Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Toward Professor-Student Interactions at Conferences that are Positive, Productive, and Comfortable

I am writing this post on a long flight home after the Evolution 2018 meeting in Montpellier, France. For the last day and a half of that meeting, I didn’t attend a single talk. I simply stood around in the booth area (near the publishers) and talked to whomever approached me and wanted to talk. This period was by far the most rewarding and productive time at a meeting, notwithstanding great talks and dinners and project planning meetings (OK, maybe the project planning meeting was even better!). I met old friends and made a bunch of new friends too, including many students and postdocs I had never met before. The informal setting was extremely conducive to discussions of just the right length at just the right frequency. This approach, which Dan Bolnick also adopted and loved, led us envision a few suggestions for students, Professors, and conference organizers regarding the best way to facilitate interactions. Of course, these new suggestions are in addition to the many other suggestions by others for how to facilitate positive interactions.

Suggestions for students:

Just walk up and introduce yourself! Believe it or not, most Professors are just as nervous about approaching a student as a student is about approaching a Professor. If a Professor approaches a student, even at a poster, that Professor has no idea if the student is doing relevant work or even wants to talk to them – awkward! They would much rather have conversations with students who actually WANT to talk to them. And don’t worry about interrupting an ongoing conversation. Much of the time, Professors are just standing around – even when talking to their colleagues and friends – killing time. Much of the time they are even hoping that relevant students will approach them. If they are talking to someone else: Just say “Excuse me Professor XXXXX, I would love to chat with you when you have a chance” – and they will either say “Sure, how about now?” or “Great, how about in a few minutes, I just need to finish talking to XXXX.” And – often – Professors are quite happy to get out long conversations they have been having with someone, including their friends if they can talk someone new who clearly wants to talk to them.

As an aside, don’t stand around just outside the periphery of the conversation waiting waiting waiting, sort of trying to catch their eye but not really. In fact, the Professors are standing there wondering if you want to talk to them, but – since they aren’t sure – they aren’t going to ask. And they aren’t going to end their existing conversation if they aren’t sure you want to talk to them. It is just awkward all round. Just walk straight up, interrupt politely, and ask if you can chat. Then, if you have to wait, walk over and read the books until the Professor comes up to you.

Send Professors emails inviting them to your talk or poster. This can be a huge relief for a Professor as it gives them information, from a dizzying array of possible talks to attend or posters to visit, of a talk/poster that will be specifically relevant to their interests – and that will be given by someone who is specifically interested in talking with them. Some conferences, such as ESEB, already do poster invites, which is great, but I suggest a few other targeted emails regardless of those invites. But, of course, don’t just saturate the Professor pool – pick 4-5 that you would most like to have see your poster or talk.

If you have met the Professor before but don’t know them well. Pretty please give clues as to who you are and what you do. I am frequently approached by students who I know I have met before, but who I can’t remember precisely where or in what context. It is extremely awkward to admit you don’t remember someone who you have met before – or to have look at the name tag to get a clue as to the previous context – or to just stand there hoping to ask the right question that gives you the necessary prompt without letting on you don’t remember. Just walk up and say “Hello Professor XXXX, we met at the XXXX meeting in XXXX, I work on XXXX with Professor XXXX.”

As another aside, when Professors talk to you, their eyes will often dart around as though they are looking for some better to talk to. Most of the time, this isn’t it. They are indeed often looking for someone they know – but not to get out of the conversation with you but rather to make sure they don’t miss saying hello to someone who they need to talk to later.

If you are looking to end the conversation, just say “It was very nice to meet you, I have to go now to [the bathroom, my poster invites, a scheduled meeting, etc.]”

Suggestions for Professors:

Following the experience of Dan and I from this last conference, I highly recommend setting aside some time, perhaps a lot of it, to just stand around in a common area and thereby make yourself available for people to approach.

If you are comfortable doing so, send a tweet (if you tweet) saying where you will be and when and that you would love to talk to students or postdocs.
Stand up for this period. The informal nature of standing makes it much easier to be approached and for conversations to not be awkwardly long. Don’t stand around scanning the crowd looking for someone who might be looking for you. Just chill: browse the books, chat with friends, look at the posters, tweet, check email on your phone, etc.

If you are in a conversation with someone you know, and you are approached by someone else, consider the responses above: “Sure, how about now?” or “Great, how about in a few minutes, I just need to finish talking to XXXX.”

Try – to the extent possible – to pay attention to the person you are talking to rather than scanning the crowd around them for people you know. I realize this is very hard not to do but it makes the student feel like you are trying to get out of their conversation.

If you do see someone passing by and need to talk to them, apologize to the student, say you will be right back, and give only the briefest hello to the other person before heading back to the student. Of course, if you really do need to get out of the conversation try: “It was very nice to meet you, I have to go now to [the bathroom, my poster invites, a scheduled meeting, etc.]”

Conference organizers:

Efforts to facilitate Professor-student interactions through “speed dating” or “lunch discussions” or whatever are generally useful but, to be honest, they are a bit awkward. (Note: I am happy to keep doing them – so don’t hesitate to include me.) The Professor is usually talking to 4-5 different people doing very different things, and it is hard to have a decent conversation with any one of them. Instead, perhaps consider facilitating the “chill session” described above. That is, encourage Professors to make themselves available just standing around in some general area for a half-day of their choosing. Don’t schedule appointments for them with students, just make a general announcement that Professors standing around in that area are fair game – in fact they are there specifically hoping someone will come talk to them. However, the area should be one already frequented by others or having food, drinks, posters, exhibitors, etc. That way the Professor won’t be awkward “waiting” for someone to approach them but instead is just chilling looking at books, talking to publishers, and colleagues, perusing posters, or whatever. And happy to be interrupted!

That’s all for now. Consider giving it a try. And also note that much of this advice applies generally – that is, beyond Professors who are specifically and knowingly engaged in a “chill session.” Many of these tips for interaction will help in many conference contexts: poster sessions, hallways, receptions, banquets, etc. 

co-blogger's note from Dan Bolnick:
I wanted to add a couple comments after reading Andrew's post.
First, another reason faculty might be shy to approach you. I have a feeling this one will get a reaction: At the Evolution meeting I tried to go out of my way to introduce myself to strangers. Standing in the security line for the Corum, or waiting for drinks, I'd just introduce myself and ask about them and their work. It was fun and informative, but a couple of times, when the person I started talking to was a younger woman,  I had a nagging voice in my head saying "I hope they don't think I'm trying to be a creep". To be very clear: I wasn't.  But it did worry me, the optics of being a mid-career male just spontaneously striking up conversation with a female postdoc or grad student, no matter how good my intent. I don't want to be seen as a potential threat by someone who does not know me. Unfortunately, the fear of being misinterpreted is a deterrent to striking up a conversation, which is a problem in and of itself. That's exactly why I overcame my inherent introverted tendencies to start up conversations with strangers. I mention it just because it may be another reason why an older researcher might be shy, especially to strike up a conversation with someone who is a different gender.

Second: yes, Andrew's strategy involves missing talks. And yes, people will be disappointed if he's not in the audience. But there's only so much we can do. There were times when there were 5 simultaneous talks I wanted to see. Even if I went to talks non-stop every day of the meeting, I would miss the majority of talks that were of interest to me, and miss the majority of talks whose speakers might want me in the audience. As I reach the middle of my career (20 years since I started grad school, hopefully 25-30 more till I retire), I am more accepting of the things I cannot do. One of which is to see every talk. As I accept that, I increasingly am able to plan my meeting schedule with a balance of activities. And I agree with Andrew that the most scientifically rewarding things are the one-on-one or small group conversations where collaborations get planned, data gets analyzed, and schemes are hatched. I've sometimes wondered what it would be like to have a meeting with no talks at all, just conversation time about science. So, yes, I feel pangs of guilt about planning to miss a whole block of talks, but the benefits of extended face-to-face meetings are so large I'll deal with it, and I would have missed many talks no matter what.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I saw similar advice at ESA regarding introducing yourself and the context of prior acquaintance using this memorable meme:


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