Month: February 2014

You Got Tenure… Now What?

Tenure is a major landmark in the life of an academic scientist. While its original purpose was to protect academic freedom and enable professors to teach what they felt appropriate, without  fear of retribution, this is not a major concern for most academic scientists and engineers. For STEM folks, tenure means job security and is really a perk that compensates for the comparatively lower salaries than in industry. It also enables us to plan longer-term projects, have flexibility in terms of how we allocate our time and resources, and pursue riskier directions of research. In case it’s not clear, I am a big fan of the concept of tenure. I also believe that the people you really want to tenure are those with a real fire in the belly, those who will keep going even after tenure and for whom the tenure requirement was never a particularly high, unattainable bar to begin with. But it’s easy to be all blasé about tenure from the comfortable position of having it.

In hindsight, I was a total mess the year before tenure. At the time I didn’t realize how unpleasant I had been to my colleagues. I don’t know why I was so nervous really, there were never really any hints from anyone that I might not get it: I had papers, two young investigator awards and other grants, had graduated a PhD student, given talks, had great teaching evaluations. Nobody ever said anything even remotely doubtful about my case and I really had smooth sailing throughout, yet that year was extremely stressful for me. I have no idea how I would have felt if I had had something really problematic on my record or if I had faced evaluation by capricious administrators, as some people do.  

Getting tenure is not really a single event in time, it’s a protracted process and perhaps that’s why the whole ordeal seems entirely underwhelming. At some point, a dossier gets assembled by you or someone in your department and someone sends out requests for external letters of evaluation. The letters take a couple of months to come back and then the department votes for your promotion. For me, this step was easy  as the department was unanimous in their support. The next step is the critical one, at the university committee. There are a few rubber stamps thereafter, but the university-level committee is the one that makes or breaks your case. It turned out that step went smoothly, as well.

We started my tenure process in May of my 5th academic year (note that you really only have the papers written up and submitted in the first 4-4.5 years on the TT count towards tenure; several people did get into moderately-to-really-deep doodoo for waiting way too long to get papers out). External letters were collected over the summer, department voted in September or early October, and I had the positive university-level decision in early December of my 6th academic year. However, I didn’t  get tenure for real until the Regents met sometime in the following summer, and then I didn’t get a raise or the new title until the new academic year. So it was about 9 months between clearing the hoop and actually becoming an associate professor. During that time people would congratulate me at random times or ask about my case  and I’d have to explain that it’s all good, but technically I am not tenured yet, so congrats are in order but maybe only unofficially because who knows. The protracted lame duck assistant professordom certainly didn’t fuel the festive mood. At some point in the middle of the summer I did get the official tenure and promotion paperwork, and that’s when I guess we were supposed to break out the champagne but it felt silly by then. We sort of but not really celebrated, maybe even a couple of times. I am pretty sure I bought lunch or dinner for my students at some point. By the time the title and the raise came, there were no festivities left in me.

Tenure is supposed to be a turning point, where you stop and ask yourself what you want to do with the rest of your scientific life. To me, it took several years after tenure to relax; actually, I am going to say that I only relaxed once I got promoted to full prof. By relaxing I mean I finally realized that there were things that were making me unhappy about my job, I admitted to myself that being unhappy about them is spoiling multiple aspects of my life, and that I needed to do something because what’s the point of having a secure job people would kill for if you don’t enjoy it. Some of the decluttering involved wrapping up several collaborations — they were not bad, just not worth quite as much time and energy. I finally said goodbye to a large center with which I had been affiliated for a long time; this center was a great “safety net,” a sure funding for one student if all else went to hell, but it really was very little money and the time and paperwork commitment were just staggering. So I decided it was time to cut the cord and it was one of the best, most liberating things I have ever done. I also realized that I was good at writing proposals on my own and that I greatly enjoyed those projects that were mine, all mine. And that I don’t actually have to collaborate just to collaborate, that we had plenty of expertise in the group to do a whole bunch of things, and that I was producing better and more enjoyable-to-write papers when it was just my students and me. So to me tenure meant, eventually, getting rid of the shackles of unsatisfying collaborations, rediscovering the joy of being the boss of me, and focusing squarely on the projects I found challenging and on building up the expertise and publication record of my own students, as opposed to playing second or third fiddle to someone else. Tenure meant really putting on my big-scientist pants and boldly going where no one has gone before  (except for 78.3%  of everyone who has ever gotten tenure) — into the rest of my career, with the renewed zeal of a horny rabbit on his 4th espresso.

Another important aspect of post-tenure life has been becoming aware of how great this city and this university really are. I spent much of my time on the tenure track lamenting over not being at a better place, whereas my university is objectively excellent, but I was for some reason unable to internalize it until recently. Even superstar scientists get up in the morning and go to work and sit in their offices, drinking coffee/tea/eggnog, and then they read emails, read/write papers, talk to students, teach… It’s all the same, no matter where you are. And I started thinking about all the things that I do have — great colleagues, a great city for my family where the kids are happy and healthy and safe and getting a good education, all those aspects could be much worse and I should appreciate what I do have. I realized that I had all that I needed right here, that this university was perfectly fine for what I wanted to do, that it was certainly good enough to support the vision that I had, and that if anything was limiting me it was myself.  So I decided to fully commit to this place and make the absolute best of all that it had to offer to both my ambition and all other aspects of my life. You might say that I have finally given my university and my city two fully tenured positions in my heart. (Gaah…That was just way too sappy, even for a gooey Valentine’s day week. ) 

How about this instead… Tenure is like an awesome superpower — it takes a while to learn how to wield it, but it can overall bring a lot of good. Use it responsibly!

What has receiving tenure been like for you? If  currently untenured, what aspects of tenure are you looking forward to (or perhaps dreading)?

Proposals, Proposals…

Two of my big grants are expiring in 2015. The NSF one cannot really be renewed; I basically need to apply for a completely new grant. The other one is in principle a competitive renewal, but is a renewal nonetheless, and I have high expectations of funding as we are quite productive on that project (’cause there is actually enough money on it to do the work, but that’s another gripe altogether). 

At the NSF, there is a primary directorate to which I submit and there are two others where some of my projects could in principle go. NSF generally has special program solicitations, as well as periods of 1-2 months within which you are encouraged to submit unsolicited proposals. My primary directorate used to have two annual unsolicited proposal windows, but they recently switched to one. (I wish I could say that the percentage of proposals funded by each panel has since doubled, but alas, no.) Considering that if I strike out I will have to wait a full year to try again, I need to explore all avenues for funding.

NSF is at the same time very tricky and not tricky at all. After having been on a number of panels, I can tell you that they all pretty much operate the same way. The disheartening part is that the quality of your proposal is only moderately correlated with its probability of funding. Your proposal has to have a compelling core and enough material to give your champion something to work with, something to use to defend and propel your proposal. But, if your champion happens to be inexperienced or meek, if the program director leading the panel gives too much power to the loudmouth of the day (every panel has one, it’s a self-assembly phenomenon, even perfectly nice people will under the right circumstances become the bully du jour ), or if the panel simply has too few people in your expertise and everyone is much more enamored of other topics, you will not be funded. There are many perfectly good proposals that were simply not appealing enough to a particular panel when placed within a given batch of proposals.

This year, I plan on hitting two or even all three of potential directorates.  They will be different proposals, on different topics. However, most windows for unsolicited proposals are in the fall, and these three directorates have their Aug-Sep, Sep-Oct, and Oct-Nov.  I need to get into serious writing mode no later than mid-summer, and the plans will have to be more than just sketchy sometime in mid-spring.

So I have been thinking about what I want to do for a few months now, kind on on the back burner.  The process goes something like this:

For the first directorate, my main one, I am planning a proposal well aligned with my core expertise, on an important practical topic.  For this proposal I have a ton of preliminary data and I am confident that, unless it’s horribly poorly placed panel-wise, it should do reasonably-to-very well. Also, their window in the latest and I am confident that I can write the whole thing, beginning to end, within a few weeks.

On the other hand, I started working on problems in a new area a few years ago and we have had some well-regarded, well-cited papers. However, I am getting bored with the questions that everyone in this area keeps asking (and answering through minimal publishable units) and I want to tackle problems that are kind of out there, a little off the beaten path, and where I am actually excited to see what the predicted phenomena would be.  At this point, I have several ideas about the types of questions worth asking, and I see how two directorates may be interested in this category of questions, but with different foci. However, these will require considerably more reading on my part, some extra work to get the preliminary data, and generally a lot of effort to go from “cute question, but…” to “looks both exciting and feasible.”

So starting  June, I am in full proposal-writing mode, with March through June devoted first lightly then much more intensively to reading and working with 2-3 students to help with the preliminary data. The latter is a tricky one, as I do need the data, but I don’t want to derail the students or the projects that already pay those students in order to get the data for new projects, which will mostly help pay other, future students.

We’ll see how it goes! I must admit I am quite excited. Writing proposals is actually a great, creative activity, which gives me an excuse to get buried in my office, cancel meetings and just read and think. The sucky part is that you have to write them and that they have to get funded, or else everything implodes… But that’s a story for another day. My spring and summer will be spent thinking and writing about new science, so I could continue working with students for three more years… And then I get to do it all over again. 

Xykademiqz Goes to Electives Night

I live and work in the US and am an American citizen, but I am not US-born; I came here to go to grad school. I spent my formative years in a small European country and had the equivalent of K-12 and undergrad education in a system considerably different than the one in the US. As my kids progress through American public schools, I get ever more aware of how many differences there really are between the systems.

My eldest will start high school in the fall, so I went to parent orientation and later to Electives Night with my son. Allow me to just say — Oh. My. God! So many awesome choices!

But let me start by describing the high school system I went through. I have no idea how the system looks now, but when I went to school you picked a general area of interest/specialization when you were entering high school and then picked a school that was strong in that area and that would take you (besed on GPA). There were also a number of vocational schools, and those on the academic track. As an example, I picked “Math and Natural Sciences” and my childhood BFF picked “Humanities and Social Sciences”. We both ended up going to a neighborhood high school that happened to be very strong in both areas, and it enabled us to continue playing volleyball, which was very important to both of us in high school. But once you picked the area and school, the curriculum was set for you. For instance, both my BFF and I had the native language, math, science, foreign languages, gym, art, history, etc., but the difference was in how much of each we had. For example, I had the native language 4x  per week all 4 years; math 5x days per week all 4 years; physics, chemistry, biology I think 4x  per week each  all 4 years; gym 2x per week days all 4 years; art 1x per week for maybe 2 years; geography 2x per week for 3 years; history 2x per week for 2 years; sociology 2x per week for 2 years; I think 1 year of philosophy (I loved it so much!) 2x per week; I had Latin 2x a week for a year, and I had one foreign language 2x per week all 4 years (that was one language out of 2 that we had in grades 3-8, I had to keep learning the one that I started in grade 5, which wasn’t English). At some point we got a computer lab maybe 2x per week; it would be laughable according to today’s standards. In contrast, my BFF also had math all 4 years but not 5x per week, maybe 3. She had most of the natural sciences for 2 years, but instead had much more social sciences and history, had 2 foreign languages all 4 years plus Latin for 2 or 3 years, I forget;  multiple sections of native language, courses in world literature, also what would here be advanced keyboarding. And she had a lot more art. I don’t think any of us had music in high school.

The state in the US where I currently live with my family has good public schools, and we also live in a good public school district. In my son’s soon-to-be high school, to graduate he has to have 4 credits of English, 3 credits of science, 3 of math, and 3 of US history, 2 credits of a foreign language, 1.5 credits of gym, and 0.5 credits of health, and a certain number of electives. [0.5 credit = 1 semester of class meeting every day (5x per week).]

OMG the electives! They are so awesome! First, I cannot get over how amazing the art department is. They have 0.5-credit (semester-long) courses in Art Appreciation (you get to choose different media, paint, draw, sculpt, photograph etc for 2 weeks to see what they like), Drawing (levels 1-3), Sculpting, Photography, Glass/Metal class, several courses in Digital Art (one one Adobe Photoshop, one on Adobe Illustrator, one on making animation — from storyboarding to the final movies…) How fuckin’ awesome is that?

Now, as you may have noticed, I doodle. I have no training whatsoever beyond the 2x per week in class during K-8 and the 1x per week in high school. I drew/sketched a lot in (the equivalent of) middle school; there was a period when I drew comic books and I was always an avid comic book reader (more on that some other time), but these were always regarded as frivolous pursuits. I doodled when I wanted but I never considered putting concentrated effort into it and wasn’t really encouraged to. I pretty much stopped drawing in high school, when it was first and foremost academics, then volleyball, then boys. Also, I was really into physics competitions so I spent a lot of time just doing problems, practicing. So I am not kidding when I say I probably draw as well or as poorly now as I did in high school, because I basically completely stopped drawing afterwards. I have no idea why, and I have no idea why I am getting back into it now, but it’s fun, even though I am oh so rusty. But it makes me happy somehow! I think this new place inspired me to experiment a little…

But I digress. OMG the art department! I started imagining how awesome it would have been for a kid like me to be able to take some art courses! That would have been such wonderful relaxation and a chance to perfect the craft. I so wish I were my kid taking one of these awesome courses… So many things to do!

Next we went to the business/IT department. They offer courses from keyboarding, intro to programming, as well as courses focusing on software (Excell, Word, etc), some that are open to upperclassmen like accounting, marketing. The computer lab is gorgeous, well equipped.

Then music — I had no music in any form in high school. These guys have chorus, band, and orchestra. Every kid gets to play an instrument! In my home country, the only people who played any instruments were the kids who passed auditions for music schools when they were in grades 1-3, and then attended these pretty serious schools extracurricularly; music in public schools K-8 did not involve anyone touching any instruments other than a recorder or a xylophone; we sang a bit and listened to music and sort of learned to read notes, but not much. My Spouse is gifted in music and did have a strong music education (had 12 years of music school); alas,  not me, as I didn’t pass the music school audition when I was in 2nd grade owing to the lack of natural ability and that was it. A few years ago at a party at an American colleague’s house, I was the only one who had never played an instrument, everyone else had, at least for a little bit; I felt really crappy. Now I know that’s because here in the US everyone has to play an instrument in middle and high school, regardless of talent, which does make me feel a little better.

Then the World Languages Department — so awesome! They offer Spanish, French, German, and Chinese. You can pick 1 or 2, perhaps even more, anything you like! I was kind of salivating. Where I went to school, a school taught English grades 3-8, then another language depending on the school  (German, French, Russian, more recently Italian) in grades 5-8. But by going to a certain elementary school you were locked into a specific language. Here, in my son’s school, languages are 1 credit courses, which means they meet daily all year. I would have loved to have daily instruction in 2 foreign languages…

There were departments of Family and Consumer Science (learn how to cook, sew, interior design,  healthcare leadership courses), then the Engineering/Automotive department (body shop, woodworking shop, and a pretty cool engineering design department where kids who are thinking about engineering can get a head start with pretty serious project-based courses).

My kid is taking several required honors courses and has 2.5+ electives credits to choose from. He  wants to take 1 credit of French, 1.5 credit of band/jazz, and is leaning towards 0.5 credits of digital art/animation.

I am also amazed at how helpful, open, and responsive all the teachers are. There are a number of young energetic ones, a whole bunch of counselors (we never had anything like that when I was growing ip), and generally a good network of adults keeping checks and balances. I can see why kids may find themselves a little bewildered when they go to college, especially to a big R1 like the one where I teach and where they are pretty much on their own. Sure, there are academic advisors, but professors mostly mind their own business and are probably nowhere near what the students are used to from K-12.

I have newfound appreciation for the US school system. I still stand by my opinion that the middle school curriculum is pretty vacuous, it seems like everyone just expects the kids to be busy growing, sprouting hair and zits while drowning in hormones, and that’s about it. But it looks like high school will be serious and a lot of fun. While there may be places in the world where kids get a better hard-core math and science background, a US public school in a good district seems, at least for the moment, like it will do a pretty good job. I don’t know of other countries where the public school system offers so many choices — my kid actually told me “For the first time, I can actually choose what I want to do!” When I was his age, I never missed such options because they were never available. In hindsight, it would have probably been awesome to explore a little bit off the academically rigorous math and science path. 

Delurkpalooza, with Polls!

I am presuming most people who are reading are former Academic Jungle enthusiasts, but I might be mistaken. While stats say that people do read, I get considerably fewer comments than I used to over at Academic Jungle, even on posts that do solicit reader input. That puzzles me! And being puzzled means I have to investigate, which I will do by, ironically, soliciting even more reader input!

Dear reader, tell us about yourself — are you an academic (student, postdoc, prof, lecturer, administrator)?  If you read regularly but don’t comment, what would help you comment more? Anything in particular you like or dislike about Xykademiqz? If you commented over at Academic Jungle but don’t comment quite as much any more, what do you feel has changed? Is the commenting interface uninviting? Do you feel the posts are different? Any other thoughts? 

In case you don’t feel like commenting,  here are some polls!

Following Up with New Connections

In a comment to my recent post, “Musings on Networking,” TheGrinch asked:

Any advice on how to follow up / be in touch with new connections?

How to follow up depends a little on what type of interaction you had. With some people you just had a nice brief chat, but you didn’t connect either professionally or personally. I would say you don’t have to follow up with them at all, just be friendly if you meet them again somewhere in the future.

If you connected with someone personally, like if you are both grad students and went bar-hopping, then just do the usual friendly stuff that you young folks do :): email, text, Facebook, tweet. Whatever feels comfortable.

But if you connected with someone mostly professionally, if you do similar research, that’s actually quite easy because scientists are huge geeks in the best sense of the word: they are passionate about their work and LOVE to find someone else who shares their passion. In this case, a few days after the conference, I usually send an email saying something like this (unless I get a similar email from the other party first!):

Hi NewSciBuddy,

This is Xykademiqz from the University of New Caprica. It was a real pleasure to meet you last week at the 15th International Conference of Awesome. I enjoyed hearing about your research on superawesome spins and ultraawesome laser pulses. As promised, I am sending you a PDF of my presentation, as well as the preprints of the Glam Mag and Reputable Society Journal papers that I mentioned when we spoke; they are about to come out in the next month. 

[Optional 1: Invite  them to come give a talk at your place, such as “Would you like to come give a talk at UNC? Our seminar series is on Tuesdays. If you are interested, send me a few dates that work.” If they tentatively invited you to their institution and you really want to go, you can throw it out there and say “About me coming to give a talk at your place, I could do mid-April or early May. Let me know which dates would work. Thanks again!

Optional 2: Insert joke about weather/sport/food in exotic locales/travel/something not entirely technical that you might have discussed.]

Best wishes/regards, 

Xykademiqz

When someone I know sends me their papers, I always at least briefly take a look, and I think most people do.  I have several colleagues with whom I have a relationship where we will just send each other our new papers that we think the other one might find interesting, accompanied by  a few pleasantries and general information about life (for instance, if you send your new papers, you might also add that you are moving institutions). Then, we hang out whenever we meet at conferences again, but usually not all the time, a few meals or coffee breaks. With a few colleagues the relationship has become a tad closer, in that we will actually send each other emails to the effect of “Long time no see, what have you been up to?” In that case, I would say mentioning that you got married or pregnant or that someone close had passed away would probably be OK. A couple of my European colleagues send me Christmas cards. With quite a few I have an open invitation to come and give a talk whenever I am in Europe, which I did take advantage of once or twice.

Also, if you see the other person’s new paper in a journal, that’s an excellent excuse to ping them  (“Just saw your paper in Nature, congratulations!” ) The same holds if you see they won an award — be happy for them and let them know you are!

Overall, try to keep it friendly and light, perhaps a little aloof.  You certainly shouldn’t push anything. 

I will shut up now and let others chime in.

What say you, blogosphere: Once you have met new people at a conference, how do you stay in touch? 

Push It

“Push It” by Garbage — I cannot describe how much I love this song. It is one of my all-time favorites.

Today, it is doing a wonderful job blasting through my headphones and helping me finalize the revisions from hell on one of our manuscripts. “Push It” is a fitting title for a revise-and-resubmit anthem, don’t you think?

Oh Garbage, how I love thee.

Musings on Networking

Presenting work at conferences is an important part of being a scientist. It falls under the broad umbrella of making your research known to the scientific community. Being able to create and deliver a good presentation is an inherent part of graduate and postdoctoral training.

Let’s say you are a junior scientist — a graduate student or a postdoc — and you are attending a conference. Generally, your primary purpose is to present a paper (otherwise it would be considerably harder to justify your expenses to the university financial services and therefore harder to get your trip reimbursed on the professor’s grant). You present a paper and hopefully do a decent job. The probability of having a talk versus a poster depends on the field and the particular conference. In some communities posters are looked down upon; in others, poster sessions are a very important mode of interaction among the conference participants. If you have a talk, ideally you practiced in front of your group members at least once (“the dry run”); in my group we do it once for senior grad students and postdocs, usually more than once for inexperienced students.

So you survived the talk and/or your poster session. What do you do the rest of the time? Are you alone at the conference, without anyone you know? Do you perhaps have some of your group mates around? Is the whole group attending, including your advisor/PI? If there are other group members around, you may even go together to do some sightseeing. Also, it is important to actually take advantage of the technical program and attend the talks and poster presentation of other people whose work relates to yours.

But whether you are attending the conference by yourself or are there with the group, conferences are your chances to meet other scientists and enhance your professional… NETWORK. (bwahahahaha!) Networking is considered a dirty word among many academics, who seem to viscerally reject it as being a gauche corporate term for schmoozing, something that the presumably intellectually pure ivory-tower dwellers needn’t engage in. In my opinion, it just means meeting people, getting to know them, and generally trying to not be a douche to them, whoever they are. Some small fraction of the people you meet may turn out to be professionally useful to you. Others, not so much. But spending a few minutes chatting with someone need not be torture.

Like any group of people, scientists vary in their social prowess. Still, I think it’s safe to say that people in the physical sciences are not considered the beacons of congeniality. These days, however, you cannot be an extremely successful scientist without at least average social skills. For instance, I know a very successful young PI who would come to a conference with a list of people he wanted to meet, and he literally would not rest until he met every single one of them. He is supremely energetic and charismatic, probably on par with the best ad executives, lawyers, or businessmen. He also happens to be a very creative scientist, and this combination of extroversion, charisma, and technical excellence is a great recipe for his success in today’s “show me the grants” science model.

Most other scientists are more introverted or not quite as charismatic. Still, networking is necessary, unavoidable, but can luckily be even fun. Or, at least, it can be practiced to the point of becoming bearable.

— The best way to make good professional connections is at small or mid-size meetings, like workshops, where attendance is smaller but the attendees have a lot of chance to interact with one another. After 2-3 years of showing up, people will start recognizing you and saying ‘hi’ just because they have seen you around. Even if you feel awkward and totally out of place the first (or second, or third) time around, just showing up repeatedly will make people used to you and you might actually start feeling like you belong there. What I would recommend for a junior scientist from grad student to tenure-track faculty is to identify 2-3 small or medium conferences where if makes sense for you to show up every time; it is the best way to find a community where you will comfortable, and where you can feel supported, both in the abstract sense and in  terms of having future collaborators or just general connoisseurs and proponents of your work.

— You don’t have to force it. There are plenty of relatively low-effort opportunities for networking at conferences. Every conference has some sort of an opening reception, most have a banquet near the end, then there is the poster session or sessions, coffee breaks, and lunch breaks. These are all chances to talk to people if you feel like it.  I completely understand not wanting to talk to anyone, wanting to have your lunch or your coffee in peace. But try not to spend 100% of your lunch or coffee breaks alone or with the people whom you know well from your research group. Even if you aim for meeting one new person per week-long conference, that’s still something!

For instance, when you are  alone at a conference, if you pay attention you will see there are always tables with people who also seem to be there on their own. You can certainly  sit at one such table and try to start a conversation. Usually it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s no big deal. The point is to meet someone new, practice small talk, talk about what you do, hear about their work, and then move on. (The art of moving on is also a very important one and one that even many senior folks really have to master — reading cues that the interaction has run its course and you should go your separate ways. And try not take it personally.)

— Many people are very discriminating when it comes to chatting with people at conferences. Both junior and senior people are often guilty of bending over backwards to talk to someone they perceive as important , and don’t think twice about ignoring someone they consider lower on the totem pole,  unimportant,  or generally unremarkable (a student, a postdoc, a woman they consider to just be someone’s accompanying person…) . I have often been on the receiving end of people assuming I am no one of consequence — usually because they think I am a student or someone’s wife, although the former becomes less common the older and fatter I get — so I am relatively desensitized to it, I generally correct people or assert who I am, and it doesn’t bother me too much unless it’s really egregious. One example of a blatant slight was the guy I met at a recent grantee meeting for a federal agency.  We were all walking up to the cafeteria and I was talking to a big-shot graybeard from another institution with whom one of my former undergrads is now a grad student. This other guy came up to us, looked me over like I was the shit on his shoe, wedged into the conversation then quickly screened me out, first passing by me then starting to walk right in front of me and cutting me off from the person I had been talking to. You bet I will remember this guy, but not fondly. 

It is basic decency to talk to anyone like they are a worthwhile human being. But when it comes to forwarding their professional agenda, many people seem to forget this rule. So perhaps it’s useful to rephrase it in the professional networking context: talk to everyone as if they matter to your agenda, because you have no idea when a certain connection, a certain 10-min chat, may actually materialize into something that benefits you. It is never a bad idea to be kind to another person. I personally don’t mind small talk; people usually like to talk about themselves, and I like hearing their stories and learning something new about different universities and areas of research. So I just go on autopilot and ask questions along the following lines: I ask about the university, how large it is, what they do for research, how large the group is, if they come to this conference often, what are the other important meetings in their field. Then if it’s a PI at a public university, I may ask about state support, departmental size, if they have had recent hires, how are tenure criteria, then we may kvetch about funding in general if there is time, discuss where each one of us gets funding from etc. If a student or postdoc, I ask what they do, how far along the program they are, what they plan to do when they graduate, where have other people from their group ended up. If I happen to talk to someone’s spouse, there’s stuff to ask about the city they live in, how their trip was, if they have stuff planned for after the conference, sometimes we talk about kids, which I enjoy.  When you think of it, the whole small talk business is quite formulaic, and thus hopefully less intimidating. The point is that it should not be hard to spend a pleasant 10 min talking to pretty much anyone and learn a little about them. Being a listener is an excellent quality for making connections with other people.

— One  thing that someone mentioned years ago in response to one of my posts over at the Academic Jungle, I think it was Pika, is to forget about sucking up to the big guys and hang out with your peers. This is a very important point.

Everyone always tries to chat up the big shots, who might meet you but will usually forget you, especially if you are junior [unless they know of your work (i.e. they know your advisor) or you have been introduced to them by your advisor  (i.e. they know your advisor)]. It’s also quite amusing how much many of the big shots enjoy all the attention… but I digress.  So just hang out with the people your own age instead. Making friends with other young folks is not only easier when you are a student or postdoc, but those young folks are your actual peers. They are the leaders of tomorrow, and those conference connections of today are collaborative proposals, grants, and postdoc placements for your students of tomorrow.

— Finally, you don’t feel like interacting with other humans? Then don’t. If you are painfully shy, too busy,  temporarily not in the mood to talk to people, or generally misanthropic, that’s fine. It’s OK to keep to yourself, no need for to torture yourself or others; you have my blessing.

But… If you don’t actually mind talking to people, I would say just relax and talk to whoever seems interested in talking to you. That’s all you need to do, that’s networking.