I should start by reiterating Nick’s apology. I haven’t held up my end of the bargain for the ICECReam team with my week and a bit late post. Sorry guys!!
Recently, I moved into a different line of research and last week my new boss sent me to a conference to get some insight into my new field. Having just overcome the post PhD blues, it was nice to feast on a herd of new knowledge, presentation styles and research concepts without having to plough through a stack of papers in a dark corner of a library. As a bonus, the ocean view from the main auditorium was amazing and so was the food provided (unfortunately the coffee met my expectations…pitiful). While these features on their own set the scene for a congenial conference there was something else that resulted in a dramatically different experience for me at this conference, compared to previous conferences I have attended.
Usually the pessimist in me excels at conferences. I find it easy to pick holes in research rather than highlight positives aspects. Clearly, the research environment requires a critical view of all work that is conducted, particularly in its dissemination. However, at this recent conference I suddenly became aware that I take my criticism of research too far at a conference. I realised it was limiting what I could take away from a conference, professionally and socially.
It could have been the ocean view, food, novelty of the situation, or a combination of them all that assisted the sudden realisation of my over criticism. Regardless of the origin, it came to me like a song I wrote, and I’d like to reveal a couple of truths about it. Disturbingly, I found my over criticism was amplified mainly at researchers who I didn’t know personally; regardless of the overall quality of the research. For instance, when I realised a simple methodological flaw I dwelled on it rather than accepting the flaw as a limitation and moving on as I would for my own or a colleagues work. In some cases I rejected the entire study based on an insignificant limitation. I also noticed a sort of ignorance that inhibited me wanting to make sense of what others were trying to communicate in their presentation. If I didn’t understand or disagreed based on my interpretation I just disregarded it. The funny thing is that when I realised what I was doing I discovered I wasn’t the only one in the room focused on finding flaws in everyone else’s research. This was highlighted at questions time when every ‘question’, camouflaged by flattery (e.g. “that was a wonderful presentation but I wonder….”), involved some type of critique; usually focused on a flaw that the person seemed to have the answer to - we’ve all heard those comments.
I started to wonder how many people in academic research are so biased about finding bias and if it’s just a silly conference thing where egos come to butt heads. I don’t want to hypothesis about why this could be or if it is the case but I guess the issue touches on the competitive nature of research (that Steve previously wrote about).
Thankfully, after the first day of the conference I had a dramatic shift in my mind set. I looked for positives and tried to put limitations into perspective. I explored what people were trying to communicate. I considered that what I thought they meant wasn’t necessarily what they meant. I sort clarification as if I knew nothing (it probably helped that I really didn’t know anything). In the end, I found that I got a lot more out of my attendance. Not just in terms of listening to speakers and learning about what they were saying. I was more social at break time and I interacted more with other delegates. I found speaking to presenters easy and I think they enjoyed speaking to me.
I’m actually quite disappointed in myself that I hadn’t realised my flawed thinking before now. But I guess that’s better than not realising.