“Student competition sessions” at conferences are weird

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 (sheard@unb.ca) 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.

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5 thoughts on ““Student competition sessions” at conferences are weird

  1. Chris MacQuarrie (@CMacQuar)

    I agree that student talks are almost always the best talks at any meeting. Competitions aside, I’ve always thought the reason student talks were grouped together (and often at the start of a meeting) was to showcase student talks so that they receive the full attention of the societies ‘senior’ members. Otherwise, the student talks wind up getting lost in the chatter of the rest of the meeting. I’ve also thought grouping student talks at the start of the meeting also takes the pressure off. Once their talk is done, a student is free to enjoy the rest of the meeting and not be sequestered off in their hotel room practicing. Or worse, off in some corner freaking out.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I like that you’ve gone with the most positive interpretation, the “showcasing” one. That certainly wasn’t the case at ICE, though, where there were student sessions all through and scheduled up against topic-related “regular” sessions. I have seen this done well where award finalists (let’s say) were showcased. That I can see!

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      1. Chris MacQuarrie (@CMacQuar)

        Wow, really?!? I’m sad that happened. It’s certainly not the case at the regional and national Canadian meeting (and at the few ESA’s I’ve attended). When I was a student I always enjoyed getting my talk over and done with early on in the meeting. It let me focus on the other talks, and worry about other things (networking, the student mixer, etc…)

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  2. Jeremy Fox

    Having had first hand experience with *much* worse ways of keeping the judging manageable, I find it difficult to get too worked up about this, even though I agree that this way of organizing things could possibly send some unintended and undesirable signals*. I personally like the idea of only giving each student 1 or 2 cracks at the student award, and being willing to live with having each student presentation judged by only 2 faculty (rather than the 4-6 judges/presentation that ESA used to (and perhaps still does) aim for for its Buell and Braun awards.)

    You could also just rely on students to not bother applying for the award, even if all it requires is checking a box on the abstract submission form or something. In my admittedly-anecdotal experience, most awards (student presentation awards, the ASN Young Investigator Awards, the Mercer Award…) are not overrun with applicants, because many people don’t bother to apply. Even if they’d be very competitive. At one level that’s bad; you don’t want competitive candidates self-selecting themselves out of the running, especially since certain groups of people might have a dispropotionate tendency to self-select out. But at another level, it means that there’s perhaps no need to worry about being overrun with too many applicants to judge. So perhaps if you have a conference that has trouble rounding up enough judges to judge all the students because every student is automatically considered for the award, the problem could be solved by making students check a box on a form in order to become eligible.

    I do think that if you want to insist on every student being automatically eligible, it’s going to be hard to round up sufficient judges. Perhaps there are other ways to round enough judges for every single student presentation besides ICE’s method of putting all student presentations in student-only sessions. But I wouldn’t assume that there are.

    *It could also send some intended and desirable signals like “come check out these awesome student presenters!”, as Chris noted above. The “signal” purportedly sent by behavior or policy X often is very much in the eye of the beholder. For instance, I recall the lengthy argument you and I had about what “signal” (if any) is sent by conference attendees removing their name badges when eating meals away from the conference center…

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Hey, Jeremy, if you’re going to remember all the stuff I said in the past, you’re going to eventually catch me being inconsistent. We wouldn’t want that.

      I do agree with you that there are lots of ways to reduce the judging task without making things utterly unfair. That’s been my inclination. I just don’t see why every individual thing that’s technically eligible for Award X needs to be automatically entered in the competition for Award X. It just seems like an unrealistic way to run the world…

      And yes, you have once again caught me worrying about things that might not be the most important things in the world 🙂

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