My grad school tour so far has proceeded nicely. It’s been refreshing and invigorating to meet so many new people, especially people I have lots in common with academically, and to get a feel for how the research environment varies at different institutions. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the amount of time people have been willing to spend talking to me about their experiences as students, interactions with their PI, access to core facilities, etc. Coming from the West Coast, I was anticipating to encounter a colder reception and faster pace of work that does not leave much time for chatting to strangers; so far, I haven’t found this to be the case at all.
One lab I interviewed in asked me to give a short presentation, and I chose to talk about some published research I worked on years ago as a co-op student, rather than my current project, which is still in its early infancy. Putting together the presentation was easy, as I could of course use the paper figures; figuring out a way to tell the story in my own words took a bit longer, but all in all it was done during one short-haul flight. I had pockets of time here and there to refresh my memory on the technical details, but opted to spend most of that time on quality interactions with friends I rarely get to see.
Overall, despite the minimal amount of time and effort I felt I put in, feedback on my presentation was positive – with one exception. One member of the audience was positively enraged by my slip-ups on a few technical details, and was very forceful in ensuring that his opinion of my work was heard. I have rarely encountered such outward hostility. It was almost comical to see someone get so upset over such minutiae. Rather than get into an argument, I acknowledged my omissions and explained why they did not affect the interpretation of the data. Under normal circumstances, I am a very anxious person, so I was surprised that I was able to respond to such an aggressive attack (in front of strangers I was trying to impress) so calmly. I didn’t know I had it in me.
The remainder of the question period was pleasant – the other questions seemed to be asked out of genuine curiosity, so they were easy to respond to. After the talk, most people in the lab said nice things, and many apologized for the behavior of the one angry lab member. Truth be told, the only reason I was even a little bit upset by his behavior is the small but nagging possibility that the feedback I received was driven by pity, rather than an objective evaluation of my work. The lab member in question later spent a lot of time apologizing, and seemed to genuinely understand that the behavior was out of line. A short apology would have been enough; I would have preferred to avoid wasting my and their time on recounting an incident that was thoroughly unconstructive.
This episode reminded me of the very first time I ever presented at any lab meeting – after which I cried – in front of the PI, as it were, seemingly in order to retain the minimum possible amount of dignity. I was nearly certain that if I couldn’t make it in a friendly lab, led by an incredibly sweet and caring person, I had no hope for survival anywhere else. A few years later, I am coming to the realization that confidence can be an acquired quality, and that it is indeed possible to develop a thicker skin and a reasonable ability to deal with questions (even very hostile ones), even if there were times in the not so distant past when this seemed like a pipe dream.