Early in my graduate student career, I was told by several people that I should go to conferences and talk to professors. If you work in mathematics, you’ve probably heard this piece of advice before, and it’s hard to see how you could damage your career by following it (given reasonable assumptions on your behavior). I encountered two problems:
- What sort of talking am I supposed to do with a professor if I don’t know anything?
- How do I make my way into one of those small circles of people that inevitably form between talks?
I’ve heard that some advisors actually go to conferences with their students and introduce them to colleagues, and this pretty much solves both problems, but I’d like to focus on the case that this doesn’t happen, since I imagine it will be the norm for a while. This isn’t meant to be a definitive guide, and I’d really appreciate further suggestions and anecdotes.
My basic solution to the first problem was to talk about something other than math, e.g., after some introductory banter ask for funny stories about other mathematicians, or solicit general grad school advice. Unfortunately, this didn’t help with my presumed goal, which was to communicate an impression like, “Scott is a promising student in this field,” so I still felt pressure to perform in a way that was, in retrospect, impossible. I’ve talked to some other mathematicians about this, and I’ve concluded that a pure career focus can be an unhealthy mindset when attending a conference. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to professors, then I don’t think there’s a problem with approaching grad students and just hanging out (you can pick out the grad students, because they’re the ones that look afraid to talk to professors). If you have a good time, then maybe you’ll form a positive mental association to conferences, and if you make friends with grad students in your field, then later conferences will be like reunions. As you get older, some of the grad students might even become professors.
The second problem was not a big deal when I was friends with someone at the conference, since I felt more comfortable barging into a conversation, and I’d often find a circle forming around me. Therefore, one solution is prevent the problem in the first place by getting other people from your school to go to the same conference. This is much easier if you go to a big research school – in some number theory conferences, I felt like I already knew half of the people there, because a large fraction of them had overlapped with me at Berkeley, or given seminars-with-dinner at some time. However, I’ve been in situations where I didn’t know anyone, and without a social group at a conference, the experience could be rather awkward and lonely. I think one way to remedy this is to seek out “conference friends” quickly, before people get into a routine. A conference friend doesn’t need have a whole lot in common with you, but you shouldn’t be afraid of each other, so you should look for people who seem relatively approachable and willing to talk to you. One tactic I’ve heard is to find people who dress like you, e.g., at a similar level of formality. If the conference has a breakfast spread, this is a good time to find a circle, since the groups are often smaller, and the people often aren’t alert enough to engage in intimidating mathematics. I’m told there are some artificial ways of starting a conversation, like awkwardly commenting about the food, then transitioning to an introduction. I’m afraid I haven’t mastered this art yet.
I think I should add a few more tips on talking to professors. If you ask them about their work, you shouldn’t feel bummed if you don’t understand an explanation. In particular, don’t worry too much about looking stupid for interrupting to ask an elementary question. If you wear a name tag, you can avoid the situations where people recognize you but don’t remember your name while they feel like they should. A name tag also provides another opening for conversation about your school or the town it’s in. (If you happen to be a super-famous professor, your name tag might frighten people, so you may want to leave it off.) You should go to informal events, like meals and bars, even if you’re really tired, because that’s where a lot memorable events happen. If you’re far enough along your grad career to have a problem you can talk about, the rules change a bit. You can say things like, “I like your work on xyz. Can I talk to you about my work?” This gives you an opportunity to feel kind of smart, because even experts will probably take some time to process what you say. In this case it really helps to have a big picture view of your project, so you can describe why one would want to do what you’re doing. This is good for multiple reasons, as it is often the answer to the first question people ask, failure to give a clear explanation can be a conversation-killer, and having a coherent view of a research program can help you find your way through your dissertation. If you don’t understand your project well enough to say how it fits into the rest of mathematics, you should probably bug your advisor a bit for answers.
Finally, I’d like to say something about social rules that can make conferences more welcoming places for grad students. Conferences can be punishing experiences for everybody, but I think a little effort can go a long way. The first thing is that informal conversation circles shouldn’t be completely closed off. I think people should be welcomed into a conversation, and even so, I’ve unintentionally engendered cliquish atmospheres in the past. If you’re going out for lunch or dinner, it’s nice to invite people along, even if they’re annoying, and if you end up with a big train of awkward grad students, it’s not the end of the world. I want to emphasize that ditching people is pretty bad form (Prof. H, I haven’t forgotten after all these years…), and so is ignoring students from less famous schools. It’s not necessary to talk to every grad student for a half hour, but making some effort to include everyone in a conversation helps to spread the happiness around. When talking to grad students about their projects, it is often nice to ask if their work is influenced by their advisors’ work. They tend to be relatively familiar with that, and it can be a basis for further conversation.