As many of you are well aware, abstracts for the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in October are due in just over 24 hours. Have you written yours yet? Me neither. Have you done the experiments whose exciting and paradigm-shifting results you intend to describe in this abstract? Oh yes, me too....sort of.
With a five-month lag time between abstract submission and actual face-to-face science talking, it's not at all uncommon for a neuroscientist to find herself at a crossroads come mid-May. Unless you've gotten a solid chunk of sexy data over spring semester (because let's face it--the months between the end of SfN last November through mid January of this year were pretty much a wash), there may be a...loose end or two that needs to be tied up over the summer before you have a poster's worth of data. And tie you shall! Come October you will have a beautiful, compelling story that will have conference-goers surrounding you 4-deep through the entirety of your poster session--even on Wednesday!
But what do you do now, with a deadline looming, and just a smattering of raw data (or worse, merely the outline of an experimental design) to work with? I imagine there are some PIs out there who only let their labs submit abstracts once they've got those shiny <0.05 p values in hand, and that is a completely legitimate, if conservative, way of doing things. On the other hand, you can submit an abstract that I like to think of as a teaser--one that hints at the work that will be presented, whetting the attendees' appetites, but without giving too much away.
I am quite a proponent of the latter approach, and I'll tell you why: very few people read the abstracts. Moreover, those who read them won't remember them. Here is a little story to illustrate that point:
During my penultimate year of grad school, I had a rough patch where I collected basically no data. Nothing worked, not even in a negative way. I was just getting ramped up to start a new direction, when SfN abstract time rolled around. I took a risk and wrote a vague abstract with an even vaguer title that loosely touched on new direction experiments, and crossed my fingers that the new thing would work. Guess what? It didn't! However, I had a completely different thing pan out at the last minute, and I presented that instead (luckily, vague title was so vague that new data still sort of fit under its umbrella). I had the best poster traffic I've probably ever had in my entire career, and not one single person said, Hey, I thought this poster was supposed to be about X, but this seems to be about Q, WTF BAIT & SWITCH! Did not happen.
But this is not just about not getting "caught." As a scientist, the best thing you can do for yourself is to get people to come listen to you talk about your research, full stop. And at a gigantic meeting like SfN, presenting a poster is by far the best way to make this happen. No abstract, no poster. So submit an abstract, any abstract! Lock that 4-hour slot of time with a 6x4' easel board IN, folks. The absolute worst that could happen is that your lab explodes and you have to withdraw--which, though in theory sounds like you're making a public proclamation that you've Failed at Science, is honestly NBD. Do you actually think people are going to remember when you're applying for faculty jobs or up for tenure that you had a withdrawn poster that one time? No. Nobody cares. Your poster is but one in a long itinerary of things people are going to forget as soon as they get back to their hotel rooms.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an abstract to write.