Attending conferences as a professor from a teaching institution


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 DoodleBuddyiPadbasis 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)?

16 thoughts on “Attending conferences as a professor from a teaching institution

  1. This also occurs to graduate students from lesser known regional universities.

    • I don’t know the US Ecology scene but I am sure you’re right. Life works like this. US scientists quote other US scientists more than those from elsewhere. Some disciplines are more prestigious than others. Some journals obviously are. So are some approaches, The freewheeling, iterative approach you advocate in science may well be the best way to the truth in certain situations (it was, for example, the approach that identified hand washing as the key to lowering mortality rates in maternity units) but it is less fashionable than hypothesis paradigm.

      Insofar as I have any advice, it would be to talk to the top people in your profession as well as those climbing the greasy pole. Once a person has arrived they can afford to be interested in the truth as much as in their career.At this point, I believe, Nobel Prize winners are more likely to allow their name to go second, while in my experience the truly distinguished will listen to good ideas wherever they come from.

  2. Try being from a community college and not having a field station affiliation. I’m even snubbed by undergrads at the conference. ;-)

    I need an adjunct or field station gig to put on my name tag . . .

    On the other hand, I’ve seen colleagues at R1s that are very well known and it seems everyone wants to talk to them at conferences. This seems absolutely exhausting and I think I would choose anonymity over nonstop hounding.

    • True, I wasn’t even thinking about being from a community college. That would be really rough. While some people from R1 universities would assume that faculty at 4-year teaching-centered campuses aren’t as serious about research, I suspect that’s a conclusion that many folks would jump to about community college faculty. Plenty would surmise that CC faculty would be there for some enrichment, or for teaching symposia, rather than being there for the main show.

  3. Nice post. I can definitely relate to being tired of explaining what/where William Paterson University is (New Jersey, no it’s not a small liberal arts college, 10,000 students, yes, many other people haven’t heard of it either).

    Let me add a thought. One way to short-circuit the ‘tiering’ that can occur at large meetings, is to attend or hold smaller meetings. For instance, about every other year I make it to the meeting of the American Arachnological Society. It’s a small meeting (one session- no concurrent work forcing you to miss key talks) held over 3 days, with participants ranging from amateurs (some of whom occasionally publish) through all student/postdoc levels to R1 PI’s and major-museum curators. Let me say, there’s nothing like working on marginal taxa to break down the barriers built out of snobbery or out-of-control careerism. I would imagine with the right mix of people, small meetings would tend to have that advantage in a general sense- it can’t just be that arachnologists are extra-nice and cool. Of course, you see fewer people there, and with tight travel budgets you don’t get to see your taxon-interest-sharers every year. But every time I go to this meeting, I seem to get a paper or two out of it. It’s that good a schmooze.

    Spitballing ideas: For this reason, I’d love if there were a Hymenoptera or Formicidae meeting or symposium, even just a one or two day thing, every other year or so, maybe somewhere in the ‘middle’ of North America where a range of people could get there at a low cost. IUSSI is hard for me to get to due to the “International” piece of that puzzle. This is the kind of thing I need to get to some bigger meetings to talk to people about…

    • All we have is every 4 years, the social insect people in N. America have our own meeting, like the Winter Olympics alternating with the big social insect meeting. Just over 100 people, last year was in Greensboro. This is my mostest favorite meeting. It’s way more intimate than the entomology meeting.

      • I need to get on the mailing list for the next one, then. I will save my pennies.

  4. I agree with Joe and I tend to avoid large meetings unless I’m asked to speak. I’d much rather go to a meeting such as SCAPE (Scandinavian Association for Pollination Ecology) or a Royal Entomological Society one day symposium than some mega-conference. Much better interactions and more friendly too.

  5. Hi Terry,

    I think your post touches on a number of issues that I think it’s useful to separate:

    -it’s easier to meet new people at small focused conferences vs. big broad conferences. I agree 100%.

    -the fact that, at big meetings, a few people get approached a lot by strangers wanting to talk to them, while most people don’t ever get approached by strangers. This is true, but in my own experience it’s not a matter of your affiliation, or other people’s impression of your expertise or the value of talking to you or whatever. It’s just a matter of your fame (as a previous commenter noted). Which is only natural, really. Set to one side the silly people who want to meet famous ecologists just because they’re famous, or because they (incorrectly) believe that having once chatted with EO Wilson or Dave Tilman or whoever will help their careers. Just focus on people who are seeking others out for good reasons–to pick their brains on a technical problem, or ask them questions about their recent paper, or invite them to participate in a working group, or etc. You’re absolutely right that, in general, there are probably lots of people whose brains you could pick about that technical problem, lots of people who’d be good fits for that working group you’re putting together, etc. But there’s no need, and no time, to talk to all of them! Plus, how do you even identify, say, all the people at ESA who know about ants, or who have good undergrads who might want to join your lab as grad students, or whatever? So if you have a good reason to seek out somebody you don’t know personally, you seek out someone you’ve heard of, or else someone who’s been recommended to you by someone you know. Which in either case may well mean someone with at least a modicum of fame. I think all this is just how human interactions work. It’s not much different than how I might pick a general contractor to do renovations on my house, or pick a restaurant to eat at, or choose a university to attend, or etc.

    And fame, even a bit of it, definitely does not come automatically from being affiliated with a research university. I’m at Calgary, which is a good-sized research university. But I never had strangers coming up to me at the ESA to say hi or wanting to pick my brain or whatever until my blogging started to develop a big readership. So I have a prediction: next time you go to ESA, you’ll have some strangers coming up to you to say hi. :-) I also predict they’ll mostly want to talk about the blog (as opposed to about, say, ants), because that’s how they know of you–as Terry McGlynn, blogger.

    And yeah, as another commenter noted, I definitely think there are drawbacks to being so famous that people are constantly coming up to you at the ESA wanting to chat. I’m fortunate enough to count the famous Bob Holt as a friend. He’s often kind enough to make a point of trying to give me a bit of one-on-one time at the ESA every year. Except, it never works because during the time Bob has booked to chat with me, other folks (both other friends of Bob’s, and strangers) are constantly coming up wanting to chat with him, or book a time to chat with him.

    -how one’s perception of a given conference depends on how often one attends it. I think people who go to a given big conference every year tend to find such conferences much friendlier and more fun. I go to the ESA every year. So do many of my best friends in science. And I’m sure that a big reason we’ve become and remained friends is that we all see each other at the ESA every year. In contrast, I’ve only gone to the Evolution meeting a couple of times, when it’s been geographically convenient. I enjoyed it, and indeed in some respects (like average quality of talk) I found it superior to ESA. But even though it’s roughly 1/3 the size of a small-year ESA (so still a big meeting, but not nearly ESA’s size), I found it less fun just because I knew many fewer people there, and wasn’t one of the closest friends of the people I did know. So finding people to socialize with was awkward. Even though I’m from a research university.

    -how people’s reaction to you after you’ve been introduced to each other for the first time depends on the affiliation on your badge. I have to say, I’m really surprised to hear that even a minority of people have treated you differently based on the affiliation they’ve read on your nametag. All I can say is, I personally would never treat anyone differently on that basis, and I don’t think any of my friends would do so either. Heck, I’m sincerely surprised and flattered when a stranger comes up to me at the ESA wanting to chat (which is why I noticed when this started happening more after I began blogging)! So I’m totally not going to blow you off or try to end the conversation as quickly as possible if I see that you’re from a teaching school! Now I’ll have to ask my friends who are based at teaching schools or non-prominent universities, but who attend the ESA regularly, if they’ve ever had people judge them based on their affiliation. It hadn’t ever occurred to me that this would happen.

    p.s. I’ll take this opportunity to shamelessly plug some old posts I did on why, and how, to network at scientific conferences.

    Like you, I don’t like the word “network”. It has unfortunate connotations, as if there’s value in just meeting people for the sake of meeting people, or as if you need to meet the “right” people (protip: there are no “right” people to meet at scientific conferences), or as if you need to meet famous people *purely because they’re famous* (protip: no, you don’t). So that second post is about good vs. bad reasons for “wanting to meet people whom you don’t already know at scientific conferences”.

    • All excellent points with which I agree. There are many, interacting, factors that shape how much people interact with you at conferences.

      The one factor I wanted to isolate is when someone who doesn’t know you, or your work, looks at your nametag and thinks “umm, not worth my time” when they see the institution on your badge. Of course that wouldn’t be you! Heck you even read my blog! (I suspect that the same people who are reading blogs regularly are the same kind of folk that aren’t unlikely to diss faculty from teaching institutions. Being on a blog has kind of an egalitarian feel about it. That’s a hand-waving unsubstantiated bias of mine, I realize.)

      The number of people who don’t know you or your work depends on how specialized the meeting is, how often you go to the meeting, and how close it is to your own specialty.

      At larger meetings, being ignored might be more common because there is a lower social cost to being uninterested in others, when there are few people there. You can’t diss someone like that if there’s only one concurrent session and everybody there gets to know everybody. At a bigger meeting like ESA, however, if you think some people aren’t players, there isn’t typically a cost to overlooking them.

      So, the frequency with which one experiences that a diss, overt or subtly, varies. It can be minimized by attending regularly, attending smaller meetings, and of course by having your work more known. (And by having a blog that people read.)

      It is hard to disentangle how frequently a person attends and how people interact with them. If you’re there and you don’t know anybody at all, even if you’re from a research institution, it’s still hard to get to know anyone. And people from smaller campuses often don’t have the resources to keep up attending the same conference every year no matter where it is. (I have a blog post about that in the idea queue – about how and why to go to the same conference every year, without fail.)

      My first meeting post-having-a-blog is coming up. I don’t think it’s big enough yet to be a distraction, or an attraction, but vamos a ver. However, at this meeting, I’ll know so many people already that it won’t make much a difference. Unfortunately I can’t make ESA this year, and I may or may not make it to the Ento meeting (which I go to the majority of the time, as that’s a social insect gathering point). So it’ll have to wait a while before I learn the effect of the blog.

  6. Cool post, as usual! As a liberal arts college researcher, I too have felt that subtle, or sometimes not so subtle, sense of dismissal. I’ll meet someone at the coffee break, or during the poster session and when they glance at the name tag and see the unfamiliar name, I see the diminution in their eyes: “Is he just here for the teaching workshop?” or “Isn’t that cute, he does research with his undergrads.” I also agree that ESA, probably because of it’s size, is where I have felt this the most.

    What has been interesting to me is that I see a real difference in how I am treated depending on the career stage of the other person. With senior folks who have been around for a while, in general I’ve felt evaluated based on what comes out of my mouth in discussion or at my presentation – maybe it’s because they’ve known quality students who’ve gone on to teach or they have recruited a good one from a teaching institution, or maybe it is just that they can’t see well enough to read the name tag, or maybe since they’re established, they just don’t worry about the status stuff as much.

    But with the younger folk, the grad students and postdocs and assistant profs., the reaction is actually much more variable. They are frequently much more dismissive, maybe because of their professional schmoozing imperative, as you pointed out. They figure I have nothing to offer them in the way of advancement, so I couldn’t offer them any scientific insight either. But younger researchers are also sometimes the MOST interested in what I do. Among the students and postdocs, of course, it often hinges around questions of what it is like to work at a school with a strong teaching mission and how it is doing research exclusively with undergrads. This is a great opportunity for professional advising, but we don’t always get around to talking about research, which is usually why I am at a meeting.

    But the best is when you meet those young researchers who are just so jazzed about the science that they just don’t give a damn about the status of the person – they are too busy geeking out about how flipping amazing the natural world is, and how fun it is to study it. This has only happened to me a few times, but I’ve found that many, or even most, of these young super nerds have come from an undergraduate experience at a teaching institution. My personal sample is too small for stats, and my conclusion may be a case of confirmation bias, but it is something I’ve noticed. It could also be that their undergrad experiences prime them to give equal respect to teaching researchers.

    Anyway, thanks for another great post. I have rambled long enough. I am going to Evolution for the first time this year, and now I know I will be evaluating this aspect of the meeting relative to ESA, Biogeography, or SICB.

  7. I have never found any difference between big and small conferences in the reaction that people have to me or my institution. Everybody says:

    “Where’s that?”

    I expect this question now when I introduce myself and my institution at conferences… even when I haven’t left the state. (Though Texas is a big state.) Honestly, I have fun with answering that question now, because I enjoy watching people’s reaction when I tell them, “We’re in south Texas, and we
    * have over 19,000 students
    * have over 1,700 biology majors in the department
    * are one of the 10 biggest universities in Texas
    * are about 85% Hispanic, and
    * are second in the country in awarding Bachelor’s degrees to Hispanics.”

    This changes people’s perspectives pretty quickly. We still are not known for our research, or at meetings, but I can convince people we’re not just a bunch of lecturers in tin shacks along a scruffy border town.

  8. Hi Terry,
    just stumbled over your posting and read the comments. *chuckle* Been there, felt that. Imagine being from a nonprofit private teaching-oriented institution like myself! Well this is what I have done/do. One, choose your meetings wisely. I am not in ecology so don’t know the field, but certain more cellular biology oriented conferences have their education strings (ex. ASCB, ASM). In those sessions I have met many fellow educators, some from R1 institutions but passionate about teaching; others from teaching ones. Great conversations and exchange of ideas. Second, as Zen suggested above, have a list of facts about your institution ready. Once I say that my university is “second-largest private, nonprofit institution of higher education in California and the 12th-largest in the US, mainly dedicated to the needs of non-traditional learners, such as adult learners, minorities, and veterans,” it does change people’s perspective. Third, I have kept my research connections alive and made new ones thanks to the connectivity we have these days. Twitter especially has given me the opportunity to network and “converse” with people in the front lines of research. So once you meet them in person, there is already a connection made.
    Now at the end of the day, IMHO, if somebody is really going to treat me differently because of the institution I come from, well, I am not sure I even want to network with that person :)
    I just read your About section. I have just started “conspiring” with my teacher education colleagues to develop workshops etc for K-12 science teachers. I’ll have to check out your blog in detail! I found it thanks to Twitter. There you go :)

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