February 20, 2006

Conferences 101: How's Your Work Going?

Jill follows up on Profgrrrl in exploring what to say when people ask:

How's your work going?

The original question dealt with people dropping by your office at the university, but let's look at the bigger (and more common) scenario of conferences and trade shows.

  1. Profgrrrl is right that "I'm incredibly busy" is boring -- and so it's the most useful response to have ready when you're unprepared for the question.
  2. "I'm excited about _____, which is turning out well." is better. I can almost never manage this backstage, because I'm usually worrying about what's going wrong instead of basking in what went right. When you're on stage, though, basking in what went right is better. It's on-target for your messaging and also more interesting, because you already know what turned out well and you don't know whether the stuff you're worrying about will turn out well or ill.
  3. "I just found/read/discovered ______, which might interest you!" This is much better. You're sharing research, giving away something that might be valuable and also indicating what you're working on. It's always possible that they won't be very interested, but that's OK; it's the thought that counts, and they might come back with some data that will really interest you.
  4. To be honest, I'm stuck trying to get _________. Whether you can't get your laser to stay aligned or can't figure out what happened to the 1637 Madonna or simply can't seem to understand what Derrida was trying to say, being stuck is part of research. The trick is simple:
    1. Be stuck specifically on some interesting problem -- not bogged down in malaise
    2. Be stuck, when possible, on something where help might be available. (Your XP-29 keeps falling out of alignment? I just heard that Professor Zwonk's postdoc made a special mount....)
    3. Be stuck amusingly (I was spending the summer in Oxford looking through 17th century account books, but then I discovered this amazing collection of early Victorian pornography and wound up writing a bunch of completely useless columns for Nerve and The Guardian, and now I have to fly back in the middle of winter and walk all the way from Heathrow....)

Both Jill and Profgrrrrl are wrong, IMHO, about dressing to blend in. At conferences, you don't want to blend in: you want people to notice you and to remember you next year. It's best to be famous in the field, but if you aren't, being "that very tall guy from Harvard" or "the young woman from Oxford who had bright green hair and some preliminary data on Kayenta polychrome" is better than being forgotten.

Conferences 101: How's Your Work Going?
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