Yesterday, I gave a talk at the at the Entomology conference, and I’d like to share with you what I had to say.
In scientific conferences, the talks are often the least constructive part of the meeting. That’s my experience and opinion, at least. This is ironic, because at least in theory, the talks are the raison d’être of a conference.
When people fly in from great distances to be together, should we really be spending most of the day in dark rooms listening to canned talks from our colleagues? Should we be spending our time on things that we could just as easily do in a webinar?
Hello. I’m Ian, a shy introvert. And those two things are distinct. Through a lot of trial and error, I’ve worked out a way to network and build social capital that works for me even though connecting to people is not exactly natural to me, as I know it isn’t for many academics.
Being an introvert in a world that seems to favor the expressive and extroverted can seem daunting and unwelcoming. A lot of the usual advice is to just act against type*. In other words, be extroverted for as long as you can sustain it, especially at conferences or other events where connecting with people is the goal.
Part of favoring of extroverts is that they announce themselves and seem like the movers, shakers, and doers in the world. In the United States at least, taking (overt) action is favored over introspection or making the decision to do nothing even though taking that decision may well be the right one depending on the situation.
I have been going to entomology meetings (including those of the Entomological Societies of Canada (ESC), British Columbia (ESBC), and Ontario (ESO)) yearly since I started studying spiders in 2010 (we don’t have an arachnological society in Canada, so for these societies spiders are welcomed as honorary insects) and I went to my first International Society of Arachnology (ISA) meeting in Colorado this past summer.
The national SACNAS conference came through LA again. SACNAS is an organization that fosters diversity in higher education and runs a huge national conference each year. The organization does other things, but the national conference is clearly a focal point.
SACNAS has been described as a “mentoring conference.” From what I’ve seen, that’s a good description.
I’ve been writing regularly for Vitae, the careers section of The Chronicle of Higher Education. This piece was published there a couple weeks ago. I’m reprinting it here:
Conferences are a wonderful time to see old friends and colleagues. That is, if you’re an old-timer.
If you’re not, the experience can be isolating and intimidating. And even if you do have friends at a meeting, the prospect of expanding your network can be daunting.
Call now! Loan counselors are standing by at +1 (301) 731-4535*.
Recently I attended the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada, which this year was held jointly with the Société d’entomologie du Québec, in Montréal. While chatting with a (professor) friend at the conference it came up that we both don’t really like attending conferences for a lot of reasons, but attend anyway because we think it is important to do so. At the time I remarked that I thought there were few tangible benefits of attending conferences as a student. Since then I’ve been thinking a bit about the costs and benefits of attending academic conferences as a student, and here I will summarize my thoughts.
The obvious costs of attending conferences are time, money, and energy.
At one point I thought about writing a post about the difficulties that academia wreaks on friendships. All that moving about means picking up, making new friends and leaving behind the old. It is tough in many respects and it is easy to see the negatives of that part of the career. Check out #academicnomad for the joys and sorrows of traveling/moving so much. Needless to say the post slipped by and I never quite got around to writing it.
This week I definitely had a ‘hangover’. Two weeks of meetings* left me a strange mixture of excited, enthusiastic, invigorated and completely drained. I have lots of new ideas and enjoyed both making new connections and reconnecting with others. But I can forget how drained I can feel after such intense social activity, even if I don’t travel far.
Here is a detailed report on my brief experience with the SACNAS meeting, aggregated as an unordered set of observations and thoughts.
These two weeks are allowing me to contrast two very different kinds of meetings. As a member of the Linnean Centre of Plant Biology in Uppsala, I attended our yearly meeting last week*.
Sometimes, the title has a question mark. The body of the text usually has the answer to the question in the title. This is not one of those. I don’t have an answer to this question.
I went to a bunch of scientific conferences this summer. Four of ’em. I have a smorgasbord of reflections on the whole experience to share with you.
You’re probably familiar with this scene from academic conferences:
Person A and and Person B have been chatting for a few minutes. Person C strolls by and makes eye contact with Person A. Person C gives a big smile to Person A, which is reciprocated, perhaps with a hug. Both A and C enthusiastically ask one another about their lab mates, families, and life in general.
At this moment, Person B is feeling awkward.
Last week I went to the Goldschmidt conference, which is a convergence of geochemists. I’m not a geochemist. I’m not even an ecosystem ecologist (though I’ve pretended to be one a few times). I was there to speak about how insects respond to the legacy of geologic history in a rainforest, and to share a bit about how animals may affect long-term nutrient cycles. In short, to remind them that animals might, just maybe, actually matter.
I learned a heck of a lot. Here are a bunch of stray observations and ideas that occurred to me throughout the meeting.
I distinctly recall a little non-event at a conference: I was scooting to catch a friend’s talk on time. I found him sitting in the hallway outside the room, slide carousel* in his lap. Grabbing a bunch of slides and putting them into his carousel. He was picking out slides, on the fly at literally the last minute. Figuring out both his content and his sequence
I’ve developed a mechanism to make sure that I stay productive: when I submit abstracts for meetings, I promise data that I haven’t finished collecting. Of course when I give a talk, I can say almost whatever I want. Nobody’s going to cut me off if my talk doesn’t match the program.
I just realized that I always have been in the habit of submitting abstracts for projects that are so fresh, I haven’t even gotten all the numbers, much less run analyses. In grad school, that was the only option, because at one point I didn’t have anything else to say. Now, even when I have other newish finds that I’ve yet to present, I submit abstracts for projects that still lack a rudimentary answer. I do this at least once a year, writing a check for results that aren’t yet in the bank.
I just got back from a tour of North America, including a stop to visit my family in Nova Scotia and a conference in California. It was a great trip and a reminder of how lucky I am these days. Not only did my daughter and I get spoiled by my parents but I also had the opportunity to meet and interact with many of the leaders and new up and coming researchers of my field*. As we recover from jet lag and get back to the routine, I have a chance to reflect on my travels.
One of the benefits of traveling for conferences is, of course, the chance to meet people. Seeing talks on the forefront of everyone’s research is definitely good for learning and stimulating new ideas, but I often find the most valuable parts of any conference are the causal conversations you end up having. It can also be pretty interesting to put faces (and characters) to the names you know from the literature.
Although not unique to academia, you often ‘know’ people before meeting them through their work. I find that I don’t often have a particular preconceived picture of authors I read, but meeting someone in person or seeing them talk does change the way I interact with the literature to some extent. For one thing, the more people I meet, the more human the literature feels. I can put faces to author names and pictures to their study systems (if I’ve seen a talk). As a student, in some ways the primary literature felt so, well, scientific and perhaps a bit cold. These days, that is less of an issue and science feels much more like an endeavour that I belong to. However, as you become more apart of the community doing science, there is the potential for things to swing the other way. I’m probably more likely to notice a publication on a list if I’ve met the author. It is always nice to see people I went to grad school with pop up in journal alerts, for example. And although I try not to be biased by my impressions of a person when I read a paper, I’m only human after all. I wouldn’t say it stops me from appreciating good work (I hope!) but personal interactions do colour whether I would want to invite a person for a talk, for example. And interactions at conferences, etc. definitely influences who I want to work with. Of course, I’m more likely to collaborate with people I hit it off with then those I don’t. I wonder if that is also true for citations and the like. Are we more likely to read and cite people we’ve met? How about those we like? I’m not sure I want to know the answers to those questions and I certainly try not to let biases like that enter my work, but science is a human activity after all.
I think it is always interesting to meet/see people in person who you know from other means. In academics, that used to be meeting or seeing someone give a talk at a conference whose papers you’ve read. Maybe their papers are seminal to yours, and especially as a grad student, seeing people behind the work can be very eye opening. I once was at a famous ecologist’s talk at a big conference. The room was packed but it was one of the poorer talks I’d ever seen. The slides were directly transferred from papers and impossible to read. Pointing from the lectern to a screen meters away also did not help (‘as you can clearly see…’ was a memorable quote). A friend and I sat at the back trying to figure out the main tenets of the classic theory from this person because it was the keystone of the talk but never directly described (we were of course all expected to be familiar with it, I suppose). The experience taught me that great thinkers don’t necessarily make great presenters. But I’ve also seen wonderful talks by some big names too.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten to see old friends and put faces to more names I’m familiar with. I also got a chance to hear from and meet people I might have never have known otherwise. And seeing what the grad students are up to is always interesting. Communicating science and hearing about people’s studies is part of what I find fun in this job.
Interestingly, this blog and twitter has also opened up my scientific community beyond the boarders of my research. So whereas before putting faces to names was all about meeting people I had read in the literature, this time it included a chance to meet up with Small Pond’s very only leader, Terry. We were lucky to overlap in the LA area for a day and were able to see each other face to face. I have to admit, it felt a bit like an academic version of on-line dating or something. I was nervous to meet. What if it was awkward? What if we didn’t like each other? I’d been having fun posting on this blog but if our in person interaction didn’t work I wasn’t sure what that would mean. I’m happy to report that we had a good time and a fruitful discussion about blogging, twitter and this new-to-me on-line community. I hope it is only the first of many meetings with those that I am getting to know through their blogs and tweets. I’m sure it will mean that I will also pop in on talks far removed from my research if we happen to be at the same conference in the future. I think that is a good thing.
*being a bit of a generalist, the conference was in one of my fields of interest, plant volatiles.
This is a second guest post by Amy Parachnowitsch.
Originally from the Canadian east coast, I first crossed the continent to do my undergraduate on in the west (British Columbia), moved to the middle for my masters (Ontario) and then made the big leap south to the USA (upstate New York) for my PhD (read: 5 hrs drive between where I did my masters and PhD but sometimes worlds apart). Now I am an Assistant Professor/Research Fellow in Uppsala, Sweden. My science career path has not been particularly straight or narrow geographically or otherwise, but one theme that has emerged is the opportunities that have come from changing places and outlooks.
Because it is relevant to my recent experience and my perspective on moving around, I’ll describe what I’m doing in Sweden. My position is always difficult to translate either into English (forskarassistent = research assistant, directly translated but those are actually forskningsassistent) or North American positions because there are no real equivalents. I’m either a Research Fellow or Assistant Professor (there are even internal listings where I am one or the other). As I grow more comfortable in my position, I tend towards saying I’m a non-tenured Assistant Professor because that most accurately describes what I do. The position came with a small start-up fund, guaranteed 4 years of salary, a small teaching responsibility (5-10% of my time, officially), and salary for one PhD student. There is no formal option to continue my job after the 4 years and I’ll need to find either research funds to support my salary (basically like applying to NSF or NSERC and budgeting your salary) or another job. For me, the long-term prospects of staying here are unknown. But so far being a professor in a different country has been interesting, challenging and a fabulous learning experience.
So breaking Terry’s tradition of no lists, here’s my take on the some of the benefits and challenges of taking this path:
- New ideas/ways of doing things –First and foremost, working somewhere else gives you a different perspective. I’m exposed to all kinds of differences both big and small on a daily basis. I constantly see my own assumptions and expectations exposed when they’re not met. I may have come here thinking that European PhD positions are advisor-driven, and although that can be true, I also now see the tremendous variation in PhD training. Although I had heard about the lack of social security in the US my entire life, I was shocked to learn that there really is no maternal/paternal leave in the US (its basically up to the employers). In my experience, Ivy league students are pretty similar in their abilities to the other university students I’ve taught, they just tend to have more security and confidence (sometimes to their own detriment). I could fill this post with things that I have learned and gained from being immersed in different countries and systems but it is good to remember that the benefits don’t have to be one-way. You also have something to offer others from your own contrasting experience.
- Meeting fellow scientists—One thing that has been really fun for me is that I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of people that I had only read before. Although there are always some researchers that cross the pond to go to conferences in Europe or North America, it is by far more common that people attend conferences within these regions. And even when scientists do travel to the same conferences, when they are big ones like ESA/Evolution, I get to see people’s talks and might have a chance to chat, but I find some of the most valuable networking happens when you causally go for a meal or to the pub. It seems like these causal interactions tend to happen more with people you know or they know which can mean staying within your continent. It is of course possible to cross these boundaries and some people are very skilled at this, but living in Sweden has made it more natural to get to know more European scientists. The flip side is that it has been more difficult to connect with my old network because it is now more difficult for me to travel to conferences in the USA/Canada.
- Exploring a new ecosystem—Whenever I travel, I’m often trailing behind, looking at flowers. Curiosity is really why I love my job; so seeing new ecosystems is a delight and offers a kind of understanding that you can’t get from reading papers alone. I had amazing experiences as a graduate student visiting Florida, Hawaii and especially the Rocky Mountain Biological Station, where so much of the literature I had been reading was based. Moving to Sweden has allowed me to explore a whole new place. When I first got here it I had to turn off the internal “introduced/invasive” tag that went with so many plants. This summer I’ve been playing around with a bunch of different species here in the aims of developing a local system. But living here has really given me an understanding of the place that I wouldn’t get if I just came here to visit/do research. For example, although I intellectually knew that the days were long in summer and dark in winter, living here has given me a whole different understanding. Who knew I could complain about too much light (seriously, it is tough to sleep)? And as the days get noticeably shorter I know what I’m in for (noon-day sun like dusk). But this also gives me a deeper understanding of the differences for the organisms I study.
- Learn a new language—Although I am still hopelessly inadequate in Swedish, when I think back to a few years ago I realise that I actually understand quite a bit. When I first came here, nothing made sense. These days I can get around, talk to someone at a store, and understand quite a bit of what people are saying around me. Now if I could only carve out some time to study each day I think I could actually get somewhere.
- Isolation—Perhaps one of the harder things is the feeling of isolation that can come from being an ex-pat. This can apply to daily life as much as your job. Although much of science is conducted in English, lots of informal and formal university events tend towards the native language. Here in Sweden, people tend to be ridiculously competent in English but you do miss out on some of the banter. As soon as the non-Swedes leave a room, the conversation slips quickly back to Swedish. Although my grasp of Swedish is improving, I miss jokes and think it would be really hard to make friends speaking only Swedish. It can also be tough for faculty meetings, etc when things are discussed in Swedish. There I tend to hear a lot of words you don’t commonly encounter and although I can often follow the general theme, some of the details are lost.
- An increase in the imposter syndrome—actually it is difficult to know whether I feel this any more than I would in similar position in North America. Perhaps best not to admit until I get that permanent job, but I can find myself thinking that I have no idea what I am doing. And worse still, it can be because I really don’t know what I am doing (not focusing on the science here because that part is pretty portable). The things I learned watching my mentors or from PhD experiences are often out of sync with what it happening around me. For example, teaching hasn’t been at all how I expected myself to be doing based on years of TAing. I am now involved in team-taught courses and students are only taking a single course at any given time. This means less control over the course as a whole (because I only do a part) and intensive teaching when it happens (e.g. 3hr lecture time slots). So although I can apply lots of my teaching skills to this new situation, it has been another learning curve to figure out how to be the most effective, etc. Another big difference for me is that PhD students are generally hired on specific projects here. So although I was offered salary for my PhD student as a part of my position, I fund the project and had to write an advertisement for the position. In truth, many PhDs do follow their own research here and my own student will not strictly follow the advertised position. However, I interviewed candidates for my PhD position in a completely different way than I myself had done. All these differences can definitely fuel the imposter syndrome but it also gets me talking to my peers much more than I might if I thought I had a clue about how things are done here.
- Slow start-up – Getting a lab running is not an easy or fast task for anyone and I haven’t even had to think about hiring in the way I would if I was starting a lab somewhere in NA. But starting a research group in another country has its own set of challenges: That craft store you used to buy strange things for your fieldwork? Not here. Chemical you could easily order from Sigma/Fisher? The European branch doesn’t carry it. University finances? You’ll need to figure out the reimbursement system and fill out all the forms in Swedish. Major granting agencies? Where do you start when you haven’t even heard of them? In my experience, people are incredibly helpful and willing to share information, but it does mean that I sometimes feel like I’m a step behind. After two years I am still learning but my footing is a little steadier. I’m sure that many of these issues would apply to moving to any university, anywhere but it probably wouldn’t involve talking to the industrial supplier in broken Swedish.
- Time zone differences—A huge pain when you want to contact family and friends, time zone differences can effect how you work as well. It means that I’m often out of sync with my NA collaborators, so there is definitely a time lag between emails, etc. And although skype and google hangouts are great resources to virtually meet, the time difference often mean tight scheduling. And on a personal note, when I travel for research in the USA, it is really tough to skype with my daughter but really important to do so. Somewhat easier but also challenging is talking with my graduate student when she’s in the field and I’m in Sweden. In some ways this might be good because she has more freedom to figure things out on her own but sometimes it would be convenient to not have the six hour time difference. Another drawback is that twitter conversations can be more difficult to participate in with the NA crowd; the plus is that I’m seeing a lot more from fellow Europeans.
- Not being able to read between the lines—Here’s a funny story to end with. In my first few months I travelled every couple of weeks to the department for a few days while we negotiated the move, etc. One of these trips there was a small conference for Uppsala plant folks just outside of town. There was a program with events for the two days but nowhere, and I mean nowhere, was there anything about staying overnight at the conference center. So I hop in the car with the head of my department and some new colleagues with only my laptop, etc. As the day progresses it slowly dawns on me that everyone is planning to stay the night. Here I am, no change of clothes, no toiletries, nothing. The conference center is far enough outside of town that there is no real way to get back without a car. One of my colleagues with a young child headed home that night but wasn’t coming back the following day. So I remember thinking, do I take this opportunity to go or do I stay? I had committed to being there for two days and it seemed silly to miss out for a change of clothes (how I longed for that overnight bag sitting in my room in Uppsala). So I stayed, was grateful for a single room where I didn’t have to feel stupid in front of anyone. Now I know that it would have been fine and I could have shared a good laugh. But then I didn’t know any of the people I was with. It wasn’t perfect but I’m really glad I just stepped back into my same clothes after showering that morning. In the end staying meant I started a collaboration that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. But it just goes to show that not being a part of the culture around you means that you can miss out on things that seem so obvious to everyone else.
Despite the long list of challenges, I remain pretty positive about my experience here. Mostly the challenges have been opportunities to learn and grow. I’m excited about the collaborations I am developing here and the research we’re doing on both sides of the pond. Of course there are days that I’m tired and wonder if it wouldn’t all be easier if I could find that ideal tenure track job in Canada or the USA. I don’t know where we’ll end up in the long-term but I do know if we return to NA, I will bring with me a broadened perspective on how to be a professor.
*Full disclosure: I came to Sweden for family reasons first (Swedish husband with a job here) and searched for a job from here.
Coming from a teaching institution, I consistently push against the stereotype that I can’t be as good as someone from a big research institution.
Last week I had the pleasure of speaking in a symposium along with a couple of the most prominent people in tropical biology. There were other good, non-famous, people there too. It was great fun, and I gave a damn good talk, even though the topic was slightly outside my normal line of research. After the conference, a periodic collaborator of mine told me that I was able to “hold my own” with the high-powered crowd. This was clearly a form of congratulations. Keep in mind that this is a person who I’ve known for over fifteen years.
What I thought, and didn’t choose to say, is: “That’s a funny thing to mention. Of course I did. Why would you think otherwise? Would somebody think that I might not be able to?”
If I worked at a big research university, nobody would have ever congratulated me on “holding my own” in the presence of more esteemed scientists. I would just be expected to fit in. If anything, my presence in the symposium should indicate my enhanced stature, not a temporary ability to be acceptable in the presence of the great ones.
Why didn’t I tell my buddy that this compliment wasn’t a compliment? Why didn’t I say that he revealed his own bias, or his own low expectations?
I didn’t say anything because it wouldn’t do any good. I’d sound petulant. Some might say that I’d be looking for an insult where one was not intended. (Perhaps that what readers are thinking now.) Perhaps it would give the false impression that I’m unhappy.
I don’t see the remark about “holding my own” as a personal insult because I understand that it originated from a bias against my employer rather than against my work. This is especially the case because this colleague is in an entirely different subfield and I doubt he’s read many, if any, of my papers.
In that symposium, there were many people in my sub-subfield in attendance, who are quite familiar with my work. I don’t know what they were thinking, and I’m not going to ask. All I can do is continue to show again, and again, and continually, that I belong. Maybe one day, my colleagues won’t have to compliment me on holding my own with the big boys and girls.
Some people have taken to referring to influential senior scientists as “silverbacks.”
This practice should stop.
I’m writing this at a scientific conference, and I’ve heard it several times in independent contexts, in a non-ironic use. I also heard this term at the last three conferences I’ve attended in the last few years by both European and North American researchers. I’ve learned that at least one university has a lecture series called the “silverback” sessions.
I don’t know the specific origin of the term, or when it emerged as a regular term of use. Regardless, I don’t like it.
For those unaware of the behavioral ecology of non-human apes, a “silverback” is an older, large-bodied and behaviorally dominant male gorilla, characterized by silver fur on its back. With respect to at least certain aspects of a social group of gorillas, silverbacks are in charge. Their dominant status emerges from their age, size, interactions with others, experience and ability to advance in the social network of their group.
What’s the problem with the use of the term “silverback?” I don’t have a problem with the practice of using analogies from the behavior of other species to be applied to our own, as long as they’re appropriate.
Labeling influential senior scientists as “silverbacks” is a bad idea for one big reason:
It is sexist.
Female gorillas are never silverbacks. By using the term “silverback” to as a synonym for “influential senior scientist,” one is implying that women are not, or cannot become, influential senior scientists.
This objection isn’t about political correctness. It’s about recognizing the influential women in our midst, and showing respect for them. (Most people with issues about so-called political correctness are those who have trouble showing respect for others.)
What can we do? Join me in calling out the sexism of this word when it gets used. If you hear it in conversation, perhaps you could mention that you don’t think it’s a good use of the term because it excludes women?
(Most of my contemporary scientific heroes are women, after all.)
I’m a less-influential not-that-senior scientist, so I’m not in the best position to bring this issue to the forefront. Maybe we can bring this up with some big-time men and women to take up this issue?
Have you heard this term or is it a new one to you? Any additional observations, ideas, or suggestions?
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)?
In some humanities fields, when you present a paper, that’s exactly what you do. You stand at a microphone and read your paper, word for word. I’m glad that none of those conferences are in my plans.
Nevertheless, scientific conferences are more formal than our normal teaching milieu. People dress up a notch nicer than usual, and there are people being paid to do things on your behalf, like set up A/V equipment.
One of those slightly formal things about conferences is that every presentation space has a lectern and a microphone. The convention site that sets up the rooms for the conferences assumes that all speakers want to stand at a lectern and use a microphone for their speech. For all the organizers know, the presenters might be those people who go up with a manuscript and read.
But we’re not those people. We have no reason to stand at that lectern and speak into the mike. It’s as formal as we want it to be. Why don’t we ditch the formality?
Keep in mind that these rooms are not that much bigger than the larger lecture halls on your campus. It’s just a fancier affair at a conference, so you get a superfluous lectern and a superfluous microphone.
As I teach plenty, I have experience holding forth to a crowd. At a conference, why don’t I apply what I’ve learned from that part of my job? I do find it heartening that people sometimes mention after my talk, “I can tell that you must teach a lot.” They don’t mean that in a negative way, I think it’s a way of saying that I was engaging and at ease. I appreciate the compliment when it happens. I’d rather talk about the science, but it’s still friendly.
When speakers are introduced by the moderator, they see the lectern, and the microphone at the lectern. The default mode is to stand up there and speak into the microphone. The next speaker follows the example of the prior speaker. It befits the formality of the occasion in some way.
But, really, it’s absurd. Nobody is being done a favor by using a microphone in a space that doesn’t require it, and acting like what you’re doing is the most important thing in the world. It’s just a 15 minute presentation. Make it fun, explain why what you did is awesome, and talk about it casually. You want to be professional and show that your work is of high quality, but you also don’t want to be uptight. The entire genre of conference presentations is uptight. You don’t have to be a part of that.
Standing at the lectern with microphone is inherently awkward, because none of us are used to standing at microphones and talking for extended periods. You have to try hard to not be awkward in those circumstances. Why not give your talk in a way that doesn’t necessitate the avoidance of awkwardness?
I’m not the kind of guy that is typically invited to give a keynote or headline a large symposium, so I’m not speaking in cavernous spaces. I think I’ve only spoken twice in venue in which a microphone actually was needed for everyone to easily hear me. Granted, I’m not a quiet guy.
Other than that rare circumstance, I ignore the lectern, ignore the mike, and get up and talk just like I’m teaching a class. (The only difference is that when I’m teaching, I try to not talk, because when someone is talking to you, learning is less likely to happen. Which is probably why a few weeks after a conference, I couldn’t explain one of the talks with any detail.)
Get up, move around. Instead of a laser pointer, walk up to the screen and point with your finger. It’s more engaging. You don’t want to present your research, you want to teach the audience newly discovered information. Talk about it like you’re talking to your own class about the latest finding in the news. This starts with ditching the lectern.
My favorite thing about conferences, aside from seeing old friends and colleagues, is getting to know grad students.
There are so many great reasons to get to know grad students, and even more if your lab doesn’t have them.
First of all, I’d like to remind everyone that grad students are both professional scientists and individual human beings. Grad students are not interchangeable pieces. They don’t have as much experience as senior researchers, but most of them have dedicated their careers to this fun endeavor of science. Moreover, grad students do the same job as faculty – teaching, research, and even service (seminar series, running journal clubs, and stuff in the lab that is expected of them). My lens is adjusted so that I see that grad students are just like me. I’m just older than most grad students and, now, more grey. From there, the differences are minor unless it’s my position to mentor a student.
If I’m not a mentoring a grad student, then I am this person’s colleague and I will treat them with the appropriate level of attention and respect. Even though some early grad students might not see this in themselves.
I have made number of good friends – or perhaps close colleagues – because I’ve made the time to build these relationships. Though I’m not in grad school, this shouldn’t keep me from continuing to make friends with grad students.
Grad students are great because they are excited about their projects and love to talk about them. By hearing about what they’re working on, you not only get an introduction to their own work, but also all of the recent ideas and discoveries that have contributed to their ideas. Hearing the 10-minute intro to a dissertation is drinking a thick rich idea smoothie, from the person who has probably read more about that combination of ideas than anybody else.
Grad students are great because they are often eager to hear about what you’re working on. There are two big benefits to this. First of all, they comprise a potential audience open to new ideas and your work could be influential. More importantly, if they hear about your project in some detail, it’s likely that they’ll offer a separate perspective, new insights, and relevance from their own line of work. They might suggest a fancy new kind of analysis, a new set of things to measure, or other people who might be interested in your datasets of whom you’re not aware. They might know of datasets that would shed light on your own and they could put you in touch.
Grad students are great to hang out with if your lab is made up of undergraduates, as a resource for your students. It’s not likely that your undergrads are going to pal around with your PI friends at conferences that much, but they are more likely to get to know the grad students as see their successes as a possible model for their own next steps. They also can advise about the whole grad school application/selection process, as they’ve done it recently.
There is another practical benefit from getting to know grad students well. You become a deeper part of the field when you get to know its future leaders before they are breaking new ground. When you befriend a the current generation of grad students, that means that you’ll be friends with the next set of junior faculty. Even mentioning it sounds mighty careerist, but it nevertheless is a long-term positive.
I enjoy people for who they are, and when grad students are doing good work I go out of my way to compliment them. It costs you nothing to mention the truth but it makes a big difference to someone who is just starting out. I’ve tried to be outgoing in this way ever since grad school, and I’ve made a point to not change this as I’ve gotten older.
When I do see old friends at conferences, I met most of them during grad school days (either mine, theirs, or both of ours). While most other professors at an obscure school like mine would be unknown to a new generation of scientists, I’m at least not wholly anonymous, because I’ve continued to make the effort to know people. Being friendly and supportive of your colleagues is itself its own reward, and is one that compounds itself over time. That’s a nice side benefit of being friendly.