Making the most of scientific conferences

Conference experiences have been explored a few times on this blog before, but given the apparent diversity of conference formats across disciplines, I think another perspective might be valuable.  The topic is particularly on my mind since I recently attended the American Physical Society (the major professional society for physicists) March Meeting, which took place in Denver this year.  March Meeting is by no means the only important conference in the physical sciences, but it is probably the biggest — almost 10,000 people, from undergrads to Nobel Prize winners, attend from all around the world.

I’ve been to March Meeting three times now, plus a few smaller conferences.  Now that I’m nearing the end of graduate school, it thus seems like a sensible time to reflect on how to make the most of these trips.  Optimizing your conference experience is important, since conferences are usually a substantial investment of your time, energy, and money (maybe your advisor’s money, but still…), and they can be key opportunities to advance your career.  So here are some thoughts on the matter I’ve acquired over the past few years:

  • Don’t try to attend everything.  This was probably my biggest mistake at earlier conferences, and I think it’s a common one to make.  It’s so easy to have eyes bigger than your brain when you look at the schedule of talks.  I would try to attend everything the first day or two, and then I would inevitably burn out and end up missing or sleepwalking through some more important events later on.  Try to prioritize the absolute most important things on the schedule before the trip, and make a reasonable plan of how much you can actually do.  Be conservative with your judgment.  It’s better to sleep late and attend only a few talks that you really pay attention to, rather than to wake up early and attend everything but be so tired that you don’t learn anything.  So how should your prioritize events?  Well…..
  • Meeting people is the most important thing.  Specifically, it is more important than any talk.  Talks definitely can be useful — they put your finger on the pulse of cutting-edge research and can expand your breadth in unexpected ways — but there are still alternative ways of learning about research.  You can always read someone’s papers if you really want to know about their work.  But there is no substitute for interacting with people face-to-face at a conference.  This is how you form new collaborations and meet people who may someday offer you a job.  So when budgeting your time and energy, opportunities to meet people should always come first.  Skip the talks and just go to the reception afterward if you have to.  Now that I’ve stressed its importance, how do you actually go about meeting people?
  • Be a little shameless.  It’s hard to summon the courage to ask questions during a talk or introduce yourself to someone new, especially when they are much more senior and your questions and ideas seem naive.  But you have to be a little shameless and do it anyway.  The particle physicist Tommaso Dorigo has some nice ideas on his blog about how to come up with questions for these occasions.  The point is that even if your questions are a bit vacuous, or your attempt to introduce yourself and shake hands with that famous person feels awkward and forced, the mere process of getting practice doing it will be beneficial.  By the time your questions and ideas are more substantial, you’ll already feel quite comfortable speaking up.  Despite science’s reputation as being the domain of introverts and nerds, in my experience the scientific community rewards assertive, outgoing social behavior, people who are aggressive about seeking knowledge and maybe even a little self-promoting.  Being “that person who keeps asking questions” will make you stand out and gain respect as a passionate seeker of knowledge.  I played such a role at a few events in the past (ones with small audiences, which made this a lot easier), and several people even told me afterward that they noticed me because of all my questions.  Hopefully I wasn’t too annoying, but at least they noticed me!  But besides meeting new people from scratch, a much easier route is to…..
  • Use your existing connections to make new ones.  It’s always easier to meet people through people you already know.  So if you already know one or two people at a conference, spend enough time with them to meet some of the other people they know.  Getting to know grad students or postdocs at other institutions is a great strategy: as a grad student yourself, it’s usually not too hard to meet and get quality time with other young people (compared to, say, faculty), and once you get to know each other, they should be more than happy to introduce you to their friends at their own institution or other people they happen to know.  And you can do the same for them.  Finally, once you’ve met some new people…..
  • Follow up with the new people that you meet.  This can be tricky, but it’s important if you want those new connections to last.  I have been able to invite a few people I met at previous events to give seminars for our group here at Rutgers, which obviously helped a good deal in solidifying those relationships.  But that’s not always possible.  Sometimes it’s reasonable to send a follow up e-mail to someone you just met.  For example, you might talk to someone about a paper they wrote, and after you go home and read it, you could easily send them an e-mail with a generic pleasantry (“It was nice to meet you at that conference…”) followed by a question or two about the paper.  There’s no need to be sycophantic, but if you are honestly interested in their work, it shouldn’t be hard to come up with a few genuine questions.  A short e-mail exchange like this will go a long way in preventing you both from forgetting each other.  In the worst case, try to track down your new contacts at the next conference, even if it’s a year or two in the future.  They’ll probably be flattered that you remembered them and reached out.  If your memory for names and faces isn’t acute, find other ways of keeping track of the people you meet: for example, you can ask for business cards (not common in science, but apparently common in other disciplines) or keep a list of professional contacts.

I’m sure five years from now my views on conference-going will have evolved even further, but the foregoing points have at least served me well as I finish up my Ph.D. and prepare for the next stage.  So I hope someone else will find them useful as well.  In any case, I’m sure these issues probably vary widely across disciplines (and even within a discipline, too, depending on the conference), so different perspectives are welcome in the comments!

The Nurturing Paradigm of Scientific Training

Uri Alon, a biophysicist at the Weizmann Institute in Israel, likes to tell a story about when he first became a faculty member.  Already an accomplished researcher, he stepped into his empty new lab and immediately felt overwhelmed.  Despite all the training he’d received about how to do science, there was so much more to being a scientist that he was completely unprepared for: setting up a laboratory, recruiting students and postdocs, developing good projects for students and postdocs, managing a large team, mentoring young people for the next stages of their careers, and so on.  As critical as these skills are to being successful, there is very little emphasis on developing these skills early in one’s career.

Indeed, there seems to be little respect in the scientific community for the importance of these “soft skills,” at least in comparison to the technical skills required to do the research itself.  As a result of his personal experiences, Uri Alon has led a small crusade toward greater emphasis of the human aspect of doing science.  On his website he’s compiled a growing set of resources called “Materials for Nurturing Scientists,” including articles, videos, and songs, authored by both himself and others.  Topics include how to choose a scientific problem, how to give a good talk, how to build a motivated research group, how to achieve work-life balance, and more.  He also has developed support groups for young scientists at his institution and has advised other institutions how to do the same.  His title evokes a compelling vision: one in which one’s goal as an advisor to students and postdocs goes far beyond merely supervising their research.  The “nurturing paradigm” entails holistically developing young people in every aspect of becoming a professional scientist.  Having heard Uri Alon speak (and sing songs) about these issues multiple times in person, his vision is certainly an inspiration to me.

Media Studies: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Embrace My Shiny Object Syndrome

When I tell people I study media, they tend to want some specifics.  While I should find this interest heartening, I know it’s because they quite correctly think they know what media are.  If I studied say, Quantum Mechanics, they would probably shake my hand and move on, or perhaps ask me what it’s like to be a woman in that field.  I am more than happy to talk about my passion, but I’ve learned to brace myself from the disappointment that comes when people realize I study media in a different way.  This is not to say unique.  This is to say, I do not study the particular media bit of interest to the enquirer.  At best, I’ll pique their curiosity in something else.

Take my stepmother.  Over break she asked if I studied partisan bias in the news media.  Okay, she didn’t put it exactly like that, but this is how I heard her.  That’s another funny thing about graduate school: You speak and listen in a different way.  Last night, while grocery shopping with a fellow grad student, she said, “I just think discourse analysis is more apt, don’t you?”  After a long winter break spent largely away from academics, I said, “You do realize that anyone overhearing this conversation right now should be mocking us.”  I digress.

So I had to break the news to my step-mom.  “No, I don’t study that, although there are people that do.  Partisan bias seems too (Here I deliberately avoided an overused, mean grad school word: reductive) well, let me put it this way, I think media ownership is the bigger, more interesting issue.  To illustrate my point, I showed her this link to a Daily Show segment forwarded around my department by professor Steve Miller: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-january-14-2013/investigating-investigative-journalism

The link is stranger than fiction, explaining that CNN has downsized most of its investigative journalism, and that this expert foreign affairs journalist is now consulting for the HBO show the Newsroom.  Of course, comedian Jon Oliver makes it funny, but I’m not laughing, and neither was my stepmother.  She could not believe it.  I’m pleased by her response.  Disbelief is a cousin of outrage, something I feel quite a bit in my media studies.  I’d like to think that outrage leads to collective action, which leads to change.

Image

Although I never really got around to explaining what I study, I certainly made an impression with the help of so called “fake” news.  The truth is I am still having trouble making up my mind; interesting media are exploding all around me.  I feel like the figure in this meme I embellished:

Around Town

In New Brunswick (and the surrounding area), there are many opportunities to relax, have fun, and get out of the house/office. There are a variety of ways to enjoy the diverse offerings of New Jersey of all types: cultural, recreational, gastronomical, natural, musical, and more. I’ll list just a few of my personal favorites, in no particular order and with no attempt to fairly represent all of the possible local attractions and activities.

The State Theater of New Jersey

The State Theater is especially good for students because Rutgers-affiliated discounts make many of the shows accessible for a good price (and not just in the very back row either). I have enjoyed music and dance performances here, as well as a few comedy routines and at least one musical. There are many different types of acts coming to the State Theater at any given time, so it’s worth checking their schedule periodically for your interests. The theater district of New Brunswick also offers the Cabaret Theatre, the George Street Playhouse, and the Crossroads Theatre Company.

Image source: [c]

The Court Tavern

New Brunswick has had a vibrant local music scene for decades, including many pioneering and influential bands. Although recently closed for a few months, the Court Tavern has reopened recently and continues to provide a venue for local musicians. Nearby places to eat, including Hansel ‘n’ Griddle and Destination Dogs, serve up food suitable for before the show (or between bands).

Image source: [c]

New Brunswick has many bars, pubs, and other venues in that spectrum of eating & drinking, but only Harvest Moon offers beer brewed right on-site, along with its classic fare of dinner options. The vegetarian chili is a hidden gem on the menu, which includes many options that are easy to enjoy. Be sure to try one of their many varieties of beer (they won’t sell you anybody else’s!), and if you like it, take some home in a growler.

There are many other similar restaurants in New Brunswick, including Tumulty’s and The George Street Ale House, both of which offer good beer and nice pub food. Tumulty’s is a nice alternative for a more laid-back and traditional pub experience, and GSAH has a wide selection of beer as well as a more pricey menu of “gastro-pub” fare.

Image source: [c]

Stelton Lanes Bowling Alley

I enjoy spending time with friends bowling. Knocking things over is fun (sometimes). In addition to the enjoyment of time spent with friends, bowling is an activity easy to enjoy even for beginners, but it’s not boring or highly competitive (unless you have really intense friends). You’ll be renting shoes, most likely, so be sure to wear socks! Another nearby bowling alley is the Brunswick Zone.

Image source: [c]

The Edison Diner

New Jersey is known for its diners, often open late (or 24-7) and offering a variety of classic meals, snacks, and beverages. I am a somewhat regular customer at the Edison diner. For those days when there’s no time to cook or it’s too late to do otherwise, this diner is open 24-7 and even has free wifi. Outside peak hours, the diner is sometimes (but not always) calm and relaxed and can be a nice place to get some peace and quiet some days.

A mention should go to another favorite diner of mine, The Skylark Diner. This diner is a bit further away and is not open 24-7, but it offers a more creative/non-traditional menu and a fair selection of alcoholic beverages. (It is thus a bit more loud and crowded, and the prices are a bit higher.)

Image source: [c] You can visit the Edison Diner’s website by clicking this link, but please beware, it is a flash-only website that makes a substantial amount of noise: The Edison Diner.

Middlesex County Parks

It may be freezing out and dark at 5pm during winter, but even in winter it’s nice to spend time in one of the many parks in the area. Donaldson Park in the boro of Highland Park offers many facilities, including walking paths, basketball courts, exercise stations (pull ups, monkey bars, etc.), dog pens, and more. The park is prone to flooding, which we have experienced a few times in recent history, but it is generally scenic and enjoyable. Nearby Johnson Park has similar facilities as well as a sanctuary for abandoned animals rescued by the county.

Image source: [pd]

Images used in this entry are used under fair-use and/or under licensing guidelines set forth by the copyright holder that allow use in this blog, as presented for educational or critical commentary. Images are copyright their respective holders and credit or source is indicated in each caption or in the text of this entry, as applicable.

The two types of teaching assistants

I had a few perceptions about teaching assistants when I was an undergraduate student. There were two distinct types of teaching assistant personalities that seemed alarmingly obvious. The first “type” of teaching assistant was the one who didn’t care, who just went to class to teach because they had to, and who graded word for word based on whatever teaching rubric they were given. Then, you had the T.A. who was completely, utterly, in love with the subject they were teaching–their enthusiasm showed in ways in which the word “passion” would be an understatement. These were the ones who wanted you to love the subject as much as they did, and when they were good at it, boy were they good. One in particular made me love American History–and believe me, I am a complete science nerd at heart.

My first class as a T.A., I decided I wanted to be the later. I wanted to show how passionate I was about learning to my students so that they would become excited and want to engage with me as well. Let me tell you–it’s exhausting. After a full day of lab, sometimes I don’t want to be that happy-go-lucky girl who has a giant smile on her face as I’m talking about human migration out of Africa. But I try. At the same time, being a T.A. has taught me that it is not easy. Time management is key–grading 75 papers each week isn’t something that can be done in one sitting. On the other side of the fence now, I realize how much T.A.’s put into their courses, even if they are the first type that I mentioned previously. I appreciate them so much more now, and especially the later who encourages, listens, and shows passion. I only hope that with time I can inspire my students as much as some of my T.A.’s did in the past.

Educational Research

In the field of education, there are many opportunities for research using a variety of methods. As part of the doctoral program, all students are required to take 4 courses in research methods divided between qualitative and quantitative methods. Depending on the research interest of the student, they may select either methodology, or a combination of both. Quantitative research is research that uses numerical data analysis to support a hypothesis. This type of research is done when conducting program evaluation or when looking for statistical support for a position. Qualitative research is done when the researcher is looking to explain a particular phenomenon. This includes case studies, ethnographies, narrative descriptions, etc.

As part of the research sequence, many doctoral students in the field of education conduct a pilot study. These studies, although they are conducted as part of the qualitative methods course, tend to combine qualitative and quantitative methods to some extent. The pilot study allows students to go into a setting similar to that in which they hope to conduct their dissertation research and get a first-hand sense of what conducting qualitative research is like. In this study, students may take field notes, conduct interviews, analyze documents, survey individuals, and practice any other techniques that they may find useful in their future research. Overall, the research methodologies sequence at the Graduate School of Education is extremely useful in identifying the methods that will be most helpful in conducting dissertation research.

“Desktop Faculty Development” — the Tomorrow’s Professor Mailing List

One of the best online resources for graduate students, especially those aspiring to academic careers in research or teaching, has to be the Tomorrow’s Professor (TP) mailing list:

http://www.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Tomprof/index.shtml

Managed by Rick Reis, a professor of engineering at Stanford, the list produces entries twice weekly on a wide variety of topics relevant to graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members, many of which are excerpted from recent journals or books.

I first learned about TP through a colleague who forwarded one of their e-mails regarding teaching. Since then I have been actively reading most of the postings, which I’ve found to be both an outstanding source of advice and a great way to keep abreast of the latest issues in higher education and education research.

Anyone can subscribe to the list to receive the regular e-mails (subscription instructions available on the above URL), although the website contains a full archive of previous posts. There is also a blog that regularly reposts the content:

http://derekbruff.org/blogs/tomprof/