Saturday, March 14, 2015

Feeling terrible after giving a seminar

I’m writing this in response to a blog post by The NewPI.  She recently gave a talk at a meeting and left feeling pretty bad about it.  This wasn’t because anything particularly bad happened, but rather, she didn’t feel like it was as exciting as it could have been, and also because she didn’t really get much positive feedback. 

I have felt exactly the same way after every talk I’ve given since becoming a PI three years ago.  Seriously.  Every time.  But I’ve had two eye-opening experiences recently that I thought might be worth sharing. 

First, a couple weeks ago I went to a work-in-progress seminar for an assistant professor who is new to our institution and department, though she is quite an accomplished scientist.  A day or two after the seminar, she stopped by my office to ask if I would be willing to do a peer evaluation of her lecture.  She went on to say that she felt like she had disappointed everyone because no one said anything to her after her talk. It was like it was as though people just ignored the fact that she had just given this seminar that to her was a major milestone.  She wanted feedback about how she could improve.  I was SHOCKED to say the least.  Why?  Because her seminar was fantastic!  It was clear and full of new and interesting data.  So I told her this, and then realized that nobody in our department ever tells each other that they did a good job.  As a matter of fact, the people who get the most affirmation after giving a talk in our department are usually people who do a really bad job!  This was kind of a revelation for me when I realized that maybe all of MY bad talks aren’t really as bad as I think they are! 

Second, I was invited to give a talk at a nearby fancy teaching hospital.  They have a seminar series where a clinician presents background and a clinical case, and then a researcher presents whatever they’re doing in their lab to address this clinical problem.  The audience is pretty much a 50:50 mix of physicians and researchers.  The seminar counts for CME credit for the physicians, so I totally felt like I had to spin my research in the most clinically relevant way possible.  This isn’t much of a stretch for my work, but I’m not at all used to presenting it in this way or to this type of audience.  My portion of the seminar was also only supposed to be 20 minutes, so it was really challenging to explain things adequately.  While I was talking I felt like I was bombing the whole time.  People were getting up and leaving or standing up to get more pizza or looked like they were falling asleep.  Then at the end, all the questions were for the clinician and not me.  And as I was leaving, no one said anything to me at all.  It’s just such a strange feeling to be the center of attention as a seminar speaker and then be almost completely ignored after it's over.  I had been so anxious about this talk for months and I left feeling like I had completely failed.  Fast forward two weeks, and it turns out that as part of the CME credit requirements, the physicians in attendance filled out evaluation forms for both of us.  This was in a huge auditorium full of people and I got ranked all 9's and 10's for almost every aspect of the talk that they evaluated.  I seriously could not stop smiling for the rest of the day!  I was SO WRONG about how I had done.  I became even more convinced that lack of feedback after a talk and people ignoring you are probably strong indicators that you did a GOOD job. 

So, New PI, you probably did a lot better than you think!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Jake! Yes, it turns out that after my meltdown, my competitor (it's kind of an insult to him calling him my competitor, because he could crush me with a flick of his pinkie)...anyways, my competitor sent me a lovely note saying how nice it was to see me and that he enjoyed my talk. Then both our talks were listed in the highlights of the morning on the foundation website. So probably I didn't do as badly as I thought. It speaks to the deep insecurity and the need for validation we have as scientists. My therapist in grad school used to tell me that I would never be happy if I didn't tone down the grandiosity and if I didn't stop setting such incredibly high standards. I would reply that without being grandiose, I could not do my job properly. As a scientist you have to think that your question is the coolest question and that you are the only one perfectly equipped to answer it and that if you answer it you will have made a major contribution. But this causes a lot of doubt in the bad days or in the days when you don't live up to your impossibly high standards....I have to keep reminding myself of that... :)