of less productive male students, until our local hero App spoke up on her behalf, noting that her work was published.
Two things about this anecdote gave me a visceral reminder of what I hated about those fucking poster sessions in grad school.
1. The inherent bias in the "whoever comes to mind" process of giving awards
I've witnessed this firsthand, and most anyone who has served on an awards committee probably knows exactly how it works. Some people sit in a room, and maybe call out names of people. Other people say yay or nay.
The main problem with this approach is that, more often than not, many otherwise eligible participants are ignored. Because not everyone's work is scored based on defined criteria, it usually comes down to whether they like the person enough to remember who they are, much less their work.
In other words, it's inherently biased towards charisma, and whatever else appeals to the judges.
It's terribly subjective, but most science faculty will deny that it's unfair. They believe themselves to be ultimately objective in all things. They get very defensive if you tell them they might have implicit biases without even being aware of it.
2. The implication that peer-reviewed, published work is more worthy or "better" than the earliest stages of unpublished but groundbreaking research
And truthfully, it's not. Not at all. But at my school, peer review was always viewed as validation.
Really? Three random people say it's okay, so it must be wonderful? Try again, guys. It just means it was deemed complete enough to publish. That's all it means.
In fact, if I were in charge of a graduate program, I would insist that published work be disqualified from departmental poster sessions. I think it's only fair that everyone present work-in-progress.
Isn't that the point of grad school? To shelter students for a few years so they can actually focus on doing something useful, instead of being distracted by all the unfairness inherent in peer-reviewed competition?
Moreover, if I were in charge of a graduate program, I would disqualify projects on which the grad student in question is not first author. Which is usually the case when it's a new graduate student whose work is somehow miraculously already published. And no co-first author nonsense, either, unless the other first author is also a grad student. Fuck that.
But when we're talking about contests that don't include separate categories for new students vs. senior students, this is just kind of stupid. Why make students waste their time worrying about layout when they don't even have a defined project yet?
All those years of practicing making posters (montage!) did not lead me to a moment of victorious poster-making. It was not a cumulative gain: it was a waste. What changed was the technology. I was never going to have patience with cutting and pasting on cardboard, but I do okay when I can make my poster using Adobe Creative Suite. I think the new era won't be posters at all, just walls of video presentations with animated models and raw movie data. And hopefully, publications will be that way, too.
Seems to me that poster sessions should be more about discussion and feedback, and less about prancing about like puppies at Best in Show. If the project is finished and published in a peer-reviewed journal already, you don't really care what we think, do you? You already have the stamp of approval from your so-called "peers". Now you want money, too? Who do you think you are?! I mean, puh-leeze.
My field became very secretive very quickly, in the last 5-10 years, everyone started holding their cards very close and lying to each other about how far along they were or what they were planning to do next.
If that's all we're doing, then poster sessions are just about competitively bragging about work that's already finished, and I'd rather stay home and practice drawing futuristic cartoons with crayons.
In my imaginary future I'm the head of a graduate program where there is only open publication. No anonymous peer review nonsense, and no poster sessions. Also, naptime is mandatory.