Basically, my supervisor wanted to measure variable X. X is very important to him due to some other projects we are working on. So he wanted me to give a talk on measuring X at an upcoming conference.

I was skeptical -- I thought that maybe X wasn't a real variable, but just a mathematical effect that would cancel out if we did our measurements right. My supervisor gave me some compelling arguments and convinced me that X was real and we should measure it, so I submitted an abstract to the conference and got accepted.

Now, having done the work and taken the data, I am once more convinced of my old idea that X isn't a real physical thing. The talk is coming up soon and despite the enthusiasm that appears in my abstract the best I can honestly say is that we took some measurements and got no results. I know my supervisor would be upset if I give a talk to the effect of "X doesn't matter" because that reflects negatively on his other projects. Should I cancel the talk, change the content so it's drastically different than the abstract, or something else?

  • 5
    Is it possible for you to give a talk that says "We thought procedure Y would show Z, but it didn't" without commenting one way or another on whether X is real (i.e. say that X can't be measured by Y, and stop short of saying it doesn't exist)? This could be useful contribution to the field, and also avoids potentially dangerous politics with your advisor.
    – ff524
    Jun 7, 2016 at 22:05
  • @ff524: That sounds like a good idea. One concern though: even if he remains perfectly agnostic on the issue in the talk itself, he may get asked a question afterwards which presses him to take a stance. So if he is going to give a talk like this, he should think very carefully about what he will, and won't, say in response to such questions. Jun 7, 2016 at 22:36
  • Can you please say what sort of talk it is? Is this an internal seminar, an international conference, an invited seminar at another institution, etc? The "stakes" and audience of the talk matter in how I would recommend that you proceed.
    – jakebeal
    Jun 8, 2016 at 3:48
  • What does your advisor say now that you did the work? Can he give any compelling explanation for the results?
    – Kimball
    Jun 8, 2016 at 5:34
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    Nobody reads abstracts, just talk about something else ;-)
    – gerrit
    Jun 8, 2016 at 10:15

5 Answers 5


Do a practice talk with your advisor before going to the conference. Do it early. It will be a good time to discuss how the talk should be organized in order to highlight the context of your measurement in the whole project and its relative importance.

It is common for a student working on a small piece of problem (and not necessarily looking at its entire context), to go back and forth between feeling A) the piece is obvious or unimportant; to B) the piece is pretty cool after all; then back to A again.

At worst - if it seems as if your piece really is not so relevant, then I expect he will help you organize the talk so that it still engages the audience. (Not a bad skill to practice. And, if you don't pull it off - at least in my field, if the topic of the talk seems unimportant to the audience, the bad smell lingers longer on the professor/advisor than on the student).

(Of course, also in my subfield, giving a talk at a conference or workshop usually means that we are giving a talk about work-in-progress still unpublished. So strategies may be different if there is a required paper involved for every talk).

But more likely, with working on the practice talk and the discussion with the advisor - you will develop more of an appreciation of how that small piece of work fits and may even develop an appreciation of its other subtleties that interest the professor. In a situation as you describe, I place my bets on the professor instinct on the topic.


You shouldn't cancel the talk if you've proved a smart idea wrong, because negative results are as important as positive results. You also shouldn't cancel it if you can give a "work in progress" talk if you still haven't proved it right or wrong. But you shouldn't give a talk that just panders to your conception of what your supervisor wants. It's impossible to be sure from the outside, but I think there are at least three possible scenarios:

  1. You still haven't found the effect or fully understood what your supervisor is teaching you, but it's existence is still an open question. Be very aware this could still be true. You should give the talk about your current status of the project, and hope to get feedback that helps you find the answer. It's OK to say in the talk you consider it still an open question and that you and your supervisor have different ideas about what the final outcome is likely to be. In fact, you'll probably get more feedback if you say that.
  2. You were in fact right before, and now you've proved it. It doesn't sound like you're here yet, but this would be a great thing to do. Your supervisor may be more willing to help you demonstrate this than you realise. First, your supervisor may be more interested in truth than you realise, or second, your work may help clarify your supervisor's other contributions in ways you don't see yet. But the absence of proof of an idea is not the same as proving the idea is wrong; this takes real work.
  3. You are being asked to promote academic fraud. If you really think this is the case, then you might want to cancel the talk and change supervisor. Or you might want to give the same talk as talk 1, show all the sides of the issue that you can, and get feedback on what other people think.

Academic fraud makes the papers, it does happen, and so does self deception even by famous PIs. Nevertheless, the solution being one of the first two options is far more likely, and you should probably work towards one or the other.


This is not a bad position to be in! and yes you should give the talk. Couple of things here:

  1. To Be or Not to Be: Yes, it is important to find "X" holds in your research, however finding the "X" is actually not holding is not a bad thing; all you need is to have an explanation for it.

  2. Ambiguity Is the Problem: It raises a red flag when the researcher doesn't know what he/she is talking about. You are not in this position so I suggest to go ahead with your presentation.

  3. Transparency Is the Key: You might said in your submission that "X" matter, but now when you go to your presentation be transparent. It raises another red flag when the speaker wants to BS his/her way through presentation.

Main Lesson Here: I think the main lesson here is that, you learn to think more independently about your problems, becase it might be the case where the supervisor is not right about the problem/solution; and you are the one that needs to have explanations about your problems/solutions.


Ultimately I agree with Carol. If you trust your supervisor, you should make sure you and them are on the same page. Relay your concerns to your supervisor, and they can use whatever has convinced them to help make your talk engaging to the audience.

In other words, you might be wrong that the results are uninteresting, and if you're not wrong, your supervisor can help you figure out what is interesting for an audience.


I would say don't cancel the talk. Mathematics, Science is built on the foundation of Theories many of which remain unproven today. The important thing is you are making a Case for the existence of X, you probably have not got there yet but what is to say that speaking about it at the conference wouldn't spark a conversation that invariably helps you see the path to the solution. In Academia, we don't give up we push through.

  • 4
    Are you suggesting that the OP give a presentation making a case for the importance of X, even though the evidence he/she has collected so far suggests the opposite?
    – ff524
    Jun 7, 2016 at 22:00
  • No, but he does say that there is a possibility of X being a mathematical effect, So maybe tweak the presentation to talk about a journey to find X either as a variable or as an effect based on what you have so far
    – Ambassador
    Jun 7, 2016 at 22:06
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    "The important thing is you are making a Case for the existence of X" The point of the OP's question is that he has no case to make. So you don't seem to address his question at all. "In Academia, we don't give up we push through." Right, and also: "Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead." Jun 7, 2016 at 22:06
  • I'm suggesting looking at this issue through the prism of abstraction in mathematics
    – Ambassador
    Jun 7, 2016 at 22:09
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    I get that people are disliking this answer, and it could be phrased better, but if I take your advice correctly, another way to put it is "every talk is a chance to improve what you are working on." I have actually been at several talks where people had become skeptical of their work, and either the audience convinced them of the value thereof, or showed them a way to improve it to where the work would be good. If we only gave talks when we were 100% certain we were right, we'd make a lot less progress, and have a lot fewer ideas to work with. Jun 8, 2016 at 3:20

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