Who wins the conference?

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.

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8 Responses to Who wins the conference?

  1. ridicuryder says:

    Zinemin,

    As you may have surmised, we are new to blogging. That playful giddiness one experiences at the beginning of a new adventure has us in a fairly unstable and vulnerable position. Missteps like ours can be, by and large, exused on most blogs. The thing is; you are too good, this post clearly demonstrates to us that should we continue reading you we will likely fall head over heels in love with you.

    Being a Lesbian, trapped in a man’s body and having multiple personalities can be fairly challenging (if not downright awkward) at times…..so unfortunately we must, for the time being, restrict viewing and or participating on your blog. We have never outright stalked anyone, but with you we might spiral down that path. Being out of control is part of our daily routine but you temp us in horrible, horrible ways.

    Ridicu and I have discussed it and should you feel like dropping by our blog, (where we are more in control) we would welcome your visit…..in fact Ridicu would love it if you hassled us ruthlessly.
    Your grace with our antics has been very appreciated and I hope you don’t mind one last comment by Ridicu.

    Regards,
    Ryder

    Cryogenic Baby Zinemin !

    Should any of your science buddies figure out how to hack apart conjoined personalities – I’m yours…..unconditionally. However, for the time being I must (given our circumstances) agree with Ryder and freeze things for a bit. Ryder has insisted that I keep things short and sweet, so let me just finish by saying….it’s not you, it’s us.

    Your Wascally Wabbit,
    Ridicu

  2. How depressing! I’m not sure what sub-branch of physics you are in, but mine has definitely moved on so perhaps there is hope. What you describe seems hopelessly outdated although there are still cliques of old school who behave the same way. Perhaps you’d like to read a piece I wrote http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/2011/04/19/evolution/ about how one particular comference has evolved over the past 30 years to give you hope those in your field may likewise. Don’t let them grind you down, it doesn’t have to be this way even in the physical sciences.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you! It is good to hear some positive examples.
      In my opinion, it is the personalities of the important professors in a certain subfield and the fraction of female professors that make all the difference. For example, I noticed that some male postdocs of my age tend to imitate the sexist behaviour of their PhD advisor in a very detailed fashion. People are immensely influenced by their advisors in such things. Also, professors hire and promote people similar to themselves. So every powerful personality with certain views and characteristics will lead to an armada of similar people in the field. Maybe this is the reason that progress occurs at a very different rate in different subfields. But in general, I think the atmosphere will only really improve permanently if our field will include many more women at the top level.

  3. Fabio Noviello says:

    Hi
    Another physicist here…

    a) Only the guys who have to prove something are so boorish. The “great” ones are much nicer.. Avoid the boorish ones.

    b) Ok for the drinking thing. But it’s also true that one makes friends with people from all over the world and you don’t necessarily see them very often. A good drinking binge with the guys (& gals!) simply reinforces friendships and creates fond memories. I have a few ones myself. BUT I always drink AFTER I’ve given my mandatory talk, so I can get up after noon 😉

    c) Yes, laptops should be forbidden in conference venues!

    d) I simply avoid conference dinners 😉

    • zinemin says:

      Thanks for the comment. For me a drinking binge with colleagues after a conference day filled with talks is just one thing: absolute, pure, raw stress. I cannot imagine how people can remember something like this fondly. Maybe it has to do with being in the minority, being introverted, and having a slightly non-standard personality on top of that. If I come home after an evening like this I am just absolutely desperate.
      And please, why on Earth is it a good thing to sleep to noon during a conference and miss the morning talks? I just don’t get it… People are extremely mysterious to me in this aspect.

      • Fabio Noviello says:

        Err. two commets on your comment (thanks for your answer btw)

        a} Maybe some people enjoy the “extra” drinks with a 1 to 3 *good* friends because usually they’d be introverted? Also, many projects can be very stressful and it’s a way to relieve this stress while catching up with friends from afar. I admit It’s got nothing to do with the “who is the greatest drinker” public competition (for loudmouth machos) you mention in your post. Far from it. I assure you we all have fond memories of these events.

        b) The “after noon ” is an example of figurative speech: Trade that with “later than usual”.
        This is reserved only for mission consortium meetings where, anyway, we have lots of hands-on splinters and no-one expects you to be in the main venue for 5 days (wouldn’t be a very productive).

        I agree that, at a “normal” conference one should attend as many sessions as possible (no point traveling there otherwise, and one should not waste taxpayer’s money). With switched off laptops, possibly…

        I

  4. gatheringmossblog says:

    I definitely found geology conferences to be the same way. The large majority of men getting drunk and the women being their audience. But you were also right when you observed that students mimic their advisors. Luckily for me my advisor was not “boorish” so I felt no need to partake in the drinking or be an audience member on the sidelines. And even luckier for me, many of my advisors collaborating colleagues were just like him. So I was able to hang out with other grad students/ post docs that were evolved. But my advisor was a rare gem. A German who always had a lab with a mix of men, women, and minorities. Diversity in the sciences was something extremely important to him.

    But all in all, socially, I very rarely met new people at conferences.

    • zinemin says:

      It seems that you chose your advisor very wisely. My advisors were both party-people and our subfield is dominated by similar personalities. But I agree there are exception, and this is hugely important for me to realize. They do have a harder time networking though, and get invited to conferences less, because they are ‘less fun to have around’. I would never have expected that extroversion is so important for professors, but apparently it is.

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