In Praise of Poster Sessions

At the recent INFORMS (Institute for Operations Research and the Management Sciences) conference, I was a judge for one of the days for the poster session (or “Interactive Session”, as INFORMS prefers).  As a judge, I first spent five minutes each with three participants.  After making recommendations for finalists, the entire judging panel (a dozen or so people) then spent five minutes each with five finalists.  We then crowned a third place, second place, and first place winner.

A week after the conference, I can describe in detail what each of those eight researchers (all students, I believe) did.  I can give you the strengths and weaknesses of the research of the eight posters, and can use them as examples of work that goes on in our field.  If I were hiring, I know at least two or three people I would love to have at the Tepper School.   All this with forty minutes of engagement.

Contrast this with the presentations I saw in the “regular” sessions.  I attended four sessions (not including my own, nor tutorials or plenaries).  Each was ninety minutes long, so that makes six hours.  During that time, I saw about 14 presentations.  I remember about half of them.  I didn’t really get a chance to ask questions, and I tuned out of some once I really understood what they were going to inflict on me.  Again, there were at least two or three people I would love to have at the Tepper School, some of whom are already here (and I didn’t tune out of those!), but, overall, the talks I saw did not turn out to be as memorable as the interactive presentations.

Worse, consider the plight of a student I know.  He was to give a talk in a “regular” session.  There were two people in the room other than the speakers.  Two speakers did not show.  The other talks were on nothing at all similar to what the student had done, so everyone in the room spent his talk reading the bulletin wondering where they would rather be.  No questions, no interaction.

Or another student who ended up with just ten minutes to present because the session chair allowed the other, more senior, people to run over.  Or another student I saw who had a delightful talk curtailed by technological and other issues.  A PhD comic seems particularly appropriate here:

PhD Comics take on Conference presentations

So, I guess my question is: “Why don’t we have more poster interactive sessions?”  Or even all poster sessions, except for the tutorials and plenary presentations.  It is good for the presenter and good for the participants!

Note added:  This also reminds me of having a five minute video as an adjunct to a paper, as this one sent to me by Les Servi.  It is a great way to determine if a paper is worth further study.

8 thoughts on “In Praise of Poster Sessions”

  1. Right on, Mike! I agree. But comments like this will most assuredly get you invited back for the interactive/posters sessions as a judge next year.

  2. I’m not sure about 100% interactive sessions, since they’re not synchronized. If I walk up while the presenter is explaining something to you, it’s like walking into a movie on the second reel. (Don’t know about your readers, but you at least are old enough to remember when movies had reels.)

    A compromise that might work would be to put three presenters in a room. Give each 10 minutes to give a summary of their talk (I can sit through 10 minutes of almost anything), then park each speaker in a different corner of the room for questions, duels and other forms of engagement.

  3. An advisor should get their student’s talk into an invited session. For example, it is quite easy to get talks into sessions sponsored by the societies/sections. Those sessions are much better attended than contributed ones, and it is much more likely that such a session has a coherent theme and is well managed. An advisor should also coach their student to give a good talk. Problems solved?

  4. A few years ago, Russ Meller and I were naughty and turned our regular session into a poster session. We contacted the other two speakers in advance, and they agreed to do the same. We broke the session into two parts, with two “speakers” displaying their posters at a time, so the speakers themselves could visit two other posters. We mixed in some refreshments and had a great time.

  5. Different fields have different views of posters and their status. In some parts of CS (Constraint programming is the part I know best), even quite senior people can be seen with a poster. My eighth most-cited paper is the four-page extended abstract associated with a poster I gave in CP 2001. And some of the success of that (a description of the Traveling Tournament Problem) came about due to the deeper interactions you get with posters.

    Perhaps I should have emphasized the advantages of posters, so this would not have been seen just as a problem to be solved.

  6. Aren’t you remembering better because you were judge? Indeed, you had to really pay attention because you were accountable for it.

    I can certainly understand why posters look better from the presenter side given the examples you provide.

    1. Yes, judging helped. And it certainly made sure we got the A-game from the presenter. But, for the finalists, that did mean a dozen people taking things very seriously, which is better than most presentations!

  7. I think the real problem is that INFORMS is trying to jam as many (registration paying) attendees into a limited space, with very many attendees wanting or needing to give presentations. So the solution seems to be to take the most vulnerable in the population (students) and ghettoize them into poster sessions, offering small incentives like best-poster prizes. I would still advise students to get better exposure by giving talks in invited/sponsored sessions (which they can do by their advisor working the network). There are other ways to solve the packing problem. E.g., limiting talks to one per registrant, quality control on the submitted talks/abstracts, and requiring at least 4 talks per 90-minute session. I do feel that contributed sessions (often a mixture of topics in small rooms that are difficult to find; and poorly attended) are probably not working well, and poster sessions are no worse and probably better for the presenter.

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