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We only let students do posters June 5, 2012

Posted by gordonwatts in Uncategorized.

I’m here at the PLHC conference in Vancouver, Canada (fantastic city, if you’ve not visited). I did a poster for the conference on some work I’ve done on combining the ATLAS b-tagging calibrations (the way their indico site is setup I have no idea how to link to the poster). I was sitting in the main meeting room, the large poster tube next to my seat, when this friend of mine walks by:

“Hey, brought one of your student’s posters?”

“Nope, did my own!”

“Wow. Really? We only let students do posters. I guess you’ve really fallen in the pecking order!”

Wow. It took me a little while to realize what got me upset about the exchange. So, first, it did hit a nerve. Those that know me know that I’ve been frustrated with the way the ATLAS experiment assigns talks – but this year they gave me a good talk. Friends of mine who are I think are deserving are also getting more talks now. So this is no longer really an issue. But comments like this still hit this nerve – you know, that general feeling of inadequacy that is left over from a traumatic high school experience or two. 🙂

But more to the point… are posters really such second class citizens? And if they are, should they remain as such?

I have always liked posters, and I have given many of them over my life. I like them because you end up in a detailed conversation with a number of people on the topic – something that almost never happens at a talk like the PLHC. In fact, my favorite thing to do is give a talk and a poster on the same topic. The talk then becomes an advertisement for the poster – a time when people that are very interested in my talk can come and talk in detail next to a large poster that lays out the details of the topic.

But more generally, my view of conferences as evolved over the past 5 years. I’ve been to many large conferences. Typically you get a set of plenary sessions with > 100 people in the audience, and then a string of parallel sessions. Each parallel talk is about 15-20 minutes long, and depending on the topic there can be quite a few people in the room. Only a few minutes are left for questions. The ICHEP series is a conference that symbolizes this.

Personally, I learn very little from this style of conference. Many of the topics and the analyses are quite complex. Too complex to really give an idea of the details in 15 or 20 slides. I personally am very interested in analysis details – not just the result. And getting to that level of detail requires – for me, at least – some back and forth. Especially if the topic is new I don’t even know what questions to ask! In short, these large conferences are fun, but I only get so much out of the talks. I learn much more from talking with the other attendees. And going to the poster sessions.

About 5 years ago I started getting invites to small workshops. These are usually about a week long, have about 20 to 40 people, and pick a specific topic. Dark Matter and Collider Physics. The Higgs. Something like that. There will be a few talks in the morning and maybe in the afternoon. Every talk that is given has at least the same amount of time set aside for discussion. Many times the workshop has some specific goals – better understanding of this particular theory systematic, or how to interpret the new results from the LHC, or how can the experiments get their results out in a more useful form for the theorist. The afternoons the group splits into working groups – where no level of detail is off-limits. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to ones at UC Davis, Oregon, Maryland, and my own UW has been arranging a pretty nice series of them (see this recent workshop for links to previous ones). I can’t tell you how much I learn from these!

To me, posters are mini-versions of these workshops. You get 5 or 6 people standing around a poster discussing the details. A real transfer of knowledge. Here, at PLHC, there are 4 posters from ATLAS on b-tagging. We’ve all put them together in the poster room. If you walk by that end of the room you are trapped and surrounded by many of the experts – the people that actually did the work – and you can get almost any ATLAS b-tagging question answered. In a way that really isn’t, as far as I know, possible in many other public forums. PLHC is also doing some pretty cool stuff with posters. They have a jury that walks around and decides what poster is “best” and gives it an award. One thing the poster writer gets to do: give a talk at the plenary session. I recently attended CHEP – they did the same thing there. I’ve been told that CMS does something like this during their collaboration meetings too.

It is clear that conference organizers the world round are looking for more ways to get people attending the conference more involved in the posters that are being presented.

The attitude of my friend, however, is a fact of this field. Heck, even I have it. One of the things I look at in someone’s CV is how many talks they have given. I don’t look carefully at the posters they have listed. In general, this is a measure of what your peers think of you – have you done enough work in the collaboration to be given a nice talk? So this will remain with us. And those large conferences like ICHEP – nothing brings together more of our field all in one place than something like ICHEP. So they definitely still play a role.

Still the crass attitude “We only let students do posters” needs to end. And I think we still have more work to do getting details of our analysis and physics out to other members of our field, theorists and experimentalists.