Image: Part of the conference programme for the 2016 International Congress of Entomology.
I’m never surprised when I open up the programme for a conference and see a “Student Competition Session” – a bunch of grad (or sometimes, undergrad) student talks gathered together and judged for prizes*. Not surprised, but mystified, because I find this distinctly weird.
I’m not objecting to the notion of awarding prizes for the top student talks. That’s a great idea, and I’ve frequently helped judge such things (a couple of times, I’ve run the competition). What I find weird is the notion that we should organize the programme such that all the student-presented ones are over here, and all the established-scientist ones are over there. Organizing things this way seems to suggest that students who present at conferences are doing something different from what more established scientists (a.k.a., old fogeys) are doing. It suggests that maybe we see the student session as version of those awful elementary-school recitation contests: a succession of nervous young boys and girls on stage in the gymnasium declaiming memorized poetry or sophomoric essays in front of even-more-nervous teachers and parents**.
Fortunately, that’s not at all what student competition sessions are like. Instead, they’re just like all the “regular” sessions: full of talks showcasing new results that expand our knowledge of the world. Except they’re not quite “just like all the regular sessions”, because student talks are often the best ones. (If a few students are nervous presenters, it’s only because they haven’t yet learned that they needn’t be.) So why on earth do we organize student talks into separate sessions? Why should a student’s talk about host-race formation in phytophagous insects be in a different session from my talk about host-race formation in phytophagous insects?
It’s possible that the people who organize programs with student sessions don’t realize that student talks are just like established-scientist ones, except better (in which case, they’re missing out). Or perhaps they do realize it and are actually organizing things so they can more easily attend only student talks (in which case they’re fiendishly clever). But I think it’s more pedestrian than that. I suspect that things are organized this way simply to make it judging easier. It’s a huge job administering a student talk competition, because each talk needs to be attended by several independent judges and each judge needs to attend several different talks. And it’s true that having all the student talks in one room makes the logistics easier. But there are ways to make judging manageable*** that don’t lead to a weird system with “regular” sessions distinct from shadow “student” sessions.
We’re all doing science together: students, mid-career folk, and old fogeys. Why should our conference organization send any different message?
© Stephen Heard (firstname.lastname@example.org) Feburary 23, 2017
*^Although I was surprised at the 2016 International Congress of Entomology to see over 70 such sessions (and that’s not counting at least as many student poster sessions). I think (I’m not sure) that at ICE, every student talk was in such a session.
**^I still have horrible memories of practicing the opening line of my essay about wolves. It must have been around Grade 5 or so, and my opening line was “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow the house down. The wolf is the villain… but is he?”. I just wanted to say the damned thing, but my mother wanted every-more dramatic vocal flourishes and hand movements. Mercifully, I’ve forgotten everything else about this event.
***^Like requiring Abstracts upon registration, and using them to narrow the field; or allowing each student two cracks at the prize competition for their career. Or any number of others, and if you have suggestions, please use the Replies.