New record: only 3 people asked if I was an incoming grad student at a new student welcome thing.
— NatC (@SciTriGrrl) July 1, 2014
From undergrads to grads to postdocs to faculty and administration there is a perception of what a Professor looks like.
And generally that perception means "old". See Figure 1.So if you look in some way too young for the expectation, junior faculty are occasionally mistaken for postdocs or grad students.
This effect has a profound sex bias, of course, which is why I'm bringing it up.
Women are much more likely to report being confused for nonfaculty.
This has all sorts of knock on bad effects including how seriously their peers take them as scientists and peers, their own imposter syndrome battles and their relationships with trainees.
My request to you, if you have not considered such issues, is to just remember to check yourself. When in doubt at a poster session or academic social event, assume the person might be faculty until and unless they clue you in otherwise by what they say. Hint: When they say "my boss" or "my PI" or "my mentor" then it is okay to assume the person is a trainee. If they say "my lab" and don't further qualify then it is best to assume they are the head.
In most cases, it simply isn't necessary for you to question the person AT ALL about "who they work for".
I have only two or three experiences in my career related to this topic, as one would expect being that I present pretty overtly as male. They all came fairly early on when I was in my early thirties.
One greybeard at a poster session (at a highly greybearded and bluehaired meeting, admittedly) was absolutely insistent about asking who's lab it "really" was. I was mostly bemused because I'm arrogant and what not and I thought "Who IS this old fool?". I think I had ordered authors on the poster with me first and my trainees and/or techs in following order and this old goat actually asked something about whether it was the last author's (my tech) lab.
There were also a mere handful of times in which people's visual reaction on meeting me made it clear that I violated their expectations based on, I guess, knowing my papers. Several of these were situations in which the person immediately or thereafter admitted they were startled by how young I was.
As I said, I present as male and this is basically the expected value. Men don't get the queries and assumptions quite so much.
One final (and hilarious) flip side. I happened to have a couple of posters in a single session at a meeting once upon a time, and my postdoctoral PI was around. At one of my posters this postdoc advisor was actually asked "Didn't you use to work with [YHN]?" in the sort of tone that made it clear the person assumed I had been the PI and my advisor the trainee.
Guess what gender this advisor is?