Monday, August 30, 2010

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

• beginners
• 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.

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At 1:48 PM, Blogger Kea said...

During my PhD we had an annual student conference where everyone gave a 15 minute talk. Of course, the theorists never won the prizes. In theory, it is acceptable at conferences for posters to be made from plain A4 pages, laid out on the board. No style required. I always avoided doing posters, because I knew it was a bum deal. The one time I did one for an international meeting, it sucked.

At 6:56 PM, Blogger Pretty Mad Scientist said...

I completely agree with you, especially on point 1! In my field awards are given out based on "influence" and I think part of what goes into deciding whether someone is influential includes papers but also how many talks a person has given. But how many talks a person has given is also influenced by the point you made in #1. Based on the handful of people who I've talked to that have been on selection committees for conferences, sometimes it can turn into a popularity contest where charisma of course plays a large role. I've been having trouble getting accepted to give talks at conferences so I've been thinking about this a lot lately and I'm glad you wrote about it.

At 8:44 PM, Anonymous Riya said...

hey young female scientist, i stumbled upon ur excellant blog only yesterday, i read a few, and maybe soon u will find me commentin on these really old blog posts of yours.
in your distant or not so distant future, please become the head of a grad programme.
I am writing in all the way from India, having just finished M.Sc in Applied Microbiology, i am lookin out for a doctorate degree. and i would have loved it if you were my grad prog head :)
Kudos to you on a great blog. It is honest and smart. All the best.

At 8:51 PM, Anonymous Thinkerbell said...

I'm happy to still be in a field where the yearly/bi-annual conference is very low key and people do present unpublished work. I hate poster sessions for the only reason I think you haven't mentioned, namely the feeling that no one is at my poster, but everyone else has high traffic. Still, I've had some very good interactions at my poster, and I do think it is also where people were getting to know me as I came back year after year. Not all of us are blessed to work on a topic that is sexy, hot or otherwise broad enough to lead to a talk invite.

At 12:49 AM, Anonymous app said...

I certainly agree about 1.

Re. 2.: I've only had one experience of being a judge, so I don't know how it usually goes. All I can say is that in the case I mentioned, when discussing the posters at the judges meeting, publication of the work was never brought up as a factor in deciding who should get the prizes. E.g. the poster by the guy X who got the other prize was based on unpublished work.
Also, my opinion about the quality of Y's work was not because it had been published. She had developed a new algorithm for numerically evaluating some important stuff in her field, and in the poster she had a table showing that it significantly outperformed all the previously used algorithms. That was impressive! (and more so than the research presented in the other posters, including X's). From talking to her i got the impression that this was something she had actually done herself and not just riding the coattail of her advisor. But blog comments are supposed to be short, so I didn't say all that in my other comment; i just mentioned that the work had been published in a major journal as a quick way of indicating that it was high quality.
I agree completely that publication of the poster work is a meaningless indicator on its own. The student is often just riding on the advisor's coattail.

Btw there was nothing `heroic' about what I did, was just trying to make sure that the most deserving person got the prize. It was only afterwards I realised this case was an example of subconscious bias.

At 1:10 AM, Anonymous app said...

Fortunately the graduate program where I was a student was so unstructured and disorganised that we never had to do poster competitions. The couple of times I've had a poster at a conference it was a case of put the damn thing up and then get the hell out of there. Anyone who wants to discuss my poster can find me at the bar, and don't expect me to be sober :)

At 6:39 AM, Blogger Dr.Girlfriend said...

That post was so negative, yet unfortunately so true.

One thing I learnt in kindergarden was that praise was handed out to the teacher pet who had colored between the lines and had pretty pencils. Teachers favored children who copied and looked up to them as all-knowing gurus. Kids who had their own ideas and questions were not encouraged. Grad school is a lot like this too, and you can be very successful if you suck up to the right mentor.

I actually like making posters, and to some extend presentation is as important as the content. However, in both cases it is hard to judge how much was the student's own work and ideas.

I totally agree that poster session should be unpublished work. Especially in a "safe" environment like grad a school retreat where hopefully no one is out to steal your ideas or data. What use is constructive criticism or suggestion if the work is already in print?

At 8:13 AM, Blogger Psycgirl said...

I freakin' hate posters for the same reason as Thinkerbell. I always feel like I stand next to mine ALONE looking like a moron while people flock to the posters around me...

At 8:46 AM, Blogger yellowfish said...

My postdoc advisor actually changed my perspective on posters, he was well known, and I'm sure could have gotten talks if he wanted to, but he always chose the 'poster only' option because he felt that what he went to conferences for was to network and exchange ideas, and that posters worked better for that than talks. His perspective was that if you're just giving a 15 minute standard talk, people see so many of them its hard to get yourself remembered, and unless people want to wait an hour or more until the end of the session, often you don't get to even interact with anyone about it at all outside of the question period.

I'm not 100% sold on that, and still try to get talks, because I think it is good practice for me and it seems like it helps your CV, but learning that from him did make me feel better about when I just get chosen for the poster option at least.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Marcus said...

Whine, whine, whine. I used to think this way, until I realized that I was more comfortable giving talks precisely because I lacked presentation and communication skills. It may make you feel good to get up in front of a captive audience, but it takes more skill to give a poster well, and you will get more out of those discussions. And I thought I was the most cynical person I knew in science...

At 10:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hear, Hear! At my college's annual research meeting the same people / research group always win talk and poster sessions. Every year! It's become a running joke. The research is no better than any other groups' but it does have the largest amount of senior scientists, publications and the most collaborations. Funnily, it's always a student of a collaborating yet important senior scientist from another university who wins a prize. Presumably to encourage this important senior scientist to keep up relations with our college. Also, this research group repeatedly presents the same experiments with maybe a different time line or cell line if the audience is lucky. Everybody has grown bored with it, except the judging panel it seems.

At 10:19 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


I have to admit, science taught me a lot about the artistic aspects of presentation and why they matter. I HATE those posters composed of unreadable A4 pages. The goal is to communicate, so the least I can ask for is that it's readable font, and hopefully illustrated in such a way as to make it understandable. One color picture can be worth ten equations.

Pretty Mad Scientist,

I never got talks until I worked for "famous" people. Nothing else I did made any difference.

Riya, Thanks, glad you like it! Welcome!

Thinkerbell, That sucks about not having people at your poster. After that happened to me, I started walking around more to look at other people's posters. Then I learned it's like blogging - visiting others will draw them back to visit you.

app, That's the way to do it! Especially at big meetings, that's what I do now. I'm always amused when, out of 30,000 people registered, two people will send me an email and bitch me out for not being at my poster for the full 3 hours. Uh, hello? You're the only two people who noticed (!).

Dr. Girlfriend,

Most of my posts are negative! Welcome to my blog!

The only use I can see for constructive criticism after the fact is if you're continuing the work or applying for funding based on that work. But then technically isn't it the end of the old project and the start of a new paper/project?


I think the point here is that none of us likes that! =D


Yeah, I think that's a myth. You get WAY more exposure from giving a talk, and you can (and should) put it on your CV, while you shouldn't put poster presentations (I learned that from reading blogs!). And you won't start getting faculty interviews until they see you're getting invited to give presentations at meetings. They want to know that you can give a good talk. Presentations are basically the only "training" we get for giving lectures to students.


I disagree. I think it's much easier to give a good poster well, because you can CONVERSE with your audience and tailor both the length and level of detail to their interests and expertise. It's much harder to give a good talk to a broader audience in a limited amount of time and make it accessible and memorable.

And no way are you more cynical than me. Nice try though.

At 1:53 PM, Anonymous S. Pelech - Kinexus said...

Scientific meeting are usually called conferences, because they are venues for discussion.

The value of scientific posters to new trainees and established scientists should not be under estimated. A poster provides the opportunity for direct feedback to the presenter on their research and opens the possibility of collaboration. A poster really acts a venue for meeting new and old colleagues, hold engaging discussions, and to allow presenters and viewers to exchange new ideas and insights. Trainees may even first meet future mentors at such events.

At major scientific conferences, I rarely attend the talks but spend most of my time at the poster sessions and visiting vendors. I find that most of what I hear at the talks, often by the same group of notables, is usually published work. There is also little opportunity for real discussion at the conclusion of each oral presentation.

From an efficiency standpoint, I can quickly determine if a poster is of special interest to me, and move on without offending anyone if it is not. Most abstracts of scientific talks are not as detailed as poster abstracts. When I go to an oral presentation, I have to be prepared to sit it out for 15-20 minutes at time so as not to discourage the presenter. I'll take the posters over the talks anytime.

At 3:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Purpose of Posters: To Be Lost in the Back of a Taxi.

Posters are a fucking massive waste of effort 90% of the time.


At 4:18 PM, Blogger Matthew said...

I tend to disagree, but I think it's more of a difference in fields than one of us being wrong. Going to a Geological Society of America meeting and giving a poster tends to work out a lot more for me than giving a talk. Actually interacting with people about the content of the poster has been much more beneficial than listening to someone spout about their methods--or making them listen to me do the same.

Having little idea of how the biosciences work, I'm unclear as to why a talk should "count" any more than a poster in terms of publications, or whether either counts as just gray literature. If the future is more open publishing, however, someone has to take the step towards being open first.

At 6:15 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

S. Pelech - In my field, only junior folks attend poster sessions, or very senior (emeritus or soon to be). The really heavy-hitting powerful people (let's face it, mostly men) do not deign to attend poster sessions. You won't meet them that way. You have to go to the talks and stand up and ask questions if you want to get noticed.

I agree that the same groups of notables often present published work, especially if you're attending a whole circuit of meetings in the same year. In my field, things don't change that quickly. But I don't attend meetings that are run without sufficient time for discussion. I've been to one or two of those, and never went back again. Completely defeats the purpose.

I agree that talks can be more time-consuming but for those of us who need layers and moving pictures to illustrate our points effectively in the time dimension, the 2D static poster format is not ideal. Some work is never going to shine in a poster setting the way it does in an auditorium.

Anon- so true. The amount of time put in is such a gamble. At least with a talk, you know a few people will listen. With a poster, you're not even guaranteed that much! And with these big one-piece posters, it's much more expensive!

I forgot to mention that's another major reason I prefer talks. Poster: $25-$125. Slides: priceless.

Matthew, sorry to hear the talks in your field are so awful! Ours are generally not about methods at all - which is actually not necessarily a good thing, in most cases. Many of the PIs seem to forget that while you can evaluate a concept based on a talk - does it sound interesting or not? - you can't evaluate the validity of the evidence. So they'll come back from meetings pronouncing that something is true when it hasn't been, and might never be, published because it's lacking the right controls, etc.

Good point re: being open.

At 9:05 PM, Anonymous app said...

MsPhD, I submitted another longer comment before my other one above to address the points in your post. The was no error message when I submitted, and i got the usual message "comment will be visible after blog owner approval". But it didn't appear :( Can you check your spam filter please? (Not that it's hugely important or anything.)

At 11:19 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

app, weirdly yours are the only ones going to the spam trap. which is too bad because the trolls seem to have no problem getting through. =p Thought I approved the one you're referring to, but now I don't see it-? Sigh. I probably should update the template or move to wordpress or something. I just have zero patience lately. Especially today.

anyway like you said, too many people use "published" as shorthand for "good" or even "outstanding" when it doesn't necessarily mean anything about quality.

also, that WAS heroic. Just be polite: take the props you deserve and say "yes and I'll do it again if needed!" We need more heroes like you.

At 2:31 PM, Anonymous aysecik said...

I actually enjoy poster sessions very much, both as a presenter and as an attendee. I feel like I can get more out of both of them from a scientific inspiration perspective. A poster session gives you one-on-one time with collegues, presenters, etc. You can discuss specifics, probably even start collaborations (I had several people I met at poster sessions later cite my work, for example). It's not necessarily about kindergarten capabilities (though I do like making my presentations/posters pretty as much as I can) but about the one-on-one exposure you get. That said, I agree it doesn't count as much on your CV. The last few conferences I went to during my Ph.D., I tried to submit two abstracts, one for an oral presentation and one for a poster on a side-project so they were about different things. It made for a great chance to network. Sadly, as a post-doc with very poor luck in the lab, I don't really have enough data to swing that! But don't give up on poster presentations, see them as a way to meet people in your field, discuss, get their opinion, figure out what gets lost in translation so you can make it into a better talk... Also, enjoy the free food;)

At 4:23 PM, Blogger Februa said...

I hate posters in terms of presenting, but Ive milked a lot out of poster sessions Im attending.
I find the best tactic to get someone to seriously look at your poster is to NOT stand right by it - that scares everybody off because you just look to eager/depressed/scary/crazy etc. Be nearby and swoop in. That said, while people have been interested in my work, I have never received any useful feedback at a poster session Im presenting....On the other hand, when Im attending, Im 100% searching for protocols I can steal - hey, what antibody is that? mine never looks that good. Can I get a copy of your Western conditions, my bands dont come out that clear. When I tried that, this happened, did that happen to you and how did you work around it? People seem more than happy to answer these questions/share protocol tweaks etc. with you in this way. I even scored an antibody once - w00t. To me, that is the value of poster sessions, and more people should take advantage of it.


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