In less than a week, Milwaukee will be over-run by a few thousand people. These people will undoubtedly stand out from the local populace; they will be wearing Tevas or Chacos (I've supplied a link for those who have no idea what I' m talking about) and often shorts, t-shirts, fleece (in our defense it is often really cold in those convention centers), and pieces of clothing by Columbia, Mountain Hardware, and other outdoor outfitters. Most tellingly, many of them will be carrying a tote bag and forget to take their name badges off when they leave the conference center...yes, the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America is descending on Milwaukee. Woohoo!
When I was a graduate student I hated this meeting. It is large (almost 5,000 people) with 25-30 concurrent sessions of talks. It is so easy to feel lost and overwhelmed. I would try to see talks constantly from 8 am to 5 pm, yet I always seemed to miss the talks everyone was abuzz about. Friend: "Did you see that fabulous talk by Dr. Amazing? I think it altered my whole view on exciting area Y". Me: "What?" (Flipping frantically through the schedule of talks) "How did I miss that? No, I was stuck in this pointless talk about boring area Z given by Dr How-the-hell-did-he-get-a-Ph.D".
Ironically, it was only when I gave up on the meeting as being pointless that I actually found it valuable. Since I always seemed to be wasting my time in talks irrelevant to my research, I started contacting friends and collaborators before hand to see if they would be there and wanted to meet about projects, life, whatever. I also stopped trying to see as many talks as possible and started applying a triage system - big names talking on new ideas, research coming out of labs I am often citing, and talks by people I have never heard of but seem directly relevant to my current or future research directions. If there is nothing I want to see, then I try to schedule that time to interact with colleagues. Suddenly, I was seeing the talks relevant to me and getting valuable work and networking done.
This year may be different for me. Most of my close colleagues and collaborators aren't going this year. This means that this is the first year in a while where I won't have my core set of people to interact with. I've been trying to figure out what this means for my conference going experience and I have come to one, dreaded, conclusion....I will have to meet new people (shudder). I say this because I am the world's worst networker. Strangely, if someone approaches me, I have no problem talking cogently. If I approach someone else, it all goes to hell...quickly. I suspect that it has to do with some perceived onus of responsibility for the conversation. If I am taking up someone else's time, I better be brilliant and witty, but I have no such expectations if someone approaches me.
Since I am such a horrible networker, I've decided to attend as many of the official social events as possible - the various "(Insert name here) mixers". Events with food and alcohol are useful crutches for me....if I don't like the social interaction I am stuck in I can swill my drink and go get another or if I say something wrong, I can buy myself some time to think my way out of it by gobbling some goodies.
I assume that someday networking won't be so awful. I assume that someday I'll realize that it's not that I'm so bad at it, but that we are all pretty bad at it (which is why people who are good at it get such advantages - but that's another post). In the meantime, I will don my Chacos, gird myself with my plate of food and my drink, and go once more into the breach....and you never know, maybe I'll even meet someone who will become part of that group of people I really look forward to seeing every year. Maybe.