Here are a few sketches that I made as illustrations for the collection I am working on.
These might be used in addition to some of the already published xykademiqz cartoons.
A while ago, I wrote a book review of Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In”. There are several things I still remember about the book, and one is her view of mentorship: Mentors are problem solvers, give them a problem to solve. Don’t use them to vent your frustration, use their time wisely. People mentor those in whom they see something; unfortunately, the last one, more often than not, translates into people mentoring the likes of themselves; we all know how well that works out for underrepresented minorities.
There are many people who do very good, solid work. However, most of them don’t get much recognition; instead, only a select few get all the recognition. You could argue that it’s because they are the best of the best, but in my opinion that’s not true. I have met a number of people who are young superstars in their fields, and for the most part they are not all that better than many others who are not equally recognized. However, while people are comparable at 30 or 40, by 60 or 70 that means the select few are National Academy members, while most others are not. What really makes a difference is being networked with the people who have the willingness and ability to champion you, who recognize the importance of having junior colleagues nominated for stuff early and often, and who will do it for you either on their own or without much prodding. Getting recognition early is a prerequisite for getting it often, because awards beget awards.
The point is that you have to be meritorious, but you also have to have someone who will be happy to nominate you, proactive about doing it, and who knows how these nominations are written. And it needs to start early, as early as possible. Before the PhD, actually (so yes, foreigners are a bit screwed right there.)
I work with a woman who is considered a superstar, so I am closely familiar with how she does things. I can tell you that she most definitely keeps an eye on her CV and makes sure that she gets nominated for something every year, and has a great network of intra- and extra-departmental supporters who are very happy to write these nominations for her.
I work with a young male superstar with very high energy. Recently, I watched his PhD advisor give a plenary talk. The man showed the pictures of all his students, and specifically highlighted my collaborator and a couple of others who are professors, mentioned their recent achievements, and for my collaborator used the words “high-impact assistant professor”. You cannot buy type of promotion. The collaborator’s PhD advisor is a really big name, and gives many talks, everywhere, which means that my collaborator gets this type of lip service in a lot of places, including at federal funding agencies.
I got my TT position straight out of grad school, so my PhD advisor remains someone who I presume is the person most invested in my success. Unfortunately, he is of the mind that going after awards is in poor taste, and that you do good work and the recognition will come (this is a man who really should have been in the National Academies, but is not because of personal conflicts). So when I ask him to nominate me for stuff, he does it, but he never thinks about doing it on his own. (Cue: Feel free to think I don’t deserve it; I think that all the time.)
I have various colleagues and collaborators who are happy to contribute letters of evaluation for me, but they are not invested in my career. People are too busy taking care of their own careers, and hopefully the careers of their own academic progeny, to worry about mine. Another aspect is that my immediate scientific community is truly international, with more than 50% of people in Europe. The importance of a steady trickle of recognition is probably less important, or differently important, outside of the United States.
I am now at a position in my career where I am no longer junior, which is fine. But, I feel like I am entirely alone, that I really don’t have a community or a support network in my field. I can see how people turn into the jackasses we know from conferences, who seem to be in your shit because you didn’t cite their paper from 30 years ago and who put down your work. It comes from realizing that they are isolated, that nobody cares about them or their work, and their options are to either get demoralized and quit working (hence deadwoodification) or they realize that the only way to keep going is to emotionally distance themselves from everything and everyone about their work, rely on their own devices, put their head down, and plow. The deadwood/jackass are two possible outcomes for smart, passionate people, who invest a lot of energy into their work but who keep getting overlooked. Sometimes they quit or retire early.
According to my unscientific observation, most men on the tenure track seem confident about what they do, most but not all women seem fraught with doubts about every aspect of their work. For instance the first few years on my TT were really stressful for me, probably because I started out right of grad school and quickly realized the job was very different than what I had envisioned. I have no idea what I had envisioned, really, perhaps what astonished me was the sheer amount of work, the unrelenting demands on faculty time. It was a very steep learning curve, but one of my redeeming qualities is that I generally know when I am in over my head and I seek advice. In other words, I have never had the problem of being overconfident about something, and I always look for ways to improve, and then I do. (In contrast, a supremely confident guy who started the same time as me didn’t get his contract renewed after 3 years. Some men don’t ask for help or take advice even when they really, really should. )
Unless I have a great track record doing something, I generally assume I don’t know squat, then I ask and I learn. But, a side effect is that the people I asked for help now think I don’t know squat and they will take it into account when evaluating me in the future. And this is the double-bind (or is it triple?) of asking for help, especially while female, where the default assumption is “incompetent until proven otherwise”: if you need help and ask for it, you will get it but be held in low regard for asking, which will then lead to reduced support, and could result in failure due to this second-order effect. If you need help but don’t ask for it, you will either figure it out on your own, which will generally take more time and energy than necessary but then you will succeed, or you won’t figure it out and you will fail due to incompetence. When you objectively don’t know what you are doing, there is a small chance you will do fine by persevering on your own, but a high chance that you will either ask for help and be resented for it, or that you will downright fail.
Many young women in academia lament the lack of support (emotional and practical) for the struggles they are facing. Here is my attitude. Your department colleagues, those who evaluate you, are not your friends. They are your colleagues. They should not know your innermost dark secrets and doubts. THEY WILL EVALUATE YOU. So be prudent about what you discuss with them. I am not saying that there are no exceptions, that you can’t have real friends in the department, but it’s probably safest to do it after you are both tenured.
Who do you vent to? People who really love you, even if they don’t understand what you are going through. Then, people who really care about your success, even for selfish reasons [e.g. your former advisor(s) or non-departmental collaborators]. Then, a peer, ideally from another department or discipline, or another university; someone who is in the same boat, but with whom you are not in direct competition.
I think the key to a good peer relationship in which you can vent is that there is no power differential and that you both need each other for venting, at least at times. For instance, there is a relationship I have with a so-called peer mentor (a person a few years ahead of me career-wise), and the person never wanted to break the facade of infallibility with me, I think because it was important to them to remain superior (or just because it’s WASP thing, who knows). Since I have a deep belief that we are all human, and that we all have flaws and fears and doubts, and that everyone’s $hit stinks, I decided I wasn’t going to keep pursuing an honest relationship with someone who insisted on keeping their guard up. End of story. We now have a nice arms-length relationship, where my shell communicates with their shell, exchanging content-free sugary pleasantries. The relationship is so warm, there are icicles on my sleeves after every interaction.
I have a good mentoring relationship with a couple of senior faculty, who are so senior and so well-established that there is no way in hell they would ever consider me as an equal. But that’s fine, as I get good honest advice from them as they would give to a daughter. One is my PhD advisor, another a very senior collaborator. They are the only ones with whom I don’t mind sharing doubts and insecurities; they enjoy dispensing wisdom, and I take what makes sense and discard the rest. With everyone else, I assume they would judge or dismiss me for showing weakness, or I had already made the mistake of oversharing, which resulted in uncomfortable squirming, followed by them indeed judging and dismissing me.
(Of course, I am talking about colleagues. My DH is very supportive and listens to 100% of my whiny $hit, on repeat. He is as clued in about the life of women in academia as any man on Earth. Thank you for putting up with me, DH!)
So what’s my advice on getting mentored and championed? Based on my own experiences, this is what would say:
Get as much help and advice and learn as much as you can about being a TT professor before becoming one. Afterwards, seek help at your own risk — past the first year or two on the TT, people will take it against you if you ask for advice about doing your job. Your colleagues will take your insecurities to mean that you don’t have what it takes. Separate asking for specific problem-solving advice from asking for moral support. I have found that the long-term acceptable questions have to do with personnel or university politics, because everyone assumes all scientists and engineers are clueless about dealing with other people.
Go for advice only to people you trust to really have your back or be invested in your success. For instance, your grant got trashed in review. I know how disheartening and disorienting it may be; my heart still sinks every time I get a rejection even though you’d think I’d be used to it by now. And I am, on an intellectual level, but not emotionally. So I bitch and whine and moan to my husband, but to absolutely nobody else any more. Whining about grant rejection is, as one of my colleagues says, ‘loser talk.’ Most people think the same thing, they just don’t say it. Just like most people think men are the default in STEM and women are not “real” candidates, but can be considered if exceptional, they just no longer say it. (Yes, I am disillusioned after spending too much time serving on the recruitment committee.) So whine about grant rejection to department colleagues at your own risk; I assure you most will think it’s your fault.
What if you crave external validation, someone to give you thumbs up that you are doing a good job? I certainly do. Here’s the deal — it’s just not coming, definitely not with the frequency or the intensity that you need. People are too busy worrying about themselves, and it is assumed that, as a grownup scientist, you are confident (hahahaha). Unless you have the right network of accolade-nominating champions around you, pretty much all you have to go on are published papers, invited talks, awarded grants. They do mean that you are doing well, or at least not doing poorly. (This is me taking myself up as much as spewing advice into the ether.)
As for me, I find that focusing on my academic kids is really fulfilling. I make a point of supporting the people who are mine to support — my students and postdocs — in the strongest possible terms, in the way I wish I had been supported by my elders, making sure they get the recognition and opportunities they deserve. So at least my scientific progeny will be able to say there is someone out there who looks out for their careers.
I have been a professor for nearly 10 years. I am good at what I do and respected within my community, as small as it is. I am well-funded, although that’s always a temporarily accurate statement. As I do theory and computation, I don’t bring in oodles of money, but I have always been able to support a viable research group of between 6 and 10 people. I publish in well-respected society journals, interspersed with some high-profile papers. My students are good and have been able to get good jobs after graduation. We look at interesting problems and publish papers that I would like to think are original, insightful, and well-written. I am successful, but I don’t think I am wildly successful. I would not classify myself as a hot commodity. Perhaps only a hot-as-a-hot-shower commodity, say 100-110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Yet, over the past few years I have been getting “feelers” from other institutions with increasing frequency. Usually it goes along the lines of me going to give a talk and then several people asking me if I am happy where I am and what my husband does and if I would consider moving/leaving my university. I used to think people were just making conservation; I was very naive. Nobody ask you about your happiness and well-being unless they are your mother, a close personal friend, or they have a very good and far-from-selfless reason to ask.
So far the feelers have been from places that would present a lateral or even a slightly downward professional move, but with potentially a lot of money. A few came from places that are in a growth mode. In contrast, my current place is good, but uncomfortably stagnant. Declining state support has everyone tightening their belts, wondering what comes next. The college has lost a number of successful mid-career faculty.
For me, the biggest reason for not considering moving at this time is my family. If it were up to me alone, I would move. I hate the freakin’ weather where I am now, the endless winters, and I would honestly move for the sunshine alone (several recent feeler places are in very warm locales, such as the one I am visiting at present). Another reason is that, as much as I have been willing myself to love the city I live in, I just don’t. We don’t really have good friends here like we do, for instance, where my PhD alma mater is (yes, I got a feeler from them, too). Have I mentioned the endless cold weather where I am now? I know, it sounds very shallow even considering moving for the climate, but I will ask you how you feel about it after you have been snowed in for 6 fuckin’ months. We had a new snow fall snow earlier this week. (Note: DH greatly prefers cold to hot; DH may be crazy.) As for friends, we have several couples whom we see on occasion, but I doubt any of them would be shattered if we left. We are situational friends — friends only because life threw us together, not because we are particularly compatible or drawn to one another — and, after 10 years here, it’s likely that situational friends are all we will have. They are basically someone to kill a bit of time with, but nothing deep by any stretch. We are too foreign, too accented, and too godless for the locals, so we are not even bothering any more with anyone whom we don’t know from work.
But with crappy cold weather come good public schools for my children. And my children have their friends and their memories tied to this place; they have real childhood friends here. I have a colleague who’s from a fairly traditional culture who says that his kids get no say in what he does professionally; if he gets a good offer and decides to move, they move, end of story; he says he doesn’t care what the kids think or feel about the ordeal. With my eldest starting high-school, I could not bear to destroy the comfortable life he has now by moving; he is such a happy, well-adjusted kid, and I think moving him cross-country would hurt him.
I would love for the place where I am now to become a place I am content with both professionally and personally. It’s a very good place professionally, but it could be better. For instance, after I had visited my alma mater, I was reminded how nice it was to have several faculty in the same area, who could collaborate and go for bigger grants and even take care of each other’s students. I remember loving the fact that I was part of a large, probably 30-student group of all these different professors together when I was in graduate school. In contrast, my students are somewhat isolated, in that there is no one else at my current place of employment who does work similar to mine. While I can have my pick of experimental collaborators, being the only one is quite limiting — I don’t have the bandwidth to do all the things I could potentially do. It’s also quite taxing on me that I am the only source of technical knowledge in my subarea. Where I went to school, there were several professors and a much wider variety of courses was offered between the 3-4 of them; here, it’s just me. And being that I am a well-liked teacher, I end up teaching undergrads a lot. Which does actually shaft my grad students, as the graduate courses they need just don’t get offered if I don’t teach them, and these days I rarely do.
On the other hand, there are many good experimentalists where I work now, and they bring in money, and the money raises the profile of the place, which in turn brings in good students. Indeed, the students here are pretty good, both undergrads and grads. Or, I should perhaps rephrase — one can hand-pick very good students here, those who have a good background in math and physics, and are motivated — and these students come for the school’s name.
If I didn’t have a family, I would move someplace warmer, where there are other people doing what I do and where they would pay me a lot. Actually, if it were just me, I would probably move every 4-5 years, as I tend to get very restless. But I have a husband who is very happy with his job, kids who are very happy with their schools and friends and one of whom would be devastated to move. I could potentially move in 3-4 years, as the eldest starts college and the middle one (who is currently very much on board with moving to someplace with hot weather) starts middle school. But even so, I feel heartbroken — even if just in theory — for my eldest to not be able to see his childhood friends when he comes back home during college.
This whole feeler business and the possibilities of going someplace are making me restless; they are enticing, and possibly even more enticing since I can’t really act on any of them. I don’t want to make the people interview me formally and give me offers when I know I am tied down (although plenty of people do precisely this, make the other institution interview and make a formal offer just to get leverage with their home institution; I think it’s douchey to do unless you are seriously considering moving). I am not unhappy or unproductive where I am; the feelers don’t come from the places that would be a blatantly obvious step up (do you hear it, MIT and Stanford? I am still waiting), i.e. they are not something nobody in their right mind would miss. There is no pressing reason to move, except my restlessness, dislike of cold, and a lack of good friends. There are reasons to not move, such as uprooting my family from a good situation, which includes good public schools and a solved two-body problem, for essentially no reason.
Yet, I wonder…
What say you, blogosphere? Is it hopelessly shallow to want to move for the weather and because you just don’t feel love for your place of employment? Should I just target to move in 3-4 years and let people know that’s when I will be available for wooing, and in the meantime just work my butt off? Should I just take a chill pill and bury my head deep into work and not concern myself with foolishness, waiting for the global warming to bring tropical heat to my cold cold place?
Ah, possibilities. And at the same time, impossibilities.
I want to follow up on xykademiqz’s posts on job search strangeness. I’m in a STEM discipline at an undergrad-oriented school. My department has no graduate program, and those departments that do have graduate programs usually only have small MS programs. The focus is on undergrads.
For some reason, most of our candidates in our current search showed the same missteps in their interview presentations. Being an undergrad-oriented institution, one certainly does have to aim a research seminar in our department a bit differently than a seminar at an R1.The audience won’t include many direct competitors who can pick apart your research proposal, and it will include many undergraduates who know nothing about your topic (or, worse, have a bunch of misconceptions about your research area). So you certainly need to spend more time than usual on background. This is the standard advice, and all of our candidates followed it. The problem is that most of them followed that advice a bit too well. They spent so much time on background that it was really hard for faculty to figure out what they actually do and what they actually want to do. Some of them showed at least a few results, others showed literally nothing of what they do. Only a couple actually got very specific about what they themselves do and why their approaches and results are so exciting.
“Wait, isn’t the point of the seminar just to give undergrads an idea of what you do and why you do it?” Yes, that is a big part of it, but it isn’t all of it. We are not looking to hire somebody who will publish in Glamour on a regular basis, but we are looking for somebody who has exciting research projects that are intellectually significant, sustainable, and amenable to undergraduate involvement. In order for us to figure out if you meet that criterion, you have to use your seminar talk to tell us what it is that you actually do. You can’t spend 43 minutes on background and then spend 2 minutes saying “So, I work on stuff related to what I just showed you. Any questions?” Um, yeah, I have a question. What the **** do you actually do?
“But I wrote a research plan! Didn’t you read that?” First, I’m not on the committee. Second, there’s nothing more adorable than a n00b. Tenured professors reading? Really? Most of us are too busy napping! But, seriously, we did read about your research, but we aren’t in your field, so we’d like you to summarize your key approaches and findings thus far, and then follow it with something like “So here’s what I want to do next…” Then we can have a Q&A.
“But won’t that go over the heads of undergrads?” Well, yes, they are kind of stupid. That’s why we really only expect you to spend about 50% of the talk at their level before taking it up a notch. Second, are you saying that you are unable to take what you do and bring some of the essentials to undergrads? Are you sure you should be working here?
Anyway, having been harsh on candidates, I’ll say this much for them: I think they’ve been hit over the head a bit too much with good advice. They were told again and again and again (and then some) that they need to take it down a notch for students. And when we look for people who have a lot of teaching and mentoring experience and want to go to an undergrad-focused school, we probably select for overly-conscientious types. It also doesn’t help that we are doing a search in one of the more abstract corners of our discipline, and people in that sub-field are especially likely to be told “Remember, most undergrads do not appreciate the abstraction the way you do. Take it to their level. You need to take this weird stuff and make it accessible.” Still, at the end of the day, you need to tell us what you do, and tell us why it is exciting and show us how smart you are. Yeah, yeah, the earnest progressive types will say that you shouldn’t be a sage on the stage, but we want to hire a smart scientist who does stuff. Show us what you do, you smart scientist! I mean, otherwise, why would we hire you?
We have been interviewing and it’s been quite exhausting. But, the process reveals more about the colleagues with whom I interact in regards to the search than it does about the candidates.
My school is a large and reputable public school and the department ranks about 15th in the discipline. We are no MIT or Stanford, but we are nothing to sneeze at, so I think it makes sense to look for a candidate who actually wants to come here, as opposed to someone who is settling for us. No one knows what tomorrow brings, but I want a candidate who, at the time of signing the contract with us, is genuinely excited about joining the department and enthusiastic about all the years of hard work and collaborations ahead.
I don’t want a candidate who is taking this offer because we were the safety school and they didn’t get any offers from any of the several schools where they also interviewed, all located in a specific, widely desirable part of the country far from here. This candidate will likely be out of here before you can say “Rumpelstiltskin” because they never actually wanted to be here anyway.
One straw-man counter-argument that was raised is why would you want someone who can’t leave? You want someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want.
I don’t want someone who can’t leave. I want someone who can but doesn’t want to leave, at least not before the ink dries on the contract. Yes, I want us to hire someone who is very good and can leave whenever they want, and who has multiple offers, but who actually chooses to be here. I don’t want us to hire someone whom no one else wants; however, I also don’t want someone (no matter how good they seem) who feels that we are beneath their level and who will be looking for the first chance to upgrade.
Signing that tenure-track contract is like getting married — you better be enthusiastic about it on your wedding day, otherwise what’s the point? Sure, people “get divorced” from their institutions and move on, but if you don’t actually want to be doing it from the get-go, better not do it at all. Start-ups cost money, searches require energy and time. I know that the loss of each faculty member due to moving or retirement disrupts the department. I don’t like the attitude that we should be grateful to get the “best possible person” if even for a few years. That argument is based on a fallacy that there is such a thing as “The One Best Possible Person”; there are plenty of very good and excellent people who would do great if given the chance. I don’t want someone who will be entirely focused on getting out of here from day 1, I cannot imagine such a person would be a very good colleague or collaborator or contributor to the department.
Another interesting issue came up. We have a candidate who is fairly polished, but the past work is not particularly original. However, the candidate does give off the same vibe as one of our best-funded people, so I am confident the candidate will be be successful in the game of schmoozing with program managers. Another candidate is less polished but much more creative and intellectually unique. Some people have raised concerns that the latter candidate might not be successful in talking to grant managers.
Look, I am not deluded, I fully understand that you cannot do science without money. But I really don’t understand when the ability to sell, and sell hard, became the most important criterion in recruitment. I would like to think that a person who has interesting and varied ideas and is not a douche could be trained to write grants, alone and with collaborators. I don’t know that you can actually train someone to become original or creative. Are we supposed to do the best science, and raise the money to support it, or are we supposed to raise the money, regardless of what it’s for?
Bias rears its ugly head. People are really, really drawn to the candidates to whom they are very similar.
- For several searches in a row, a colleague always favors a candidate from the same country of origin, even when others in-area unanimously favor someone else. (That same colleague also collaborates only with compatriots and only brings in students from the same country. This cannot be a good thing.)
- Some colleagues will penalize a candidate for having a presentation style and general demeanor different from their own; we have a subarea that is starting to look like it’s populated by clones or, at the very least, siblings.
- Chubby candidates seem to fare worse than thin ones; I wish it weren’t true, but it is. No matter how well they present, they are never perceived to be quite as polished as the very thin ones, especially by the very thin and polished members of the faculty. This makes me want to eat a cookie.
I am fortunate to have a faculty job at a great public R1 university. Owing to the high research activity, there is always someone here to give a talk. There are three seminar series, associated with three departments, that I usually attend (generally biweekly), and another 1 or 2 where occasionally an interesting seminar comes up. (Which begs the question: what’s the ideal seminar attendance frequency? Too many, and you infringe upon your work time, too few and you start getting out of touch, missing potentially important info about trends somewhat removed from your immediate expertise, which is where juicy inspiration for new projects comes from!)
On top of that, we are interviewing for multiple parallel searches, so we have been having 2-3 guests every single week over the past few weeks. Considering that I am involved in the search, I am supposed to not only attend each talk, but also formally meet with every candidate as part of the committee. And let’s not forget that candidates have to be taken out to eat, several times per visit. I know I am supposed to enjoy department-sponsored meals at nice restaurants and the chance to talk to smart new people, but I am mostly just resentful. My family doesn’t care for me repeatedly staying out and disrupting their evening routine either.
The face-time fatigue during interview season is brutal for job seekers, but if it makes you feel any better, it sucks pretty fiercely for the people on the other side who are involved with the search. As exciting as the prospect of bringing in bright new colleagues is, all the meetings and chit-chat and the extra seminars are simply… exhausting.
Good luck to all who are interviewing! If an interviewer dozes off or their eyes start to glaze over, don’t take it personally.
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.