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random musings of a crazy cat lady

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Old Biddy Speaks: Gordon Conference Etiquette

Dear graduate students and postdocs,
If by chance you are fortunate enough to attend a gordon conference and there are lots of other grad students from your own school there, do not spend all your time hanging out with them. It's not the ACS meeting. Make an effort to meet students from other schools and the more senior scientists who are attending. You don't have to hang out with them very much, but it is a valuable networking opportunity and you should make the most of it. You will be seeing these people at conferences for the rest of your career, and who knows when they will be interviewing you, reviewing one of your papers or proposals, etc. A little chit-chat will go a long way, even if you don't think it's someone influential or interesting.
While we're on the subject of etiquette, it's also bad form to skip some of the talks, even if you're hungover and would really rather sleep in. Exceptions will be made for work-related things like phone conferences, but if you're a grad student you may not have too many of those. Again, this is not ACS. People do notice if you're not there. Look around - your more senior colleagues are staying out as late as you and are still going to the talks. Believe me, it takes much longer to get over a hangover and sleep deprivation when you are an old biddy.
I know these things are kind of non-obvious and very different from the ACS meeting. I'm not sure I would've known them as a grad student, which is why I am giving you the benefit of my wisdom.
-Old Biddy

I'm back from the Gordon Conference now. For those of you who aren't scientists, the Gordon Conferences (GRC) are small, subject specific conferences. To foster discussion and interaction, attendance is limited and there is only one session going on at any time. Typically, there are talks in the mornings and evenings, and you have the afternoon free to sleep, do other work, get exercise, or socialize. Regardless of the subject matter, GRC's are a great place to meet new people and catch up with people you already know.
Over the years, my favorite GRC (FGRC) conference has changed somewhat. It used to be very difficult to get in as a grad student or postdoc. There might be only one or two students at the meeting. Other GRC's had more space, so some senior grad students or postdocs could attend. Usually only one or two people per group would attend. I went to one as a senior grad student and it was a very valuable experience. A friend from another group went, and we managed to meet most people there, even though we did mainly hang out with the other students. In recent years FGRC has been able to include a few more students and postdocs.
To give more students a GRC experience, a few years ago the GRS's were started. These have a similar format but are geared towards students and postdocs. They typically take place before or after the main GRC, and some of the students attend both.
This year, there was only one GRC going on at the conference site in Newport, so the organizers could let in more people. So the conference had twice as many people as the last time I was there, which was the year with the lowest attendence. They let in a lot of the people from the GRS, which is fine in theory. However, they did not take this into account when budgeting for beer and pizza, so all of us old biddies and fogies didn't get enough and that made us cranky and start reminiscing about the good old days.
Seriously, my liver and my waistline are grateful for the fact that, unlike in previous years, I did not get unlimited pizza and booze. And the good old days were not perfect - it's nice to have students there and not just see the same people every year. However, I did feel like there was something lacking. At first I thought that maybe the conference had just gotten too big, which is probably true, and that I had gotten antisocial in my old age, which is probably also true. But I was doing a better than average job of meeting new people and networking, so it wasn't completely pervasive. Upon talking to other attendees (including students) about it, I realized that it was mostly a problem of critical mass. So many of the student attendees knew each other, either from grad school or the GRS, that they tended to stick together in larger groups into which it was hard to make headway if by chance you sat down at their table at lunch or were hanging out at the poster session. Students who were there by themselves or with one or two of their compatriots tended to mingle a lot more than those who were there with a whole contingient of their buddies. If I were in their shoes, I'm sure I would do the same thing.
Although I did notice the students swooping in and taking all the beer and pizza, I actually didn't notice whether they were all there for the talks, especially since there were whole herds of them I didn't meet and hardly saw, but one of the students (who'd been helping the conference chairs with the cleanup, organization for next year, etc) mentionned it.
Yes, I do realize this whole post makes me sound like a cranky old biddy!

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