Submitting abstracts for conferences without having the data


I’ve developed a mechanism to make sure that I stay productive: when I submit abstracts for meetings, I promise data that I haven’t finished collecting. Of course when I give a talk, I can say almost whatever I want. Nobody’s going to cut me off if my talk doesn’t match the program.

I just realized that I always have been in the habit of submitting abstracts for projects that are so fresh, I haven’t even gotten all the numbers, much less run analyses. In grad school, that was the only option, because at one point I didn’t have anything else to say. Now, even when I have other newish finds that I’ve yet to present, I submit abstracts for projects that still lack a rudimentary answer. I do this at least once a year, writing a check for results that aren’t yet in the bank.

I realize that this is standard operating procedure for some people, at least in my subfields. By holding to this tradition, even when I could make a good show at a meeting without cutting it close, I’m making sure that I’m always working on something new.

This year, this approach is hurting a bit more than normal. I’m actually attending too many conferences this summer, and presenting different sets of unpublished data at all of them. (This isn’t impressive when you find out how old some of these data are.) But one has data so fresh that they’re still baking in the oven. (At ESA in Sacramento on Monday afternoon, 11 Aug, in the tropical rainforest session. You should come! I’m as excited to find out the results as anybody else.)

There remains much I have yet to do. The end of May is a crazy time: Finishing the semester, graduation festivities, preparing for field season, my kid’s summer vacation starts, and the glorious outdoors beckons even louder for recreational activities. And there are all of the things I planned to do during the semester.

Most of us have a backlog of the research-related tasks that are waiting for our attention. There is always something to do, no matter how much we get done. That’s the nature of research. At any moment, we can spend time on: a) the next thing, b) another thing required for work, or c) something else. That last category – something else – is where so many of the wonderful things in life happen.

I posit that living a fulfilled life in science requires knowing where to draw the line: when to choose option C. If I don’t do enough science, I am unsatisfied. If I overcommit, then I’m missing out on so many of the great things that existence has to offer. (Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of loved ones, a good book, time outdoors, cooking a delicious meal, exercise, and sleep.)

Drawing a good line isn’t so easy. The moment we draw a line is temporally decoupled from the moments we experience the consequences. This is how I found myself working a 16-hour day in the lab on Tuesday this week, the day before my kid’s 5th grade graduation promotion ceremony. Which is how I asked my spouse to get breakfast, dropoff, dinner, bedtime, and all the other stuff that we’re supposed to share. And which I rationalized by explaining that for the next two weeks, I’d be on primary parenting duty. (Conveniently forgetting the several weeks that I am taking for work-related travel this summer.) And I did take today off, aside from this evening post, to celebrate with him.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll mostly be hanging out with my kid, squeezing work in when I can. Then, he goes to daytime summer camp for a few weeks while I head off to the field. (He’s not tagging along this field season like he did last year – though he is joining me while I teach a field course in July.)

But between now and the start of field season, the amount of work that remains on my plate is daunting. Even though it’s not necessarily healthful to do all of the work on the plate. This year, my eyes were bigger than the amount of work I can stomach.

I think a scientist needs to constantly swim to prevent sinking. Which is why the top of my list is “collect data for the talk that I scheduled for August.” My students ran an awesome field experiment last summer, and since then it’s been my job to do the labwork to identify all of the critters tied to this experiment. I underguesstimated it would take about 80 hours of labwork. I only squirreled away about twenty of those hours over the last academic year, and so now, I’ve got to get it done pronto and it’s going slower than I anticipated (probably because the experiment worked so well!).

Nothing gets work done like a deadline.

As a scientist, I tell stories about how nature works, and I do my best to (try to) tell true stories that reveal more-than-trivial truths. To tell new stories, I help myself by creating an external deadline. Unless I promised this talk in August, there’s no way I’d have my butt at the scope at this time of the year. I could be out on a hike, or playing frisbee, or working on a manuscript. But I have to collect these data not just for the talk, but because my student coauthors are counting on me to hold up my end of the bargain. And oh, yeah, the science is cool.

There’s a reason that some parents talk about their kids so darn much. Even if our lives are not centered on them, they are at positioned at center of our lives. That includes our schedules. Every scheduling decision is made by taking into account the needs of my family. To do otherwise would be an abdication of my role as parent and spouse.

When I’ve overcommitted, I also overcommit my spouse, too. She is okay with me disappearing into the lab for a few days because, well, she knows that I need these data. But why do I need these data now? Because I promised I’d get it done. And I can’t let a (potentially) amazing project linger because I don’t carry my weight while other people already have carried theirs.

Saying yes to students and yes to collaborators, many months ago, means saying no to my family now. The next time someone asks me to join a cool research project, I’ve got to retain the presence of mind to say no if I can’t fit it in.

Maybe this is why perhaps the best news I got this month is that that my NSF preproposal wasn’t invited for a full submission. I have no idea when I would have written that thing anyway. If the grant got funded I’d either have to give up the stuff I’m doing now or I’d be even more overcommitted. It sounds like I’m overdue for a sabbatical. For the moment, I’ll deal with a summer of fieldwork, manuscripts, mentorship and conferences. And a little backpacking, I hope.

13 thoughts on “Submitting abstracts for conferences without having the data

  1. My ESA abstract is often a pack of lies, for just the reason you identify: I’m not yet done with the analyses (or sometimes even the data collection) when the abstracts are due. Which is fine, since as you say no one’s ever going to cite your abstract (or your talk, for that matter). And since on the day you are in fact going to present some results on whatever topic you said you’d talk about. (Showing up on the day and talking about a completely different topic than what your abstract said you’d talk about really is a bait and switch, I think; fortunately, I’ve never seen anyone do that).

    I’ve also occasionally used “submit an abstract to a conference” as a commitment device to force me to prioritize a particular project.

  2. This tactic doesn’t work so well in my field, where good conferences peer-review full papers and publish them in proceedings books (though there are a few conferences that also have non-peer-reviewed last-minute abstract submissions in addition to the normal peer-reviewed papers). I’m trying to think what would be comparable that we do have…giving seminars, maybe?

    • I think that the informality (and lack of “credit”) for conference talks is perhaps lowest in ecology and evolutionary biology, while I’ve learned from CS people that conference papers are more important and prestigious than journal articles. At the meetings I go to, the criterion for having a paper accepted to a conference is a pulse and the willingness to show up. (At some big ones, you might have to give a poster instead of a talk. But I hate doing posters so much I just don’t present if that happens to me.) There is a little something about giving an invited talk in a symposium (but that communicates just as much about how well connected you are rather than the quality of your work). But meetings are for meeting people, having fun, learning new stuff, and not really about prestige. Which is why shouldn’t sweat it if I don’t come up with those data, as I can say similar things on the same topic with different data. It’s just a game to keep myself working.

      • “But I hate doing posters so much I just don’t present if that happens to me”. Thanks for keeping it classy…

        • How is that unclassy? I don’t like doing posters, so I don’t do them. It’s not like I’m not eating a dish my grandmother prepared. Seriously, an explanation is both welcome and requested.

        • Oh, on second read I guess you could read into this that I keep my abstract in the program but just don’t present. No, of course, on the rare occasion I can’t give a talk, I withdraw my submission.

  3. And here I was thinking that my conference strategy was just the poor habitats of a grad student! Just today, while writing an abstract for an upcoming conference, I tried to come up with a name for what I was doing. What do you think of “vague-stracting”? Other ideas out there?

  4. I always thought that someday I might eventually know what I was going to talk about before writing a conference abstract but I’m guessing I’ll end up following your path on this! Giving talks is a great motivation for getting things done. Maybe I should have added another conference to my schedule this summer but it was already quite busy….does feel a bit empty without something to prepare though.

  5. Strikes me as interesting that your wife is okay with you overcommitting her to your shared responsibilities. Does she do the same to you at times?

    • I had to go back and reread – she was definitely okay with me slipping into the lab for a few days. Also, My spouse totally has work commitments on evenings and weekends that stretch my schedule too. I think in the give-and-take schedule-wise, I’ve been on too much on the ‘take’ end, but we try hard to be mutually accommodating. When she has a thing for work I’ll do pretty much anything possible to accommodate. (And I think there were about two weekends from January to now in which she didn’t have a work obligation, and a variety of evenings in the week too. And a bit of travel, though not nearly as much as mine.)

      As for me being away this summer for a couple weeks in Costa Rica, a couple weeks in Australia, and Arizona for 1.5 weeks (with our kid for this one) AND the ESA conference!? And 2 nights at Goldschmidt next week, too. Um, not perfect. And I want to be home more. But I also want to continue to be a scientist and hang out with other scientists with similar interests, which doesn’t happen (much) at my work. I think I botched that balance this time. Whenever I tacked a new thing on to the schedule, we talked about pluses and minuses of them, and what it would mean at home. And she agreed they were fine. The problem isn’t as much about me leaving family responsibilities behind, but rather, just not having me around and missing out on good times. We do like one another’s company a lot, considering we’ve just had our furniture-watches anniversary a couple days ago. So, next summer, I’m planning on much less travel.

  6. Could you suggest some tips for young grad students on how to write such an abstract – without having the data beforehand? Are such abstracts typically accepted by review committees? Maybe this would warrant a separate post altogether – but it would be much appreciated.

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