My advisor invited me to serve as the conference discussant for her session on education and health at the annual conferences of the Population Association of America, and I decided share what I did to prepare and my thoughts about the experience. This post is mostly geared toward junior-level discussants (i.e., graduate students or new professors). The approach will be different because, although no one likely wants to offend the presenters, as an early-career researcher, we are potentially in the most precarious position if we do happen to offend anyone with our comments.
The first thing you should do is check if the conference provides some guidelines for discussants. The PAA does provide guidelines. To briefly summarize here, the PAA states that the primarily role of the discussant is to provide the audience with perspective and insight about the substance and significance of the papers, particularly by highlighting similar themes and emphasizing each paper’s individual contribution to the literature. They suggest reading the papers multiple times in order to note the weaknesses and strengths of the paper, while critically assessing the paper’s assumptions, methods, and the conclusions. Do not focus on too many specifics of the paper because the audience has not necessarily read the entire paper. The overall idea is to be constructive. Offer comments and suggestions that help the author improve their study, while also encouraging the audience to engage in a thoughtful discussion about the paper.
In addition to reading the suggested guidelines for discussants, conduct a search on the internet to see if you can find anything from previous discussants. The blogs that I found mostly gave generic suggestions. For example, “say more with less,” meaning don’t talk too long. Let the audience do most of the talking. I did not find this sort of advice helpful. The best advice I found was from Duck of Minerva. Although this post was written in 2007, I think he does a great job of offering more specific advice about what discussants should say. For example, he suggests that “sometimes [being a good discussant]… involves setting the papers in a broader disciplinary context so as to invite other parts of the discipline into the discussion.” He goes on to suggest however, that “sometimes it just involves going to town against a paper and demolishing its absurdity.” But he recognizes that this is not something a graduate student should do. I agree. Although, I also question if it would matter if a graduate student did this. First, we often lack the experience and insight to even see such shortfalls–therefore doing this would only make us look stupid. Second, this is not how you want to be received in the research community, even if you were brilliant enough to find huge deficits in their papers. Basically, don’t be an uppity early-researcher!
It may also be useful to find videos to view live examples of what others have done (e.g., example 1; example 2). I’ll admit that finding videos is surprisingly much more difficult. You will likely have to watch a lot of bad videos before you find one that will be relevant to your role. I was mainly looking for things like the seriousness of the discussant’s tone, how much time they spent summarizing versus critiquing/evaluating, and if they engaged with authors directly after they made comments or if they just left it up to the author to address the comments at the end. Some discussants also opened with discussing the broader state of the field.
After a couple day of conducting Google searches, I decided to open with some facts about the broader state of the field, emphasizing the importance of the research topic (Two sentences). I then briefly summarized the main purpose of each study and their main findings. I left it up to the authors to decide if they wanted to address my comments and suggestions, after I finished discussing their papers in the order that they presented–meaning I didn’t ask them direct questions. I mostly said something to the effect of, “it may be interesting to examine [enter specific topic here] in the future, given that the literature indicates [enter trend of finding here].” If I thought that something was not very clear, I said something like “the study could offer some more details on [the thing].” For example, one of the papers that I read did not offer much detail on their sample–like how they were sampled. Another author was not as clear as they could have been about the way they categorized a certain measure. I limited myself to pointing out two weaknesses and also tried to make two suggestions for future extensions of the study.
Also, at the suggestion of my advisor (who was the chair of the session), I also made a presentation. This is uncommon I think, but I didn’t want to go against the advice of my advisor. Because I included a presentation, I decided to have some fun with it and include animated gifs as my slides (see example below). I like to do this because I feel like it keeps the attention off of me.
Overall, my research paid off and my discussion went well. If I had to do it again though, I wouldn’t have walked into the discussion with a two sentence introduction on the state of the field. I thought that it would a nice way to acknowledge the importance of the topic–i.e., their life’s research–but the audience didn’t seem very receptive to it. I think they already know how important their field is. I also wish I focused more on offering suggestions or interpretations for unexpected findings. I hesitated to do this because this is not my research area. Audience members, however, were happy to do this, regardless of whether or not this is their field.