(in)visible at scientific meetings

Jun 22 2015 Published by under Careerism, Scientific Meetings, Tribe of Science

Some scientists prefer to occupy scientific meeting space as the proverbial fly on the wall.

Rarely, if ever, comment at the microphone. They are not to be found gesticulating wildly to a small group of peers around the coffee table.

Others loom large. Constantly at the microphone for comment. Glad handing their buddies in every room before and after the session. Buttonholing POs at the slightest opportunity.

Someone just pointed this out to me, so I've been thinking about it.

Obviously nobody wants to end up being seen as a narcissistic blowhard who can't shut up and never has anything useful to say. 

But it is good to be known in your field*. And meeting visibility is part of that.   
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*Cause and effect may not be simple here, I will acknowledge.

28 responses so far

  • Selerax says:

    Life's Tough For Introverts, episode umpteen-to-the-gazzilionth.

  • drugmonkey says:

    So are there specific strategies to recommend to introverts?

  • Grumble says:

    Be quietly intense, care passionately about what you do, and even if you find it hard to seek out others for conversation the way the afore-mentioned narcissistic blowhard does in his sleep, do everything you can not to shy away when someone approaches you to talk. When they see that there is some "there" between your ears, they will come away with respect and word will get out.

    This, of course, requires that you do excellent science that is worthy of respect. Being an introvert and a crap scientist is especially lethal. However, IME, many crap scientists are narcissistic blowhards. And vice versa.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I am very vocal at meetings because I love science and I love thinking about other people's science. This has enabled a lot of collaborations. I also try to ask questions for talks where there otherwise would not be any questions and talk to a few people at posters that aren't getting any visitors. I think meetings should be positives for the people that attend, and they are intense and scary of you don't have the personality type that really cuts through the social stress. The questions I ask I present as stemming from interest in the work and not as attacks. I would be crushed if I were perceived as a blowhard, but I also know that I'm not one, so eff what some people might think.

    For introverts, I think the strategy is to have an extrovert friend and tag along to conversations, and a good friend can make it a lot easier by doing the stressful social work.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I also try to ask questions for talks where there otherwise would not be any questions and talk to a few people at posters that aren't getting any visitors.

    You are doing good works in this.

  • gmp says:

    I am an introvert, but I am neither shy nor socially clueless. Therefore, I can and do play the extrovert game well for a limited amount of time. I schmooze, talk with people before and especially after my talk, make myself go and talk to speakers and program officers. It's exhausting for me, but I can certainly do it for a day or two, which is enough for many professional benefits; then I go home and hide from everyone to recuperate.

    Don't assume all "narcissistic blowhards" (or anyone with guts to ask more than two questions at a conference) are gregarious extroverts. I bet many are like me, introverts running on coffee, adrenaline, and sheer will power in order to do what's necessary to continue doing science professionally.

    You have to get exposure or you are shooting yourself in the foot. People knowing your face goes a long way when it's time to evaluate your proposals and papers. Doing good work is necessary but not sufficient, there are many smart people who do good work. It better be some absolutely freakin' earthshattering work if you never plan on showing your face anywhere. And even then, it's probably not good enough without people knowing who you are.

  • Kevin. says:

    Sometimes, you just have to be the face they see at meeting after meeting, hopefully asking good questions, and they'll stop by your poster just because they must have met you somewhere. Then you can Scanners them with how awesome your work is.

  • meshugena313 says:

    This. So how do all the introverts out there manage to have enough stamina to also go skiing (or hiking), drink hard at night, and schmooze all day? As an introvert, I actually like the 1:1 schmoozing, but a week of all this together is freaking exhausting. Plus giving a talk... I feel like shits for real now since I'm actually giving a talk next week at a big meeting while also submitting a grant this week.

    Oh, and somehow convince the wife that leaving her alone with the kids for a week is a good thing!

  • drugmonkey says:

    Trust me, GMP, the true narcissistic blowhard type is not just asking one or two questions. I'm talking guys who are up there ALL the time. Regardless of their fit for the topic and heedless of other more-expert people who are standing in line behind them.

  • pinus says:

    It is important that people know who you are. It is more important not to become the asshole who always asks a question that is self referential.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ahh, yes. I love that particular subset. The "question" that inevitably circles back around to the questioners own research with the subtext of "why didn't you mention MEEEEEEE?".

    I adore those.

    I was recently treated to the performance of someone who is the absolute master of this. It was even moderately subtle so you didn't catch on right away.

  • chemicalbilology says:

    Bring beta blockers so that you don't have a fight-or-flight tachycardic event just by having the first inkling of a sense that you might have a question to ask.

    (yes, this happens to me--brain gears start turning while in a talk, heart starts pounding like I just heard a twig snap and can smell a predator...hooray for being put on atenolol for other reasons)

  • jmz4gtu says:

    I'm not an introvert by any means, but I absolutely hate asking questions at (large) talks because it usually takes me a little while to think about someone's talk and get into it. I much prefer poster sessions, as its much easier to have an informative conversation with the back and forth.

    Also this:
    http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php?f=1632

    Our neuro department was notorious for terrible questioners that would always start with a 5 minute monologue about their labs' contributions, followed by, what essentially amounted to "what do you think of that?"

  • Draino says:

    I try to meet someone new the first night at the meet-greet booze thing. That's always the best time, cause people are open, and then you can have a buddy if worse comes to worse. But yeah, I find meetings exhausting and I always beat myself up on the plane ride home about stupid things I said (or thought I said).

    Two weeks ago I was standing in line to check my bags and fly off for another godawful conference I shouldn't have registered for. It's 5:20AM, dead tired. Wishing I was home with the wife and kids for the weekend instead. I kept inching forward in line... almost there... and then I decided I wasn't going. Fuk it. I stepped out of line and went home. I worked from home all week instead. It felt like I'd just been granted a bonus week of life.

    So how many meetings is a good number to go to per year? I'll do the minimum....

  • JustAGrad says:

    Thanks for that advice, chemicalbilology. I actually thought that was a normal reaction! I would feel much more comfortable asking questions and approaching senior researchers if I didn't have that intense feeling of nervousness.

  • The way I have always approached meetings is to hone in on the few attending who are doing something very close to my own work. I will prepare by reading (if I haven't already) everything they have published over the previous decade. Then I will make a list of questions I believe could produce some new insights. I also seek them out if I am struggling with a particular protocol or concept, hoping they might have experienced the same issue, and might have resolved it.

    Beyond those few I seek out for these reasons, I have no other agenda, and simply leave myself open to random chats that come my way. Planning this way has other advantages- for example, you might want to take a day or half day away from the conference to sight-see or go skiing, or whatnot. Thus you can plan accordingly such that you do not miss out on the few talks that actually might help you, or the people you want to see.

    People really do not advance their careers by greasing the wheel at conferences. They come across as insincere and those in the know recognize them for what they are. And I must say that in my own experience, I always feel like I am talking to a pawn broker or used car salesmen. It's creepy and a turn-off.

    If you want to use conferences to advance your career, then focus on your work and ideas. And as they say in the game of football- act like you've been in the end zone before... even if you haven't.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Absolutely you can advance your career at conferences. If you are truly interested in science and in providing value or thought or questions to your colleagues, they will appreciate it. The simple and straightforward gambit of being interested in what others have to say, and being genuine about it, goes a long way.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Most people do not come across as insincere in my experience. It is mostly the extreme outliers or, sometimes, trainee nervousness. Especially when it is someone more junior than you, I suggest not writing them off as a schmoozoid at first meeting. Give it a chance.

  • Neuro-conservative says:

    I think there are all sorts of ways to advance your career, and conference schmoozing is not one that works very often for me. I've gotten comfortable with retreating to my room and working on my next paper/grant, which has been a successful career strategy to this point.

  • Ola says:

    I'm totally schizo at conferences. If it's a session I'm really into then I'll ask questions at every talk. If I'm not interested I'll sit at the back quietly and tap away at email on my laptop.

    My mood at conferences is also informed by how things are going in the lab. If we just got a new grant or a good paper, damn right I'll be bragging about it to anyone who will listen, and wearing my badge with honor. If we're sitting on a pile of rejections, I'm gonna be real careful who I talk to, use stealth mode to try to scope out who the reviewers were, put my badge in my pocket and only tell people who I am if they ask.

  • I don't believe there is any requisite minimum. I think if you have something to say, are trying to get an idea exposure, then maybe the better question is, what is the maximum?

    I see nothing wrong with going to no meetings in any given year.

  • Lee says:

    I never ask questions at conferences. Even on atenolol, I get the fight or flight response just thinking about stepping to the microphone. I am naturally introverted as well, but do well in small group settings (posters etc). I also find that i get more out of late night social time away from my direct peers and home institution scientists. You really never know who you'll bump into at the bar at 1am.

  • Curiosity says:

    Do you PIs out there have a lab policy on sending trainees to conferences? # per year? productivity goals reached? Gordon conferences vs SfN? Any guidelines? And, so as not to derail the thread, how do the trainees participation styles affect PI "visibility" or lack thereof at conferences?

  • drugmonkey says:

    "When we have money to send them" plays a big role in my lab.

  • Curiosity says:

    By "afford" do you mean for every student and postdoc for every conference under consideration? How is equity and fairness for each trainee built into a lab conference policy? And I guess that's what I'm after: examples of lab attendance policies that are more principled than have or do-not-have $.

  • Ola says:

    @Curiosity
    In my lab it's usually 1 conference a year, and trainees must submit an abstract and present a poster or talk, in order to be reimbursed. If they wanna go just to listen, it's on their own dime or only partially reimbursed. An exception would be if I get invited to give a talk and cannot make it, and send a post-doc or RAP instead, then that person gets to go to more (although often the invited ones are usually paid for by the meeting organizers).
    We don't have a "must go" conference in the field (well, they exist, but we don't go every year and I don't impose on people to go), so if someone finds a really obscure meeting they really really want to attend, that's usually not a problem.
    If they win a travel award based on the abstract, pre- selected, then the $ goes toward the travel costs. If they win an award at the meeting for their poster or presentation, they pocket the money.
    If there are 2 or more lab members at a meeting, including myself, room sharing is the norm (depending on gender of course).
    As for transport/meals - if there's a bus or subway or shuttle, use it - I'm not paying $50 from a grant for an airport taxi when a $5 transit pass is good enough. For meals, I don't like to set dollar limits, but the general rule is no alcohol (university rules), and eat as you would if out with your family at home. This means for a post-doc, eyebrows will be raised if you try to claim for a $50 dinner plus a $30 lunch in one day, both at fancy restaurants. If you wouldn't order a $35 entree when dining out on a weeknight with your kids, it's probably not OK to do it just because the boss is paying.
    The final "rule" is that if you're the only lab member going to this particular meeting, you have to take plenty of notes, and within a week do a presentation at lab meeting summarizing what you learned, what were the key ideas and insights from the meeting, so the knowledge gets shared around.
    Even with all this, it's really tough to get someone all zipped up with a conference (registration, flight, hotel, food) for under $1500-2000 these days. So even with a small lab that's about $6-8k a year for meetings. Along with publication costs, it's become a progressively bigger chunk of our annual budget. As such, it goes without saying that I frequently don't get reimbursed in full for my own travel - it's one of those things you just suck up as a PI. Overall within any given year it's a wash, with honoraria for invited seminars offsetting whatever the out of pocket expenses are. If I can eke out the grant budgets more by paying my own way then the trainees in the lab get to go to more meetings, which is good.

  • Curiosity says:

    Thanks, Ola & DM. Helpful.

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