We are hitting the peak season for conferences.
For those of us from teaching-centered schools, we have an extra challenge with conferences that can make the experience less pleasant.
At conferences, social status matters. Having your unknown or lesser-known teaching institution under your name on your ID badge can be a social obstacle.
Some people may disregard others on the basis of the institutions on their nametags. If your nametag says LargeR1 University on it, more people will talk to you than if your nametag lists a school that sounds like it lacks a substantial research community.
To some people at a research conference, if you work at a teaching institution, you matter less. I’m not saying this to be bitter or accusatory. I’m just recognizing the way things are and discussing it in daylight. It’s hard to deal with a problem if you don’t recognize it.
If you’re thinking about working at a teaching campus, then you should be aware that networking with other researchers who don’t know you from your work may be more difficult because of where you work. Also, people who do know you, when they realize that you’ve taken what they perceive to be a non-research job, might also treat you differently as well. Even though any faculty job is scarce nowadays, many researchers will feel sorry for people who they think settled for a job at a teaching institution.
Of course, the majority of people out there are wonderful and don’t have this bias. But it isn’t a rare bias, and it’s something that we need to understand so that we can deal with it.
Why do I think that the institution on your nametag influences perception? Well, I it’s obvious. You don’t have to be a sociologist to figure that out.
Moreover, before I moved to my current position I used to work for an equivalently obscure institution. However, this institution was named such that a good number of people, who were not very familiar with California, were apt to assume that I worked for a well-known university just up the road. Sometimes I clarified things, sometimes I let it ride. Regardless, the point is that since I moved to a campus that can’t be mistaken for a research university, I’ve seen changes in how people treat me based on my institution. I never realized I had it so good when people falsely assumed I was a professor at a research university.
People attend meetings for a variety of purposes. They go to learn about new things, to see old friends, to make new friends, to “network” and build collaborations, develop skills, find a job, and maybe tack on a vacation. I might have missed some reasons. (I don’t know when “network” transitioned from being a noun to being a verb, but I don’t like it.)
If you look at those purposes I just listed, I suspect you’ll find that some people might harbor this notion: Professors at teaching schools don’t help fulfill a number of these purposes.
If you have a teaching school on your nametag, some folks might think that you might not be worthwhile for schmoozing. I’ve seen others, as well as myself, passed over for initial schmoozing not on the basis of what we work on, or how well we publish, or who we work with, but where we work. It’s rough, but I suspect that’s the way it is.
Why aren’t we schmoozable? Some might wrongly assume that we aren’t conducting cutting-edge research, so they can’t learn anything from us. It’s unlikely we’re going to hire postdocs, we aren’t taking on Ph.D. students, and some might falsely assume that we aren’t equipped with the facilities, time or expertise for collaboration.
Is that overly harsh? Probably. I’ve never entered into an interaction with the presumption that others are biased against me based on my institution, but I’ve had plenty of conversations in which that presumption of lack of bias has been promptly invalidated.
In all of the conferences I’ve attended, where have I felt the least welcome? The Ecological Society of America. It’s also typically the biggest of the meetings that I have attended, so it might not be discipline-specific. It’s not timed well to fit my summer research and travel schedule; I typically only make the time if I’m invited to give a talk in a particular symposium. Regardless, it’s clear that some ecologists, at least at this meeting, are big on status. I’ve been around long enough that I know plenty of people who attend the meeting, from a variety of contexts. The last few times, I’ve had great fun and have been compelled to turn down as many social invitations as I am offered. However, it’s still quite transparent that I get overlooked by some people because of where I work. Perhaps it’s even worse at meetings like the Neuro conference, or with the
Sophophora Drosophila people, or the physiologists. I have no idea, as I don’t go to those meetings. Maybe professors at teaching colleges get the heavy schmoozing treatment at those meetings.
I don’t have any authoritative advice on how to handle the issue, but I wanted to bring the concept up, and I’m wondering how others perceive this issue. For those you at teaching campuses, does my experience and opinion seem too extreme or do you feel this issue too?
How I approach meetings with this issue in mind? I try to not make it an issue as much as possible. Nowadays, my work is known within some sub-subpopulations well enough that there are occasional people who are excited to meet me and hear what I have to say. So I’m not overly concerned about being wholly marginalized, anymore. I try to be gregarious, especially reaching out to grad students who might not yet feel at ease at meetings. It’s fun to introduce people with shared interests who don’t yet know one another. Most people are interesting if you get to know them, and so I try to get to know people.
This might by cheesy but I sometimes use “California State University” on my nametag as shortcut for my campus name. I don’t do this to hide my little-known campus, but to avoid the boring conversations about where I work. I’m just tired of answering questions about teaching while I’m at a research conference. I didn’t put much thought into the decision, but that’s also how listed my affiliation on the masthead of a journal that I help edit.
As it’s often argued, first impressions matter. For my own part, I mostly recall a string of horribly embarrassing first impressions that I must have left on others. Nowadays, I don’t want the first impression to be that I’m the guy at an obscure teaching college. At an academic conference, my impression should be that I do awesome research, and that I also have a lab filled with awesome students.
Am I worth schmoozing? Definitely. I have skills, access to resources, insights, connections and all that stuff. And, if you’re looking for doctoral students, I have the best damn students that you might ever hope to bring into your lab. Each meeting I’ve attended in the last few years, I’ve emerged with a few cool collaborations in the works.
Ultimately, those who think that I’m not worth their time aren’t worth my time. If my skin were less thick, I’d have a hard time at conferences. Also, working long-term at a field station where I’ve made friends from all over North America and beyond has helped. I would have a hard time at meetings if my network was just composed of old friends from grad school. I don’t go to meetings because I have to, but because it’s tremendous fun. (This season, I’ll be at the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, in a joint meeting with the Organization for Tropical Studies. I’ve never not had fun among other tropical biologists.)
You might be thinking, maybe the level of respect/attention/schmoozing is entirely independent of institution, and just depends on how well known you are from publications other parts of your reputation? Clearly, if people directly know of your work, that might trump the institutional effect to some extent. However, if you’re meeting someone outside your subfield, with whom whose work you’re not familiar, then my hunch is that institution matters.
Anyway, if or when you bump into me at a meeting, I don’t fuss about whether or not I might get dissed. We are often busy trying to get from one room to another, trying to find old friends who we’ve promised to meet for coffee, and catch a person who we really need to see. I’m just there to have fun, learn about other people and their work, share the cool stuff I’ve been doing, be proud of my students, learn science and if the stars align I develop new collaborations. (Heck, mention you read this post and I’d be glad to buy you an overpriced convention center beer.)
If I’m not schmoozing people in high places, that might only be because I don’t need to do so. My job doesn’t require that I am known by, and work with, famous people. My work doesn’t want me to aspire to fame, because if I were successful, then they would guess that I’d leave. So meetings are just for fun in my book, as I’ve got no ladder to climb.
I suppose that, if I was stressed about getting a postdoc, or a tenure-track R1 job, or tenure, or promotion, or a fancier job or a big-time collaboration, that I’d overlook people like me too. So I don’t resent anybody for it. But I can address the situation by making it clear that I am worthwhile, not just as a nice guy but also as one who can be a great asset in our scientific endeavor.
Have you been on the receiving end of being ignored because you weren’t working in a research institution? Do you avoid meetings because they’re not as fun as they could be? Do you think my perception is off, or I am oversensitive? Do you think there are actual things that could ameliorate the issue (if it exists)?