FORUM: Tea Time with Yarnold

I was in my second year as an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Northwestern University Medical School. I worked in the Department of General Internal Medicine, which addresses an enormous range of ailments, conditions and situations. Simultaneously I held a position as an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Academic Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

I was working on a variety of scientific papers to list on my annual productivity report for one, or for the other, or for both of my faculty positions. Assistant Professors have to write articles for scientific journals (“publish or perish”), and Associate Professors who wish to be promoted to Full Professor must publish highly-cited articles. I sought to achieve Full Professor rank as rapidly as possible, so I needed to publish quality research as rapidly as possible.

Early in life I learned that the hardest part of doing something difficult is taking the first step. A fantastic way to take the first step in writing an article is to present a preliminary version of the paper at a scientific conference—either as a speech, or (my favorite) in a poster session.

A poster session operates like a science fair in which judges have pre-approved all presenters, because all presentations were pre-approved vis-à-vis a blind peer-review process. Observers may look at whatever poster(s) they find interesting, and speak with the author(s) if they desire.

Creating a professional oral or poster presentation is less difficult than is writing a publishable manuscript. Once the presentation is produced and presented, preparing a paper for publication is relatively straightforward. Furthermore, at the conference one may meet decision-makers such as publishers, editors, and reviewers who are interested in one’s work, offer valuable insights, and suggest submitting a written article to a specific journal (on which they sit on the editorial board) for consideration of publication. This is a potential path to an editorial position on an academic journal—important for promotion to Full Professor.

It is not unusual for applications submitted in the hopes of presenting a study at a scientific conference to be rejected by the reviewers. Usually the decision does not even come with an explanation concerning the referee’s decision-making process: only a simple “yes” or “no.”

I did not want to be shut-out of the conference—I would have friends there whom I wished to visit, plus I wanted to get a good start on some papers. Thus, I submitted poster-presentation applications for many more studies than I imagined would be accepted for presentation—a dozen in all. I was first author on all the projects, solo author on half of them.

Disaster struck! All twelve proposals were accepted, but the papers were scheduled for different times and days—some of which overlapped and conflicted! I contacted conference organizers about this issue, and they decided to put all of my articles in a single poster session officially named “Topics in Health Psychology,” unofficially called “Tea Time with Yarnold.”

I had plenty of experience with poster presentations—science fairs as a kid, graduate student conferences, regional and national conferences. I’d tried a myriad of methods to make a poster, but my favorite was to print and then cut-out the sections: title, authors/affiliations, abstract, introduction, methods, results (including figures and tables), discussion, and references. I would use thumb tacks to attach the parts of the poster to the easel, and viola—done!

It takes a lot of work, and great organizational skills, to prepare a dozen presentations—even for individual sessions, let alone for all at once. I put all cut-outs for each poster in its own separate oversized envelope. I purchased two boxes of thumb tacks. I rehearsed assembling the posters, organizing each by laying the cut-outs on the carpets in my apartment. It took me a minimum of 20 minutes to do all 12, at home, by myself.

On presentation day I arrived at the hotel slightly more than several hours early. I contacted house staff to be certain they knew to unlock the room I was to use for my poster session, at least half an hour ahead of the scheduled start time, so I could set-up. I looked inside the room (it had a glass wall which was adjacent and parallel to the hallway) to ensure there were a sufficient number of easels, and none were broken. An hour before show time I went to relax, and eat a little bit, so as to be rested and ready to present a quality three-hour-long, one-man show.

Thirty minutes to show time I arrive at the locked door of my room. There is a large crowd—I couldn’t count them, maybe 50, already waiting outside. I was supposed to be let into the room to start set-up by now—it was arranged and verified. Wow, adrenaline rush.

More people coming, but some there for twenty minutes already are grumbling about no set-up taking place with only ten minutes to go. With five minutes to go those waiting longest begin to leave. The crowd quickly gets smaller and smaller.

Remembering this moment, I’m surprised I didn’t auto-vaporize into a puff of Type A smoke.

The doors were unlocked soon after the session was to begin. I managed to get the posters up in ten minutes. Some people were there, I don’t recall how many, or whether I spoke with any.

It’s surprising how significantly a half-hour exposure to a time-deadline-based failure of a very important activity wore me down.

I had a chance for greatness: I was planning to make a speech (in a poster session) linking all dozen papers in a unified theoretical model. Instead I didn’t—and nobody noticed.

You can’t win them all…

Tea Time with Yarnold

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

January 13, 2021

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