Conference talks: generally a bit rubbish?

Athene Donald recently wrote about what you don’t see at academic conferences. Academics may go to conferences in exotic places but they only see the inside of conference centres, hotels, airports and restaurants.

In the last year I’ve only been to two conferences. Unfortunately neither of them were in exotic places. The first was in York and I went with a few people from my group. As none of us are especially well-known in our field we unlike Athene had the freedom to explore York in the evenings. The second was held at Imperial and attendance was compulsory for DTC students. They were both small (no parallel talks) and lasted two days.

The speakers at both conferences, with the exception of one or two each day, were incredibly uninspiring and unenthusiastic. I remember trying to fall asleep one afternoon in York after nearly exhausting my iPhone battery reading papers. I was very disappointed as I had hoped to come back with fresh ideas but instead felt that it was a massive waste of time and money.

How can people talk so blandly about their own work? If the speaker isn’t excited by it then they most certainly can’t expect the audience to be interested. Many talks didn’t have any questions—the presentation equivalent of a death knell.

How have we ended up in this situation? I find it particularly baffling when I think about talks given by PhD students in my DTC. Recently we had a day with industry sponsors and visitors from other universities to listen to some third and final year PhD students present their work. The presentations were largely fantastic. Enthusiastic, confident, engaging, interesting… Really very good. Last month my cohort gave our MRes talks and the comments from markers were (nearly) all positive too. A world apart from the dreary, mind numbing talks I’ve sat through at my last two conferences.

Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I’ve really been put off going to anything other than something massive like the MRS conference where there will always be something related to my field and hence tolerable, even if the speaker is a bit tedious.

Does anyone else find most talks bad too? Are good talks unfortunately the exception? On the positive side, at least I’m at the beginning of my career so I can follow Athene’s advice, especially for my next trip to Italy in April:

Early career researchers, don’t kid yourself your professors enjoy themselves on such trips by seeing all the sights of the world you’ve always wanted to see yourself. Chances are, if you get to visit some far-flung place for a conference, you will enjoy your trip much more than your seniors because you live your life at a more leisurely pace. Make the most of it!

2 thoughts on “Conference talks: generally a bit rubbish?”

  1. I think the problem is that some people go to conferences not to give a talk but simply because they have to, or they have to be there. This is especially the case for smaller meetings that are organised without a clear purpose. It is usually better if the conference has a specific aim, or aims to discuss a specific issue.

    On the positive side, I generally find the MRS very interesting. True, there are a number of uninspiring talks. But some of the speakers really make an effort. Just don’t make the mistake and just stay in the session close to your research. Branch out and go to some of the invited talks, or the lunch time/evening plenary talks. They can be quite good!

    1. That’s a good point. A lot of the speakers in York in particular worked in industry and they were most likely sent there by their employers.

      Glad to read that you like MRS. I’ve only heard good things about it, come to think of it. Thanks for the advice about branching out.

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