Notes from the Road

* Travel sucks. Sucks balls, sucks a$$. Sometimes it also sucks scabs, nose hair, warts, and bunions. I got a grand total of 3.25 hrs of sleep last night, got up early to catch a flight; I would not be this comatose even after jet-lag, and I am still in the US.

* Being at conferences is always an exercise in perpetual physical discomfort for me. Often there is not enough leg room; luckily that’s not an issue this time. I am always freezing in conference rooms, and today was worse than I’ve felt in a long time. It’s really hot outside and unbelievably cold inside. Why do they have to blast the A/C down to 60 degrees? I had long sleeves and a light sweater and was still thinking of going back to the room for a serious sweatshirt. Some people should be stripped of their thermostat-fiddling privileges.

* I heard three plenary talks today. Two were of the historical-perspective kind and one of the looking-into-the-future kind. All were nice.  They also featured, in a completely unexpected turn of events (not),  reasonably famous old white dudes, some of whom reminisced of their life and times  next door to even more famous and perhaps even older (and whiter?) and possibly deceased dudes, to whom they referred as “Bill” or “Tom” to emphasize familiarity and thus self-aggrandize by proxy. I used to be intimidated by such schenanigans, by how I would never find myself in the thick of things like these people had done, stirring the direction of a whole field; now I am just lightly miffed. One of the big revelations that came to me in recent years, and it didn’t take me even a decade of professordom to grasp it (maybe I am really not that smart), is that the vast majority of  scientists — no matter how accomplished and how well recognized — are painfully insecure; some readily show it, some mask it by extreme aggression. This also means that some people on whose support you count will not support because they are too busy feeling unrecognized and ignored themselves, which makes them self-absorbed.

* A luminary of the field died last month, I’d just heard. He did so much for the field and was so important and so well recognized. And now he’s dead, just as dead as any Joe Schmoe the bacon-burger enthusiast. Sometimes I think I should spend all of my days devouring bacon burgers. With beer.

* A question for the blogosphere: How much time should one (the  professor/group leader/PI) spend with own group members when at conferences? When I was a grad student, there were usually several grad students from the group at every conference, and we hung out together. I would see my advisor occasionally. My advisor was a big important dude, and would sometimes introduce us to some of his buddies (not sure that it helped, but he did do it). When we went to dinner together, he’d always be the life of the party and we his captive audience. I always thought he was fascinating but at some point, after I’d grown up, I just saw him as tiring and not all that interesting.

I am at a conference with several of my students. It’s a big conference and not one we usually go to, so there aren’t many of my friends around to whom I could introduce the younglings. There are enough of my students for them to happily hang out together (I see they met other students already) and I don’t want to cramp their style, but I don’t think I should avoid them altogether (and I don’t). Recently, when two students and I were at another conference, we did go to dinner once with several other folks (profs and students), that was nice and not too taxing on anyone; we did catch up with each other briefly at coffee breaks, but I left them to do their thing for the most part.  But I do wonder what the right amount of socializing or interacting in general is common. Because of the power differential there is always a danger that I’ll just start monologuing and nobody will stop me, as happened with my advisor, even if I am boring the hell out of them. Also, socializing is socializing, and my students are young guys while I am a middle-aged woman, so we don’t have natural conversational topics outside of work; also, I like the professional relationship and don’t want to get into any personal topics that could make either party uncomfortable. I might be curious to know more about my students as people, I don’t want to be intrusive; again, the power differential.

So what say you, blogosphere PIs, how much do you hang out with your students at conferences? Students and postdocs, do you want to spend any time with the prof?


  1. One lab dinner per conference and it’s nice if you can introduce them to people you know. As a student I appreciated my advisor introducing me to people he was talking too and I try to do the same. Also, my advisor always asked if there is anyone here you would like to meet, I can make an introduction. (He is a bigwig so the presumption was he could talk to anyone, even if he didn’t know them beforehand).

    I’ve never done it but someone I know hosts a dinner or happy hour for his lab and each person has to bring someone new. Kind of fun and good for networking. I’ve never done this but I should!

  2. The air conditioning should be controlled by a person who is dressed like a typical building occupant who plans to go outside later. Instead, it’s controlled by a person who wears a fancy suit. Hence it’s kept on “arctic.”

  3. 1. Conference venues know that it is better to err on the side of too cold than too hot. First, one can always add more clothes. There’s only so much you want to take off. Second, heat tends to make people sleepy. A dark room, a boring talk, and too hot? Recipe for disaster. So, too cold is better than too hot. Many places definitely go overboard, however.

    2. In terms of students – my rule is that it’s fine to hang out with local labbies as long as it’s not just intra-lab. Everyone has a different network (even students) and thus can bring new colleagues together.

  4. I don’t hang out with the students outside the conference venue but I do invite them if I’m having dinner with a small group of peers in a social (rather than collaborative brain-storming proposals or committee-oriented or very personal) setting. I do hang out with postdocs as the relationship is different. I try not to monologue.

    The low temperature in conference venues is one of the chief reasons I skip more sessions than I attend. Unbearable. There are usually warm spots in any hall and I do my best to find them even if it means sitting on the floor.

  5. My PI usually had one lab dinner per conference. We’d also usually run into him about every other day at least, since we were interested in many of the same posters/talks. If he or we found something of particular interest to each other, we’d text the poster number and suggest checking it out. At each of our first conference, he also made an effort to introduce us to at least 2-3 people of his acquaintance doing work relevant to our project(s). I felt like it was a good amount of interaction that left me feeling supported but not smothered.

  6. One dinner per conference sounds good, as well as pickup lunches if the students happen to be nearby. When the students talk with one another they are also building relationships for the future (which is why I’m glad I didn’t fool around too much in grad school–I would not like to have my conferences being populated two decades later by a bunch of old boyfriends).

  7. My PhD advisors & my first boss’ as a PostDoc (not the same person, but alike approach) rule was to add at least a younger person, more usually two (PhD students or PostDocs) to any lunch or dinner outing during any conference, except if the meeting was of the “we have this project we need to brainstorm now because the deadline is tomorrow”-kind. I profited from this immensely; this is how I met most of my closest collaborators, even though the main purpose of our first meeting wasn’t science. My least worthwhile conferences were the ones where I did not know many people and nobody would introduce me to any of the senior scientists I was interested in getting to know – I would end up with other PhD students repeating the same conversations about the hardships of a PhD’s life but with new people. It got better as I got to know people myself, but I am still very thankful for the jump start those outing have given me.

  8. I know I’m an outlier here, but I never attended a conference with my advisor (he had several young children and didn’t travel that much). I therefore wasn’t introduced to anyone – but he usually went, “say hi to X if you see him/her,” which started a few conversations. Most of what I gained was from poster sessions – a really good poster session serves as a pretty good introduction to a lot of people, though not necessarily to bigshots.

  9. My PhD advisor did not spend much time with the grad students during conferences, but encouraged us to say “Hi” to all professors we knew – a very daunting task at that time. As a PhD student I enjoyed to not have any advisor dinners, as they most likely would have been of the awkward-silence-type. Now as a Postdoc I do enjoy meeting for lunch and dinner with both my former and my current supervisor. The relationship is different and the atmosphere more relaxed.
    I like the idea brought up by The frugal ecologist that everybody has to bring someone new to dinner. Sounds like great fun!

  10. I never liked my adviser so I never saw the guy. Ditched him when I could, made up excuses when I couldn’t. It served two great purposes: 1. I didn’t have to see him, and 2. it forced me to meet new people. The latter has been fantastic because I’ve met really cool people whom I get to see a couple times a year for drinks and fun.

  11. I liked having one dinner for sure with my advisor (and whatever other group members are present) near the end of the conference – it’s nice to have sort of a wrap up meeting to talk about what we thought was cool or not and to congratulate people on talks well done etc. I also appreciated that if I didn’t end up making plans I was generally welcome to have dinner with my advisor and whoever else (the exceptions were when he had a private dinner invitation from someone like a local host or friend, or for some collaboration get-together that I wasn’t a member of). He was also really good at herding people over to my poster and introducing me to others (either by happenstance or if I had someone in particular I wanted to talk to). I greatly appreciated his efforts to help me build a professional network as a student.

  12. Sounds like the entire community needs a shake-up — ritual-upon-ritual-upon-ritual in these social interactions. Making the assumption that the form of social interaction will affect the quality and content of the encounter, having the same-old-same-old must be excruciating. Why participate, or why not change things? Is the power structure so hierarchic and rigid that change is impossible? Maybe this is just another evidence of the Imperial sclerosis that has set in deeply in US academia …

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