Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Join the Party!

Today’s guest blogger is Brittany Kamai. Brittany is currently a Ph.D. student in physics at Vanderbilt University. Her research is on the Fermilab Holometer, an experiment designed to test whether a fundamental description of space-time has large scale measurable effects. She is a National Academy of Sciences Ford Fellow, a NSF Graduate Research Fellow, Fermi National Laboratory URA Scholar and Kavli Institute of Cosmological Physics, University of Chicago Visiting Graduate Student. Brittany got her B.Sc. degree at the University of Hawaii and her M.A. at Fisk University.
Let's re-think this -- the academic world is a giant party! At first glance, you may not see what I mean, but here is a way I have reframed the situation to make it less intimidating. What I reference here as "the party" is the scientific world itself. It's a strange new environment that doesn’t make sense. Party goers may appear unapproachable and may even be speaking a different language. The party itself may seem daunting and overwhelming. Forget all that!
Invite yourself to the party!
You need to invite yourself to the party. Yes, this is a nerve racking experience because you may feel out of place and awkward. The reality is that the party is where you need to be! You are an intelligent, interesting scientist who the host maybe hasn't met yet. You may have slipped under the radar, and the organizers aren't fully aware of what you can bring to the table. In most cases, it wasn't a personal slight towards you. They just weren't paying attention and missed giving you an invitation.

What kind of parties are there?
There are many different types of scientific interactions. They range from small scale one-on-one conversations with your office mate to large scale events like attending conferences. I found the best way to navigate a large group of scientists is to interact with a few people on a more personal level before a big engagement. You may have a friend, colleague, or advisor that can introduce you to new people. If not, you can just introduce yourself. One very important thing is to stay engaged and attentive to what the other person is saying. It will strengthen your connection with that person and potentially lead to new scientific ideas. Remember to share what you are doing as well.
For example, if I run into someone at the coffee machine, I ask them what they are working on. We exchange a short conversation about our respective research. I'll head back to my computer and read up a little bit on what they do. The next time I run into them at the department pre-colloquium event, I inquire further and discuss what I learned. The other person is happy that I remembered what they do. Another nice feature is that they are usually in a group of their research mates, and I get to meet them too.
One untapped secret is inviting people out to coffee or tea! More people will go to meet with you for 20 minutes then you might think. I got to know my PhD advisor this way before I decided to work with him. Interacting with fellow graduate students on a walk to the nearby coffee machine has spawned incredible discussions. Also, this is a great break and helps you to get back into your work. It’s better than reading PhD comics for the 10 thousandth time today.
Once you begin finding your local network this way, you will be able to start applying your skills when you are attending a conference or visiting a less familiar department.
Finding your voice
I think of academia as being thrown into a foreign country where I can't speak the language. What do you do? It's really intimidating at first, but you need to just immerse yourself in it. Listen to words that people say often and go look them up. Listen to the way people frame scientific arguments -- it's like learning grammar. One of my favorite books is my physics dictionary. I used it a lot when I was first starting out in graduate school. It is a great way to get a sense of what exactly physicists mean by the words they are saying. The longer you spend in this foreign country, the easier it will be to graduate from simple sentences like, "Hi, my name is..." to arguing about 17th century philosophy. Remember, don't hesitate to ask people what they are talking about! There will always be some new piece of science you are less familiar with. My favorite phrase is, "I'm not familiar with that, could you elaborate?"
Wearing grown-up clothes (sometimes)
You need to figure out the right set of clothes that makes you the most comfortable at each scientific engagement. This includes at your desk, giving presentations, and meeting new professors. You wouldn't want to be over- or under-dressed for the party right? I use the term "grown-up clothes" for business attire that I wear in settings where I need a little more confidence. I tend to dress up a bit for conferences, giving talks, or situations where I will run into the more "old school" faculty members. It took me a while to find the right set of clothes that fit my body type comfortably. I found that wearing high-heeled wedges make me feel super confident, and I am really excited to talk about my science. For me, I found that I can't wear these clothes all the time. I am an experimentalist, so I need clothes that are sturdy and can get dirty while I crawl around my experiment. A close friend of mine has worn grown-up clothes every day since we started graduate school. Find what works for you!
Meetings and The Telecon
Group Meetings and/or telecons are two types of parties that I found to be the hardest to navigate. It can feel at times that it is out of your control. Here are a few things that you can do. Talk with your advisor or the person running the meeting to help ensure that you have a voice. They are someone with authority over the meeting and a more regular party goer. They know how to help in this format. The night before the meeting, email the person assembling the agenda to let them know you have something you want to talk about. A lot of times, I write down the few points I want to make before my meeting so I don't get flustered due to the nerves. When you decide to say something make sure you take your time. Don’t forget that people are interested in hearing what you have to say.
Get on out there!
I found that by engaging in this way has really strengthened my scientific abilities. In my research, it has helped me focus on what questions are important to pursue. Importantly, I have learned how much one really has to know about their work and others. (Before this, I used to think I had to know all of physics by the age of 6 to stay at this party, which for the record, is not true.) I am able to understand seminars better that aren't directly in my sub-field.

Remember that we signed up to be scientists because what we do is absolutely fun and amazing. If you approach the academic world this way, I am sure that this will help remind you of it. Once you become a regular party goer, make sure you help engage less experienced party goers in the fun!  Before you know it, you will be invited to too many parties. Then I will have to write the next piece, "Scaling Back on Your Science Partying."

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