Saturday, March 14, 2015

More thoughts on the new PI transition: recovering from a bad talk

As a new principal investigator, I'm always in a frenzy to promote my work, so that I'm going to establish myself in my field(s) presenting cool new data. I have written before about trying to develop your ability to be a bit of peacock (shaking your fancy tail around) and how uncomfortable it can be, and every time I go a conference nowadays I am stricken by a sense of doom. Conferences used to be fun as a trainee when you saw wonderful stories from senior investigators and were inspired to come up with new ideas and apply new techniques. Now I'm always teetering between feeling small and irrelevant because there are large groups and consortia which will move faster than I even could, and panicking that I will be crushed because my lab cannot generate data quickly enough or because my questions are not interesting/visible enough.

So this week I am at conference where my abstract was selected for a talk. This is a brand new collaborative project with a paper in revision and I was very excited it was picked, until I started working on the talk and realized that I still don't have a stunning conclusion, at least as it would be expected by the type of people attending this meeting. At the meeting there was a complex combination of stressors: 1) it's a specialized conference for a disease foundation that funds my work, but I feel a bit of an impostor because I focus on a specific aspect of the disease that has nothing to do with the major therapeutic targets people here care about; 2) some of the experts knowing the clinical details and the fine biochemical details much better than I do were going to be there, so I had been studying and rereading the literature like mad while preparing my talk; 3) I really wanted to give people a good show hoping to get noticed by the program officers in attendance, potential collaborators, pharmaceutical companies and colleagues.

As the talk took shape I began to worry about its scope: it was picked from the abstract, but should I give an overview of the lab instead since it was 20 minutes and the invited speakers had more general abstract? Or should I just focus on the abstract which is looking at a specific model which really didn't provide information relevant for the specific crowd that would be attending? In the middle of the freakout, I spent a couple of late nights trying to generate last minute data that would be interesting to the clinicians and other researchers. My postdoc had not been successful in generating some data I needed to make me more comfortable presenting the work as it was, and my undergrad had decided to go on spring break without letting me know until the very last minute...
I was back in that state of feeling like half a postdoc half a PI that I described a couple of weeks ago, where I'm stuck between doing the work and focusing on the big picture. Maybe it's a phase, hopefully a growth spurt, in any case it's very uncomfortable.

I think I'm usually a good speaker and I have developed some good talks. I enjoy public speaking and am very happy to have an audience. Despite these premises the whole thing was a mess. I started focusing on the abstract and then realized I wasn't going to fill 20 minutes, so I backtracked and added a shortened version of my usual spiel on findings that would be more interesting to the audience. I practiced like crazy (which I usually don't do) to the point where I started messing up over and over again, and kept modifying the intro slides to almost the last minute, struggling with the transitions and actually forgetting some key detail in one which likely pissed some people off. I think I did an okay job delivering the talk though I got nervous a couple of times, and had some issues with the Q&A since the questions ranged in disparate directions. I stepped off the podium feeling dejected and as I watched the other speakers discuss the awesome things they do in their labs, I wished I had taken a completely different approach.  I should have taken more time to flesh out the part of the talk which is more comfortable for me and which would be more interesting to the audience describing some additional published studies without spending 10 minutes on the more problematic new project. One reason why I chickened out from that is that the big dog in my field, whose shadow I need to escape, was talking in the same session after me, and I graciously mentioned he would do a much better job that I ever would at describing some of the mechanisms involved (which incidentally he did without ever even acknowledging me or my work). Everyone I know said I did well, but don't they always? A much better benchmark is when strangers come up to you to ask questions or to say how they learned something new...

Next week, I'm going to another meeting which is on a different topic and with a much more fitting crowd and I'm just presenting a poster, so the pressure is low. A couple of friends who have been very successful and are rising stars will be there and will definitely make me feel like I still need to reach my full potential, but that is another story for another post. There might be a component of raging impostor syndrome  bringing me down, but the bottomline is that I wonder whether this also reflects the struggle of new investigators to becoming "established" and "developing their identity" which senior people constantly bring up when talking about tenure.

Ideas, comments, advice are welcome.


  1. My response in the form of a blog post. :-)

    1. I posted this on K99 advice blog also, but I'm reposting here.
      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... :)

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    3. Being happy is overrated anyway.

      I feel like crap after talks more often than not, but it turns out people enjoy them.

      Just keep swimmin'...

  2. I totally resonate with Jake's reply to this. I recently gave a talk to a pretty large and diverse audience at an R1 and while everyone looked attentive, at the end of the talk I got only a handful of questions which was a little disappointing. A silver lining to the dark cloud was that a grad student walked up to me and said that it was among one of the best talks that he had ever seen, but I wasn't so sure. Much later in the day, I met with some faculty and one of the faculty from a loosely related field came up to me and told me how excited she was about my talk and continued to talk about some specific points of my research that I thought only people in the field would "get". Needless to say, I was overjoyed to see that my points had come across clearly to diverse faculty and that my talk had actually gone quite well. Throughout the rest of the day a few more people came up and spoke with me about specific aspects of my research and even told me how they were very impressed by certain aspects of the presentation. So in the end, it turned out that although the immediate post-talk non-verbal feedback seemed luke warm, people had actually enjoyed the talk very much.

    Thanks for this post as it brings up an important yet less-discussed point about feedback, validation, etc from peers that many scientists constantly seek to feel positive, which as the anecdotes here show, are not always accurate markers of performance and therefore an unreliable source of self-evaluation.