By David Fay (with input from Katherine Rogers)
Group meetings are a sacred tradition in academic science, although their specific format and the atmosphere surrounding them can vary dramatically between labs. Over the years I’ve gone back and forth about my opinions of this weekly event. As a student they sometimes seemed like dangerous hurdles to be cleared. At other times they’ve been painful sessions to endure. But they’ve mostly been stimulating and enjoyable and can provide great teaching moments as well as opportunities to bond with other lab members. Here I discuss why this tradition persists and the reasons you should care.
- An opportunity for the presenter to step back, organize, evaluate, and plan.
Perhaps the most important benefit to giving a research presentation would still be accomplished if the presenter were the only person in the room. Although dedicated scientists are typically churning with thoughts about their own research, our proximity to projects can limit our objectivity and create blind spots. By organizing and formalizing our data for an audience, we begin to view our work more impartially, triggering new thoughts. What controls might be missing but will be necessary to make the conclusions airtight? Are there key experiments that could improve or even transform the trajectory of the project? This kind of periodic, rigorous, and honest self-reckoning is essential when it comes to accurately assessing the state of a project and often provides us with new ideas and directions. And yet none of these benefits will occur if the presenter doesn’t take these opportunities seriously. By investing sufficient time and mental effort in these exercises, you will ultimately save time and, most importantly, improve the quality of your science and organizational skills.
- An opportunity to get feedback and new ideas for your project.
Of course, there are other people in the room during a group meeting, which brings up a second major benefit—the gift of honest feedback. Science should never be done in a vacuum. Every one of us needs candid input and advice. Even answering someone’s basic question, which may not qualify as an insight per se, can trigger a new thought process. Can you justify your approach and conclusions? Can you explain why your research goals are worthy? Remember that even one decent idea or one valid point is reason enough to subject yourself to this kind of public evaluation. Quite often our peers can help us troubleshoot commonly encountered problems. Or maybe they’ve read a paper that’s directly relevant to something you’re working on, or had a similar problem using the same reagent, or happen to know someone who’s an expert in the area in which you need help. Of course, for this to occur you’ll need to give a clear presentation with sufficient context-dependent background. People can tell very quickly if you’ve put minimal effort into your presentation or little thought into your project. Their response to a poor presentation may range from disengagement to a more aggressive or frustrated line of questioning. Know that even if you’re struggling scientifically, people can invariably tell if you care and are authentically trying hard, and they will generally do their best to be constructive. And the help and ideas you get from your peers can often make the difference between success and failure as a scientist.
- An opportunity to showcase your efforts, accomplishments, and abilities.
If you’ve worked hard and thought well about your science, people should know that. You deserve the credit! This is true even if (especially if) your experiments didn’t all go the way you might have hoped. It’s worth emphasizing that you can come out looking strong scientifically even if your results are ultimately disappointing. Conversely, you can look quite weak even if your results are essentially positive. One way to ensure that people have a clear idea of what you’ve done is to show a good amount of data, both positive and negative. This doesn’t mean that every failed gel or PCR needs to get airtime. You’ll have to condense and structure your presentation in a reasonable way, partly to show that you’re an organized thinker and partly out of respect for your audience’s time. But organizing and showing your work will ensure that you derive the full benefits from Points 1 and 2. Additionally, make sure to emphasize your thought process and interpretations at each step. People want a logical narrative, not a data dump or stream of consciousness. You should continually be providing the rationale for why you did things. Giving people the what without an accompanying why is confusing and wearisome and sends a terrible signal—that this person is NOT thinking well about their science! Ultimately, no one should walk out of the room wondering to themselves, “What on earth has this person been doing or thinking for the past 6 weeks?” Make sure they know what you did and that your experiments were well justified! And by overcoming problems and making progress, you’ll motivate others. This, in turn, will encourage your peers to reach out to you to talk about their own work, which can lead to close working relationships and mutually beneficial collaborations.
- An opportunity to hone good presentation skills.
Without good communication skills, both oral and written, your trajectory as a scientist will be very limited. This is true even if you’re a good experimentalist, a hard worker, and a logical thinker. The key is to care about improving your skills in these areas and then practice, practice, practice. Group meetings can provide a relatively safe, low-stress environment in which to continuously work on your presentation skills. Moreover, they will help you to get better at fielding questions, an essential skill for any scientist.
- An opportunity to teach, inform, and inspire others.
It’s not just about you. As a member of a research group, you have a responsibility to try and help raise the level of everyone’s science. Ways to do this might be by providing technical aid at the bench or moral support over a cup of coffee. As a presenter, one of your central goals should be to keep people engaged and to provide them with potentially useful information, ideas, and hard-gained insights. It could take the form of, “Don’t do what I just did!” or possibly, “Do what I just did because it worked!” Group meetings are also a great way to introduce your peers to new techniques and to provide newer members with helpful background and context. Early-career scientists get to see how the “sausage gets made”, a behind-the-scenes view of the scientific process. They begin to understand how a paper comes together, including a realistic picture of all the obstacles that must be overcome and detours that lengthen the journey. And by being especially open about your mishaps, it helps others to learn and be more open about theirs. So, in addition to looking for input into your own project, figure out ways to make your experiences—both the good and the bad—relevant and helpful to others. Doing so will earn you the respect and appreciation of your lab mates, which will come back to you in many positive ways.
- An opportunity for others to evaluate you.
The phrase “No judgments here!” might be well intended, but it’s often spoken untruthfully. And it certainly doesn’t apply to science or to most professional settings (not to mention social media, youth sports, or open-mic nights). We are constantly forming opinions about others as they simultaneously form opinions about us. In fact, one of the foundational principles of science—peer review—is based on our ability to honestly assess colleagues. So, when you give a presentation, any presentation, understand that others will be watching and evaluating. Have you made good progress? Are you a logical, creative, deep thinker? How do you resolve problems and take input, including constructive criticism? The good news is that we don’t have to be perfect to be well regarded and appreciated! We can all miss things and make some mistakes—the key in these situations is how well you respond to being corrected. Still, a consistent pattern of shallow thinking, poor preparation, or obvious lack of effort will take a toll on your reputation. So will an absence of clear logic, rigor, and self-awareness. So why would you ever give a bad presentation of any kind? The simple answer is you shouldn’t! For a group meeting, it doesn’t need to be polished or rehearsed, but it should be thorough, credible, and clear. Speaking personally [DF], while I have never come close to giving a perfect talk, I have consistently tried to give the best presentation that I could muster at the time. Some of these talks might not have mattered much in the scheme of things, but for the most part I acted as though they did.
- An opportunity to learn how to be a good audience member and colleague.
Depending on lab dynamics, group meetings can put peers in a seemingly difficult spot. How can you be honest and critical without seeming to show someone up and make them look bad? A few points are worth noting. (1) A little tact can go a long way. People can tell if you’re trying to be respectful, positive, and constructive, while still being honest and direct. (2) You’re not doing anyone a favor by staying silent if you think you see a problem. Even if you’re ultimately wrong, by raising the question and initiating a discussion, you’ve done a good deed. As a scientist, it’s your responsibility to provide honest input in settings like group meetings. If done clearly and with good intent, people will appreciate and respect you more, whereas silence can be interpreted as not caring. (3) You don’t need to have a brilliant insight to ask a question or make a comment. Chances are that if you are confused, others will be too, and they will appreciate the clarification that hopefully follows. (4) At times we may fail to speak up during a meeting. Possibly we were uncomfortable or simply didn’t know how to formulate the right question. In such cases it’s fine to have a conversation with the presenter after the meeting. But, if at all possible, it’s better to bring up potential issues diplomatically while everyone is present so that they receive the benefit of the group’s combined intelligence, experience, and insight. It’s why we don’t do science alone.
- An opportunity to know the people you work with and break down barriers.
Group meetings provide everyone with an opportunity to know their colleagues better. Who says the funniest unexpected things? Who is quiet but asks razor-insightful questions when they do speak? Who offers the best constructive advice? Who has expertise in something that might help you to troubleshoot a problem you’ve encountered? Is that person who you thought didn’t like you just kind of socially awkward overall? Hopefully, with familiarity comes comfort, which means you’re more likely to seek help when you need it, or just casually bounce ideas around. Overall, this makes the lab a more pleasant place to work. And let’s not forget that misery, confusion, and insecurity all love company! Were you confused by that graph? Someone else asked the same question you were thinking. They were confused, too! You are not an idiot! Also, the first time the postdoc tried that protocol it was a disaster for them, too! Once again, you are not an idiot! These types of experiences, especially early on, can do wonders for one’s state of mind. You are not alone! We are all in this together! Let’s help each other out as best we can.