How (Not) to Make a Fool Out of Yourself in Academics

 

As a second-year PhD student, I now have to attend as many conferences as I can and really get my research out there. I’m meeting a lot of fellow academics, from fresh phd-ers like me to the older heroes in the field. And every time again, I feel hilariously out of place. So if you are a fresh academic as well, or if you are new to a job and get the opportunity to go represent your work or company at an (inter)national workshop or conference: here are some tips of what NOT to do. Believe me, I speak from experience.

  • If you’re a nervous talker and people are talking shop, stay out of it. Before you know it, you have compared someone’s work on primate vocalisation to the Monkey News on British comedy stars Ricky Gervais, Steve Merchant and Karl Pilkington’s Xfm radio show. Don’t forget: you are not there to have fun. You are there to make people think you are smart. And stories about monkeys stealing cars or getting married are probably not ideal for that particular purpose.
  • Know what to talk about during the coffee breaks and dinner for at least one or two intelligent conversations. After all, it would be a shame if no one noticed you and your genius ideas because you were too good at blending in with the furniture. And no, your last holiday is not a good conversation starter. Especially not when you are talking to an established and highly prized researcher. Where other people manage to discus their own research with these very interesting people or ask intelligent questions about Mrs. Professor’s latest paper, I managed to steer the conversation to Mrs. Professor’s cat and knitting work.
  • Make sure you know who’s who. As in, it’s slightly to very embarrassing when that one time you are actually talking about your research, you try to make a point by quoting research actually done by the person you’re talking to. Do not say something like “In this paper of Smart Person 2015, he claims that …” to have that same Mr Smart Person give you a vague smile and look just as confused as you do by the time you start realising your mistake.
  • Make sure you know who’s important. Don’t go round asking “and what do you do” to the people who have been invited to represent the whole field and give the main talks on your workshop. They sort of expect you to know who they are, turns out.

I think a lot of problems can be solved by a good amount of pre-conference stalking. Look up who’s coming to the conference with you. Actually read the abstracts for the talks. I don’t know, rate them on a scale of importantness and also of relevance to your field? Oh, maybe go full on detective style, maps with pins and yarn connections or something. After all, don’t we all want to pretend we are not just boring academics? Or maybe, that’s just me and that’s where my ridiculous conference encounters stem from…

Advertisements

Bolzano Week 2 – Summer schools are hard work

It is now Thursday and I am quite ready for the summerschool to be over. As opposed to most people here, I don’t really take a lot of classes. I have two sessions in the morning this week, and nothing in the afternoon. But still it’s hard work. There are evening lectures that need attending, there are social obligations. You can never just relax an evening at home, since you have to go out every evening to find food and generally at least half of the evening is work talk.

Also, I’m sort of at that point again where really I can think of a-thousand-and-one things to do next at work. Revising what I saw in the lectures and seeing how it applies to my work, reading some material that sounds very relevant for my research, preparing a presentation for the conference I’m going to in September, and not to forget doing the actual research I was planning to do over summer. And rather than getting a move on, I tend to crash. Add to that the hot Italian temperatures and a sunstroke here and there, and I am very much ready for my holiday to start. But of course that won’t make the heavy work load disappear, sigh.

So I am now trying to get some stuff done in the library (only airconditioned place in town, Halleluja!) I figured I’d start with some small bits and bobs: making sure my new literature and notes are organised well so I know where to look for the info when I need it, making sure I understand everything I’m being taught, and trying to not forget all of the new info instantly. Hopefully tomorrow I can manage to tie up the rest of the loose ends and make a schedule for when I’m back at work, so my holiday can start properly! Because the second the boyfriend arrives on Saturday, it’ll be all hikes and trips and fun nights out 🙂

Bolzano day 3 – Un Cafè Delicioso

So today was a little more work and a little less touristing, but still it’s been a good day so far. I got some nice work done, and also managed to relax with some decent company and of course excellent coffee. The espresso here, my oh my it is amazing.

Back home, there appears to be this new trend where asking an espresso equals asking the strongest coffee ever. But espresso doesn’t get better by making it stronger. It becomes pretty hard to drink even, the flavour is way too strong and after one sip, you are left with an incredibly bitter aftertaste that doesn’t go away for at least an hour. But of course, here they master the art of coffeebrewing perfectly. Not that I expected any differently.

The espressos are balancing perfectly on the line between a beautiful and proper coffee flavour and a decent caffeine kick-in-the-butt. It does take some getting used to how absolutely tiny they are. Imagine the tiniest coffee cup. And then don’t fill it even half way. That is what one calls a “shot” of espresso. (Which by the way is just called a coffee here, un caffè. No idea where that very Italian looking word espresso comes from!)

For tonight, I might go out to grab some tasty dinner and afterwards some of my colleagues here might just go down to the Irish pub for some pub quizzing. As you do when your in Italy… ?

Bolzano Day 2: My First Bolzano Hike, sort of

So yesterday was fun. I did do a fair bit of studying and I think I have a good idea of what’s going on in class, and for today’s class I didn’t really have much work because it’s a lot less relevant to what I’m doing, so no need to go the extra mile. I even managed to do some other work, well done me! That’s work sorted, yay.

I also went for a long walk with my roommate yesterday, just along the river. Turns out the river splits at some point. So when we crossed the river to walk back on the other side, this  appeared to be less ideal than anticipated. Not the nicest walk, but at least I got those legs moving. You see, I’ve been working super hard at the gym and gave myself this self-imposed challenge: when the boyfriend and I go hiking in the mountains (which will be in less than two weeks now, can’t wait!), I will be the first one at the top. But now the cheeky bastard has really upped his game at the gym as well so I totally have to step it up. Which I really did today. I stepped up, up the hill, and it was gorgeous.

I didn’t have too much time because I was going for this hike between classes, so I told myself: one hour in and then you have to turn back. I decided to tackle the Oswaldpromenade. (Some statistics for you: I walked 1h20, covered 5,9kms with a height difference of 150m.) It’s a lovely little path at the side of the centre going up one of the hills between all the vineyards. There were amazing views of the town centre and the mountains on the other side, and the level of the walk was the perfect little challenge for an in-between-important-stuff hike.

The path was perfectly accessible, not too steep, and relatively easy to navigate. At the end of the path (or maybe it wasn’t the end, but it was as far as time allowed me to go), there was a massive super fancy hotel, the Eberle Hotel, with an amazing view of the city and I bet it would be the ideal place for an evening cocktail (but my glass of wine in town this evening suited me just fine). The map told me the way back would just be road, but really it was quite fun! The road was super narrow, therefore, very cute. And insanely steep! It took me almost an hour to reach the top on the way in, and only 5 minutes to go down because it was simply so steep you just had to run down to make it easier on the knees. That was fun 🙂 The last part of the walk I went straight through the bustling town centre, shops and Italians eating ice cream everywhere. Back nicely in time for a shower and back to the lectures I went.

So far, this combo of work and holiday is going quite well. Bring on tomorrow!

Bolzano, Italy: Arrival

I am back on the road! Well, not really, I just went abroad for work, but I’ll take it 🙂 I’m currently at a summerschool in Bolzano, Italy. I’m taking one class this week and two next week, and of course I do have to do a lot of reading and studying after class but I’ll also have a fair amount of free time to just enjoy experiencing new things again. And then in two weeks time, the boyfriend is coming to meet me for one week of holiday 😀

Yesterday was a travel day, and a lot of people always say travel days are wasted days, but this one really wasn’t. I flew from Brussels to Munich (with Lufthansa, complete and utter luxury after only flying Ryanair for the last two years) and there I had to take a few trains to be on my way to Bolzano. Bolzano is located in the north-east of Italy, in South Tirol. I’ve been to Tirol before, and also to other parts of Italy, but this is something else. The final train ride went from Munich East to Bolzano, through Austria. That means: through the mountains! What a view, my oh my, I absolutely love the mountains and it has been way too long since we last saw each other. The whole four hours on the train, I just sat and enjoyed the view.

Right before Bolzano, there were a few longer tunnels and every time we came out one, I was scared the mountains were gonna be gone. You see, I didn’t really google anything about Bolzano so I had no idea what to expect. But when we finally arrived, I was pleasantly surprised. Indeed, the landscape did change, but definitely not for the worse.

There are hills and little mountains on all sides, covered in vineyards. The architecture is more Italian than Tiroler, which I really didn’t expect. And the vibe is too. My hotel is right in the centre, and as I went for a stroll to find a bite to eat before I going to bed last night, I found all these adorable streets with restaurants around every corner and a constant smell of truffle and garlic. Just the thought of it now when writing this is making me so hungry!

This morning, I went for an early run. Early as in a bit after 7, just about early enough for the sun to still be behind the mountains. I loved it. Seriously, I’m already in love with this town. It has charm. And mountains. And wine and food. What more do you want?

Unknown

I just finished my first class and it was super confusing so I should really get to work now, I might try to find a nice coffee bar where I will blend in with the furniture for the rest of the day. Until it goes a bit cooler. Then I  might go off exploring, me thinks!

Happy Home Holidays

So I belong to one of those lucky people who get to work from home. Even better, I’m not quite sure if I’m even expected to work! My campus closes for a month over summer (and also two weeks over Christmas and one week over Easter), but that doesn’t mean I automatically have a month off.  Just like any other Belgian, I have about 20 days to take off whenever it pleases me.

Now, any other PhD student will happily tell you that taking a month off isn’t the best idea. You don’t ever really want to take a clean break, as you don’t want the ideas you’ve worked so hard on to swim away as you jump in the sea from some Italian cliff, or to whizz past you as you cycle through the Black Forest in Germany, or to simply fall asleep and get left behind when you’re chilling out in some park after lunch. So no, I do not have a month of holidays. But I have to say, life has been treating me well.

Obviously I don’t work my 9 to 5, or even 10 to 4 really. I get up, go to the gym or have a glorious sunny morning run, do stuff around the house or garden, and then I get to work. Under the parasol in our little garden, because yes, it is summmeerrrrrr! And as I sit here working, once in a while, my mind drifts off. Like: I’ll go make some ice cream. Or: oh man there’s a cricket! You know what I mean right, the cicadas that make that holiday sound you just cannot escape when you go south? We don’t really get them here as much, but instant holiday feeling! I located them to the tiny bush of grass by the edge of the garden I’ve been meaning to get rid off. None of that now though, instead I might just see if it grows bigger and attracts more vacation-bugs. Because I might be home and I might be sort of working, but life is not bad at all, and I don’t mind doing this for the rest of summer at all. Who says you need to go on holiday to get the holiday feeling?!

So to summarise: here’s my recipe for a holiday at home:

  • 1 or 2 crickets
  • A parasol
  • Little ice popsicle holders (just mix some yoghurt with that fruit you were gonna throw out because it’s not that fresh anymore but really still quite tasty and stick it in the freezer)
  • A load of sunscreen

Happy holidays!

Conference Mayhem

A new first for me: I’m on a conference! Well, I was today. Now I’m back at the hotel, on my own, contemplating on whether to eat alone in the hotel like many other people, or be adventurous and take on the city centre, being the only weirdo eating alone.

Mind you: I’m in Colchester, Essex, and earlier today, England won a European Championship game against Wales. In other words: it might not be the perfect night to go eat out alone. I used to travel a lot on my own, but two things I never did was eat out alone, and go to the movies alone. And since I want to avoid accidentally ending up in the not so nice and drunk part of town, I might have to opt for hotel food anyways. The healthiest option: a pizza with extra rocket lettuce. Oh well. I guess I’ll just order a laaaaarge glass of wine to go with it! (Yesterday I found it funny you can choose the size of your glass. Now I couldn’t be happier about it.)

As you might guess from my mood writing this, the conference didn’t go so well. I really really tried to stay positive and made the best out of a far from perfect situation, but now I am allowed to crash. To start with, I didn’t get to give a full presentation, only a poster during lunch. I think you will agree: not ideal. Secondly, the presentations planned were not in my area of research at all. Either it was applied linguistics, with a lot of child language acquisition, or it was more formal accounts of different dialects of Arabic. Both very interesting subjects, but not nearly interesting enough to travel half a day and pay all the money to get there. Obviously, when it was poster time, my highly formal and theoretical and typological poster looked well out of place. Hardly anyone came by to ask me about it, and when they did they asked questions like “which language are you studying” (as many as possible, I’m doing typology, duh) and “so what exactly can you do with this” (hello, it’s formal linguistics, you can’t do anything with it but find it interesting, or on a more intellectual node: it helps us understand how languages work in our brain).

All the professors at the conference were nowhere to be found during my poster presentation, and rather than disappointed, I was offended. Someone in their review committee decided my abstract was worth to be presented on a poster. I came all the way from Belgium (I know, not that far, but you’d think so differently when you look at the price of the train tickets) to stand next to a f*ing poster that no one showed any interest at.

So for the next presentation of the invited speaker, I made sure I was noticed. I sat right in front of the bastard who didn’t think my poster was worth five minutes of his time, and asked a nasty question at the end (which I do think was relevant, I wasn’t just being critical for the sake of it). It worked. He asked me who I was after. I introduced myself and managed to get the topic on my research. After five minutes, I gave him my handout and went full-on presenting on him. You know what he said? “Very interesting, what a pity you didn’t get to present.” ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?!?!

Lessons learned:

It doesn’t matter if you’re young and inexperienced, asking questions will get you noticed and open doors.

Don’t try to open doors that don’t want to be opened: don’t present posters at conferences that don’t really deal with your research anyways.

I still don’t like the idea of eating alone.

I love the idea of a large glass of wine.