Sunday, September 23, 2007

Advice sought

I'm going to a conference later this week, and haven't really written my paper yet. Too many other things have come up (teaching, visitors, the thesis, more teaching, 82 fricking assignments to mark, sitting in a corner panicking, more teaching). The topic is something from my thesis, but something I've only really touched on a little. I had planned to spend a few weeks doing some extra work to turn it into a better supported idea. If I try to give a paper on it with this little preparation (four days), it will be pretty craptacular.

There's no question of cancelling my attendance at the conference: the plane tickets are paid for and non-refundable ($300), as is the conference fee ($250), and even my accommodation will charge one night's stay if I don't show. So my dilemma is whether it is a potentially worse career move to give a craptacular paper, or to cancel my talk at this late notice when it will be pretty obvious to everyone present that it isn't because I am sick or maimed, but just disorganised.

What would the rest of you do?


Tom said...

There's so much tedious stuff at most conferences that even if you know that you're struggling a bit, nobody else is going to notice. And because you're still a PhD student (just) they'll put it down to nerves or performance anxiety if they do.

The best tactic is to be very clear at the beginning that this is work in progress - just an idea on which you're seeking views. Then the audience, if awake, will feel flattered because you're seeking their advice. Once you've tickled their academic expert glands they'll be happy, and it won't really matter what you say. And this means that questions are likely to be supportive rather than combative.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I think Tom is right.

What I would do is to make a good speaking outline and go from there -- you can do that on the way there if needed :).

Make sure you think about both the core of the idea and potential objections... that way you can fill the end of your presentation time with objections to get the worst of them out of the way. That will leave you with the questions that are pretty much, "you didn't do what what I do".

twirly said...

I would give the talk - to the best of my ability....I think T and IPF have some good advice.....I think it would look worse to cancel.

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

One of my favorite tactics is to plant a question in the audience - if you have other friends or sympathetic colleagues who will be there, tell them something to ask you, ideally something that aims in the direction of the stuff you do know really well. That way you'll be more comfortable with the questions, and you'll have the chance to show off a little.

Kelly said...

Wow, some good comments here. I agree with everyone but would add: go to the conference, applying the techniques others have described, but remember that the conference gives you an opportunity to visit a new city! That's reason enough to go even if you "phone in" your talk and maybe even skip sessions that don't interest you.

What can I say, I'm a pragmatist procrastinator!

sheep'sh said...

Yeah, you kinda have to give the talk if you're going to go - otherwise you'll spend the whole time explaining that your non-talk was craptacular. Whereas if you give it in the right way, you can salvage things.

I like P/H's suggestion of planting questions and discussion topics. One thing to avoid however is the following. It's ok to be a little self-deprecating in a talk, but you absolutely can't overdo this or you'll end up convincing people that your self-deprecation is true. In other words, don't say things like, "I'm sorry this talk is so bad." It probably goes without saying... except I've seen that kind of thing before.

Anonymous said...

I have seen quite a few talks at conferences that only had vague connections to what the speaker had promised to talk about. I suggest pulling your talk back towards a direction that you know more about and feel more comfortable with. But definitely do give your talk and like pilgrim/heretic said, don't over do it on the self depreciation.

StyleyGeek said...

Thanks everyone. That is all very helpful. I think I will give my talk, and follow your recommendations.

Part of the reason I am scared to give it when so unprepared is that I just got my referees' reports back on my first ever paper in the big wide world, and although one was glowing, the other made me want to hide away in a basement with my ideas and protect them from the evil world of criticism. If anyone at the conference is half as critical as that reviewer was, I think I might have to break down and cry.

Mikael said...

I seem to be late with my comments, and also will be commenting from a completely different field.

That said, I have had the experience of not only going to a conference with minimal preparation, but going there because the organizer explicitly and personally invited me to talk - at a point where I had NO solid results whatsoever, and where my state of research was "Oh dear, all my ideas turned out to be idiotic."

So, I went. The week before taking off, my wife was visiting, and explicitly forbade me to work on conference preparations while she was there. So the entirety of my conference work took place in a 4-day period over a week before takeoff.

It consisted of a bunch of slides saying "Hello, this is very early work in progress. We know how to do X, but I don't like the existing methods. So I would like to do X using Y, but this turns out to be ugly. Here is one example that shows us that it turns out to be ugly. Oh, and I have no idea how to do Y, Z or W. Any ideas would be great."

I held the shortest talk on the conference, but sparked the longest discussion.

That story told, the phrase "very early work in progress" is one I have seen used with a lot of success on many conferences. It usually ends up with the author saying "So, these are my questions. I haven't made much headway, do you have any ideas worthwhile?"

Psycgirl said...

Alright I have no new helpful advice to add, but thanks for posting this because I just learned 110% more than I knew about pulling off a conference presentation! Good luck!

Anastasia said...

if there's a critical person, there's going to have to be the kind of person who would give you a glowing referees report. if the audience is sympathetic--either b/c they like your ideas or b/c they're sympathetic to you b/c you'd a phd student or this is a work in progress, whatever--the critical person just ends up looking like an asshole.