Wednesday, November 7, 2007

An anvil over my head

I have to give a presentation for my postdoc at a conference that we're hosting, and I'm totally toast.

My postdoc is in a subject area that I'm not at all familiar with, using theories that I'm not at all familiar with. I have some strengths which could be useful to them; I accepted the job because I assumed they would be using my strengths, and I would also get to travel. When I first started working, my postdoc "advisor", in quotes because I've met him exactly twice ever, assigned me five small projects, all of which were the sort for undergraduate RAs: get all the literature on a given topic, summarize it with gross generalizations, ignore the inevitable frustration that the undergrad RA doesn't know how much already exists to summarize, so is undoubtably needlessly duplicating others' efforts. Such work is totally useless for my career, of course. I don't know why he doesn't have an undergraduate do the work, unless the undergradautes here are dumb. Which is possible.

As a result, I've spent the past two months assiduously avoiding this work, and doing work that is actually helpful for my career, such as finishing my dissertation, submitting an article to a journal, giving conference presentations on my own work, and applying to jobs. I've arguably been more productive in the past two months than any other two month period during graduate school, even with moving.

But soon I have to do a presentation on a vague topic that my advisor has assigned to me, and I have nothing. The way that he assigned the topic to me, by the way, was by sending around a meeting agenda on which I was listed under the topic. The guy after me is a man working and presenting on the (more technical) topic which would have been more logical for me to work on were I not assigned to do the work of an undergraduate RA. And we're doing the conference in a very sexist part of the world.

I have a few options:

1. He said that I could just do a "discussion" if I wanted, since he knows that I have been spending all my time on my dissertation. I don't have anything to discuss, though.

2. I've discovered lots of presentations online from his colleagues, which I noticed themselves were mainly taken from other sources, so I could combine all of these into one big presentation and claim it's on the assigned subject.

3. I could think really hard and come up with technical semi-bullshit. This lets me win the technical penis length contest, maybe it will be useful, but maybe I will just make a fool out of myself such as by reinventing the wheel. Because the whole point is that I don't know anything about the field.

With the postdoc as a whole, now that I've been trying to work even just a little bit on his crap, I wonder what I was smoking that I thought I could just go ahead and do it and work on my own research in the rest of my time. Spending 20 hours a week acting like an undergraduate RA is a gigantic waste of my time even if I'm rather fond of a guy who lives here. So far, every minute that I spend on this work instead of my own work feels like such a blatant waste of time that I can't stand to continue and want to go back to my real work.

The conference will be my third time meeting my advisor, and it would be a good idea to use the opportunity to point out that my undergraduate RA literature summary skills have gotten rusty and maybe I could do something that I might be good at.

In either case, my presentation is exactly one slide long. I made 3 slides of technical semi-bullshit and felt bad about it: I don't want to piss off or confuse or snub our international collaborators. Discussion it is!

1 comment:

Matthew said...

With all the obvious caveats (I know nothing beyond what's in your post), I've been to quite a few workshops/conferences where one of the speakers was new to the area. One approach which has sometimes worked is to start by owning up to being new and then explicitly pitching the presentation as A Newcomer's Take on Things (a version of option 1 I guess). If all goes well, it comes across as a refreshing, sideways-on view on their favourite topic. Especially if you can offer some alternative way of understanding the issues. This can be a nice way of connecting their topic with some area you're more familiar with (e.g., what you care about is similar to what people in this area care about, which suggests this position could be fruitfully explored).

However, this can be a high-risk strategy and I've seen people fail miserably (i.e., the audience just doesn't react well, not that the talk itself wasn't actually good). There's always a danger of coming off as hopelessly silly/naive.

I hope it works out, whatever you go for.