Most of the time I go to conferences and workshops with a certain initial enthusiasm. However. It takes only 1-2 days until conferences start to seriously get to me.
I am sitting in a room with 50 other scientists in my field. I am excited. I know most of their names, many of their papers, there is so much knowledge in this room that it feels like new insights, new connections, must be about to happen.
Yet, they do far less often than one would expect. Scientists usually come to conferences with their internal modus set to send. Not receive. They come to aggressively promote their work, attack their opponents, defend themselves, give their opinions which each of them of course thinks the best and most advanced opinion in the room. Everyone is in attack mode, even when they are joking they are just being aggressive, everyone wants to win, and if they can do that by making their enemy look ridiculous, they will.
Hey, they didn’t get here without wanting to win. The ones that didn’t want to win have left academia long ago. Sure, there are good things about this. There will be heated discussion. People will speak up. They will ask questions. It will appear like something is happening. But is it really? I am not sure.
What bothers me is that the hyper-competitiveness in academia (which may be unavoidable) results in a certain preferred personality type that becomes more and more common as one advances along the career path. And I do not get along with them. These people usually do not want to listen to each other. It is physically painful for them. During other people’s talks they write their e-mails. They just wake up if something is so related to their work that an attack or simply a reference to their work could happen, then they close their laptops. They are clearly not here to learn anything new. I understand, everyone is super-busy, but isn’t this behaviour just downright rude? Why don’t they go outside to write their e-mails?
Then there are the evenings, which is supposedly there to ‘loosen up’, ‘relax’, ‘socialize’. They are perhaps even more serious and competitive than what happens during the day. The scientists go out together and prove their manliness to each other by trying to drink more, make the better jokes [but the right, manly kind of jokes], being louder and being ‘cooler’, whatever that means for 35+ physicists. They need to get so drunk that …. *insert ridiculous incident here*, and ridiculous incidents then make for the legendary part of the conference that is repeated ad nauseam in every supposedly relaxed conversation in this conference and several to follow. Yawn. Of course, women are not really part of that. They can be audience, they can be the passive, laughing people at the side, but they should not really get too drunk. That would be kind of weird.
The person who wins the conference is the guy who gets drunk at the conference dinner, stays up until 3 and gives an intellegible talk next morning at 9. Those people are regarded with awe. They are ‘machines’ and other men seem to look up to them like the achieved something brilliant. To me it is approximately as brilliant as seeing someone deliberately hitting their head to the wall and making a precision pirouette afterwards.
During the workshop dinner, it might happen that one has a nice conversation, there are some nice people in my field. But if one sits around random people, conversations usually consists entirely out of everyone trying to get as many words in as possible. Someone launches into some automatic story, and God forbid anyone would ask a follow-up question. If a story interests me, and I ask a question, I notice how people are confused. What? Inviting someone else to talk even more? Don’t we all just want to win the talking contest? And also, given that the answer is not part of the automatic story, and would take longer to generate, the hesitation of the speaker makes every one else nervous. Damn, they could be talking now. I can’t help it: I feel like I am surrounded by programmed talking robots with very simple routines. What I would call actual conversations seem impossible with them.
Competitiveness seems to creep into every single interaction at conferences. Of course, this should probably not surprise me. Science is not the only place where the charismatic, loud, rude, and emotionally totally superficial people win. After all, high school never ends as is also discussed here.