The seven ages of research

June 14, 2017


Presentation of research data at meetings is an important aspect of one’s career, with many advantages, including recognition of one’s research and capabilities, feedback, early publication in abstract form, and practice for other meetings.

Novices may prefer to present their research in the form of a poster, perceiving it as being less challenging and stressful than oral presentation. But the sooner you stand up in front of a critical audience the better. In fact, if your poster is of high quality, you may be invited to deliver it in a short oral presentation, typically lasting 1–3 minutes, sometimes known as an “elevator pitch”, a term derived from business, or a “flash talk”. There may even be a prize for the best flasher, so it’s a good idea to start early and develop your technique.

The more often you do it, the better you get. And the better you get, the greater your reputation becomes for presentation, but also for research, and the more often you will be invited to perform. This may even lead to invitations to exotic places.

This leads me to observe that there are different phases in the life of a research scientist when it comes to presenting research. I liken them to the seven ages of man, as depicted by Shakespeare, through the medium of the reflective, melancholic, cynical Jaques (pronounced jay-queez) in his play As You Like It. In the table below I list the seven ages he described, alongside the seven ages of oral research presentation that I recognize.

The seven ages of man The seven ages of research presentation
…the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms
Newborn researchers present their latest research to colleagues in their department; a friendly but critical environment in which helpful advice is offered—one hopes; mewling and puking should, however, be avoided
…the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school
Presentation at local societies allows researchers to test their mettle; their colleagues in such forums will be friendly but also critical; any tendency to whine will quickly be expunged; a good example is the Clinical Pharmacology Colloquium, a friendly association of about half-dozen departments in the extended south-west of England, which meets twice a year to hear colleagues’ latest research
… the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow
The next step is presentation at one’s national society, such as the British Pharmacological Society (BPS), through which researchers’ love of their subject should grow through the high they experience from the comments of sympathetic but highly critical and knowledgeable colleagues, whose expertise will certainly go beyond that of those to whom the researcher has previously been exposed; sighing is not allowed and presentations should be confident, not woeful; experience will breed this
… a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth
Now researchers start to come of age and will be invited to contribute talks to organized symposia at meetings of their society or even an international society, such at the International Union of Basic and Clinical Pharmacology (IUPHAR) or the International Society of Pharmacovigilance (ISoP); strange oaths (i.e. controversial data) may be a feature and quarrels may start when audience members question assumptions, but a good performance will enhance the bubble reputation …
… the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances
… and lead to invitations to organize symposia, rather than merely contributing; at this point wise saws and modern instances are definitely expected; keeping up to date is de rigueur; named lectures and awards may follow
… the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound
It is, however, an unfortunate trait of some researchers, as time passes, to start presenting research that they have previously presented, with little new to say; high-class presenters will avoid this for as long as they can, but it will come to everyone, and colleagues will spare such individuals the ignominy of being seen to be in such a state by inviting them, not to present an original talk, but to sum up at the end of a meeting; this has the advantage of ensuring that the researcher both attends the entire proceedings and attends to what is said, and makes the most of their scientific experience to help others
… second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything
Finally, barring the sudden intervention of a merciful death, there is nothing left but retirement from the scene or, for the researcher who will not lie down, the after-dinner speech on the last evening of the meeting, sans data


At whichever stage you find yourself, concentrate on fulfilling all the obligations that each stage imposes.

Jeffrey K. Aronson is a Consultant Physician and Clinical Pharmacologist at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford.

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