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How should you behave at a conference?

Academics, scientists, famous skeptics all behaving badly at conferences.  Depressingly often, we’ve being reading about this.   But it got me to thinking, what is “good conference behavior”?  Is it simply not harassing or being boorish?  As you mature in your field, do your responsibilities change?

As someone who has reached a level of seniority and a modicum of fame in my field, I feel a responsibility to be more than a just well-behaved attendee.  Here are some thoughts and recommendations, mostly from the remembered perspective of my younger self – when I was the unknown young grad student in awe of the “famous”.

  • If you go to a conference, then actually be there! I well remember looking at conference abstracts and seeing a famous name I’d long wanted to meet, scheduled to give a talk.  And then have that person basically arrive the morning of the talk, give a desultory seminar, and then – poof – gone!  Never to be seen at the conference again.
  • If you are there, then actually be available. Obviously, introductions during a talk are not going to happen!  We meet each other in breaks and between sessions, and it is often difficult for an unknown grad student to just walk up and introduce themselves.  It becomes ever so much more difficult if famous person X always scurries off to an out of the way corner to catch up on the doings on their friends, famous people Y and Z.  Who has the nerve to interrupt a high-level meeting of minds advancing the frontiers of knowledge?  (Although it is actually more likely to be old friends complaining about grants not being funding…)  So, please mingle!  Walk around by yourself a bit.  Look friendly and approachable. And…
  • Go to talks and presentations by lowly students and postdocs. Often times this is a student’s first attempt at presenting themselves and their research.  Nothing is more encouraging to keep pursuing your goals than seeing senior people take appreciative notice.  And nothing is more discouraging than presenting your work that is clearly in famous person X’s field of expertise and not having them deign to even put in an appearance.
  • Go to talks, period. This is extremely self-serving advice.  Generally the most exciting stuff is being done by those young people, whose names we’ve not heard of – yet!  At every single conference that I’ve gone to over the last 10 years, I have encountered a result or new idea that immediately influenced the direction of my own research.  And it always was a talk given by a fresh new face, and never in that out of the way corner complaining with my old friends about the sad current state of funding.
  • Personally I find poster sessions impossible to be intelligent for. They are usually late in the day or the evening, loud, and with alcohol freely-flowing.  Still, a poster is something that a student has often put considerable effort and angst into producing.  It deserves something better than having me stare at it in an inebriated stupor.  Therefore, I try to look up at least a couple of poster presenters at quieter times and have them explain their work to me.  Which brings up the general point…
  • Initiate conversations. Even if I am standing by myself and trying to look friendly, people can be shy.  Therefore, I often introduce myself to the student whose talk or poster I just saw (and still quite often, I need to introduce myself as I am NOT that famous!).  Indeed, if at all possible invite them to join you, your lab, or your friends for lunch or dinner.  Such was a seminal moment in my scientific life where when as a lowly grad student I introduced myself to a luminary in my field.  And she immediately recognized me (She. Had. Read. My. Paper!!!).  And then she invited me to go have dinner with her and her lab group.  And we talked science and she listened!  Probably as much as any other experience, this one evening convinced me that I could make it and belong in this career.  And this brings me to my final point.
  • Listen! Take a real interest in the people who you are talking to. No matter who they are, pay attention, give real feedback to their questions, and treat them as your equal and colleague.  Remember: once upon a time you were in their shoes and it mattered.

What are your good and bad memories about going to conferences?

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

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