I recently had the pleasure of hosting a remote seminar by Ambika Kamath in my department’s EEB seminar series. It was an unusual talk: Ambika read it word-for-word from a script. But unusual in a good way. It was a very good script, and Ambika read it very well, which made it a very good talk.
The usual advice to seminar speakers is “don’t read your talk”. I’ve given that advice myself to graduate students in years past. But having seen Ambika read her talk, I’ve changed my mind. I think it’s fine to read your talk, if that works for you.
It’s worth saying a bit more about what “works for you” means. It doesn’t just mean “I prefer to read my talks.” Because if you read your talk badly–in a monotone, for instance, or if you keep losing your place–then I don’t think reading your talk actually works. I’ve heard that the late Bill Hamilton used to read his talks–with his back to the audience and mumbling. That’s a bad way to give a talk. It’s bad even if other ways of giving talks would’ve worked even worse for him. If you need to give talks on your work, but no way of giving talks works for you, well, try your best to improve. Try new things until you find a way of giving talks that works for you.
I think this is a specific illustration of a broader point.
There are many things that scientists do that can be done in various ways. Do them in whatever way works for you. Sometimes I think we forget this, because most people do thing X in the same way (or mistakenly think that most people do thing X in the same way). I think grad students in particular tend to forget this. When you’re first learning “how things are done” in science, it’s especially easy to assume that there is just one way in which things are done, and that your job is to learn it. Heck, it’s especially easy to just do things as (most) others do without even thinking about whether there are other options. And when you’re first learning “how things are done”, it’s especially easy to worry that any other way of doing things must be wrong somehow, or would meet with disapproval from others. When in fact it would be fine and would meet with widespread (if not unanimous) approval.* Finally, I think these days, many of us pay more attention to the indirect “spillover” consequences of our actions than we used to. Which I think is a good thing on balance. But the downside is that sometimes we overestimate how likely it is that certain actions will impose some substantial and avoidable “spillover” cost on others. So we rule out some options for ourselves for no good reason.
So here are some other examples of things that can be done in a wider range of ways than many scientists seem to realize:
- You can work at the times that work for you, even if they differ from the times at which most other people work. (see also)
- In a faculty job interview, you can dress and act in a way that makes you feel comfortable. Even if it’s not how (you think) a senior person in your field would dress and act.
- There’s no single correct style in which to write a scientific paper.
- Your poster doesn’t have to have nearly as much text as most scientific posters do. In fact, it’d probably be better off with less text than most scientific posters have.
- You can be competitive for a tenure-track faculty position in ecology at a research university with fewer papers, and fewer first-authored papers in leading journals, than most ecologists realize.
- Instructors vary a lot in how much they lecture, for all sorts of reasons. So however much you lecture, and whatever your reasons for lecturing or not lecturing, you’re far from alone.
- After you get tenure, you should think broadly and creatively about what you’re going to do now that you have it. You don’t have to just keep operating as you were before.
- It’s ok to deviate from the “culture of ecology“. After all, probably most ecologists do in some way.
- There’s no one right way to do “good science”.
- You don’t have to go into academia after grad school, you can chart your own career path. (see also)
- You can post unreviewed preprints if you want to. After all, not too long ago nobody in ecology posted unreviewed preprints–until some ecologists started doing it.
- You can blog if you want to. After all, not too long ago nobody in ecology had a blog–until some ecologists started blogging.**
- You can tweet if you want to. After all, not too long ago no ecologists tweeted, because Twitter didn’t even exist. Then it was invented, and some ecologists started tweeting.
- You can dance if you want to. You can leave your friends behind. ‘Cause your friends don’t dance, and if they don’t dance, well, they’re no friends of mine.***
- An example from my own experience: I didn’t realize that I could be happy living in a big city, or in a country other than the US, until I did both for my postdoc. I’d never have learned those things about myself if I’d just stuck to the small US towns and suburbs I’d lived in my whole life. Until I tried those new things, I was ignorant of my own preferences! The point is, it’s hard to know what “works for you” unless you sometimes try new ways of working.
The obligatory caveat here is that there sometimes are limits as to how much, or in what ways, you can deviate from the most common way of doing X without paying some significant cost. Sometimes there are good reasons for those limits. There are good reasons why you shouldn’t mumble your talk, for instance. Sometimes there are debatable or context-dependent reasons for those limits. For instance, there are reasons for the convention to write scientific papers in a dry style, with an Introduction-Methods-Results-Discussion structure. But there are also good reasons to deviate from that convention in some circumstances. Sometimes there are bad reasons for those limits, and in a better world those limits wouldn’t exist. And it can sometimes be hard to tell exactly where the limits are, because the limits are fuzzy, or because people disagree on where the limits are.
One way to deal with not knowing where the limits are is to experiment. Deliberately do things a little differently than other people do them, or than you have done them in the past, and see what happens! Even the worst-case outcome probably isn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things, and isn’t nearly as bad as you fear it will be. Fuzziness of the boundary between good and bad ways of doing X, or disagreement about where the boundary is, often is a signal that the downside consequences of pushing the boundaries a bit aren’t too serious. This old post from Meghan and I discusses how to figure out what works for you, and how to identify and deal with real or perceived limits on doing things your own way. The discussion is focused on choosing the time(s) of day at which you work, but I think it generalizes.
tl;dr: If Michael Stipe sometimes needed to read the lyrics of his own songs during live performances, it’s fine for you to read your talk if that’s what works for you.
*There aren’t many things in science, or life, for which there’s literally unanimous approval! There are people who don’t like puppies.
**Now they’ve mostly stopped, of course.
***You can dance. You can dance. Everybody look at your hands.