Who am I to blow against the wind?

She looked me over and I guess she though I was all right – all right in a sort of a limited way for an off-night. I fucking hate schmoozing. It is one of my least favorite things about being a scientist, but in my job, it is something that everyone has to do sooner or later. It’s not that I don’t like people, I enjoy talking to my friends and family, and even strangers I find I have something in common with. What I don’t like is feeling that I have to be schmoozy with people just because they are supposedly  important. For those of you who don’t know, schmoozing is the act of chatting up people such as journal editors, program officers from your funding agency, big scientists in the field, with the hopes of having them get to know you and your work, and have them help you promote it. This kind of a thing typically takes place at scientific meetings where you might see a large group of people chatting and drinking with an editor of an important journal, and a whole bunch of others trying to get into the inner clique of big name scientists and journal editors. And what bothers me is that the nature of the mirthful scene is not scientific exchange, but just schmoozing and small talking and buddy-buddying. Me personally, I just don’t have much to say to these people in these terms. Often I have nothing in common with them, and while I would like to discuss my and their science, this type of conversation is not part of the mix for the most part. Yet I know, that your chances of getting an article reviewed at a glamour journal are infinitely smaller if you don’t personally know the editor. I felt this very strongly when we submitted our first papers from my lab. I felt that the quality of the work and the impact of the results were as good or better as what I did as a postdoc. Yet none of the top journals would even review them, while this was never an issue when I was a postdoc in a big name lab.

And of course I’ve tried schmoozing, but it is always awkward. I’ll go up to a big name at a meeting who’s work I’ve admired and have lots of scientific things to discuss, or try to introduce myself to an editor who’s at the meeting who might find my work interesting, and basically I’ll say hi, introduce myself, shake hands and then I feel like a complete idiot because I have really nothing to say, and the whole situation feels so phony, and other people doing the same thing feel hollow, and I just say “nice to meet you”, linger around awkwardly for a little bit and walk away (I’m starting to sound like Holden Caulfield). But I don’t think its me. I do meet lots of interesting people at meetings with whom I have developed long-term friendships and started collaborations, and enjoy seeing them every year. But these are people I have things to say to. The only time I just force myself to schmooze is with program officers. Because once they get to know you, they will provide you with huge amounts of helpful insight the next time you submit your grant, and might be willing to rescue your grant from the dustbin in a pinch. So in these cases I overcome the awkwardness and get right to the business of talking science. It also helps that at bigger meetings you can actually set up appointments to chat with program officers, which removes some of the schmooziness from the whole situation.

Despite my distaste for it, however, schmoozing can get you very far. Often people who become very successful very quickly are excellent and highly articulate schmoozers. They know all the big names and all the editors and every time they submit a paper it gets reviewed and accepted. And its not that these people are not smart. You need to produce top-level, or at least hot and flashy science, to get your work published at a top-tier journal. But there is a lot of really good, top-level science that never makes it into these journals, and I think that one of the reasons is the ability of the investigator to schmooze with the right people. Some people might even get pretty far with schmoozing alone. I’ve heard of people who have gotten tenure track jobs and prestigious awards without a single publication from their postdoc period, just because they are well-spoken and adept at getting into the right circles and everyone knows them and gives them the benefit of the doubt. To us, non-schmoozers, nobody gives the benefit of the doubt.

And its also not that journal editors, paper reviewers or grant reviewers will consciously reject your paper or grant because you were that guy they had that awkward encounter with at the meeting while they were hanging out with their friends at the poster session. But anyone, no matter what they say, will always look more favorably upon a friend than someone they barely know, and even tiny biases can make a big difference in a highly competitive environment. And that is why, my hesitance to do so, I keep on trying to schmooze and keep on introducing myself and hope that my tics don’t scare them away.

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10 Responses to Who am I to blow against the wind?

  1. I know that there are advantages to befriending key influential people but it just seems so disingenuous it makes me cringe. I have witnessed schmoozers blatantly brush off and ignore an “insignificant” person in their over-eagerness to get buddy buddy with their target. How is this not obvious to a schmoozee? And whose to say who is going to be a big name in the future? I might have forgotten most of the many many people who were kind and supportive when I was a student, but I sure as hell remember the few PIs who were rude or dismissive at the poster session!

    For these reasons I take pains to treat everyone the same. I am not a social butterfly, but I figured out that most people like to talk about themselves. If you give them the floor they tend to like you to. I think people remember more about what you do when you do not try to push your research on them or bore them to death with the details. I give a brief fun synopsis of myself and research and continue to inquire about their research or career. If you get to know enough random people you will eventually have a connection with a program manager or big name, and you will not look so obvious when you get introduced!

  2. namnezia says:

    I agree with what you say, I hate when people look at your name tag before they talk to you at a meeting. That is why I usually flip mine over and watch the person keep craning their neck to read your tag. I mean they could *ask* my name. My problem with meetings is that I’m always so tired by the end of the day, I’d just rather hang out with people I’m friends with. Most of the time, when I’ve met random people at meetings, particularly small ones, seems to be during breakfast, when I’m cheeriest.

  3. isisthescientist says:

    It has taken me several years to feel really good about attended a couple of big meetings. But, it seems to work like forming a crystal. As soon as you for a seed, or meet one great big named person who really takes an interest in you, the rest of the crystal seems to form. That is, that one big name starts to introduce you to all their other big name friends. And then you are in like Flynn.

    Buena suerte…

  4. GMP says:

    I think the schmozee totally knows when they are being courted, and most enjoy it more than they would care to admit. I hate schmoozing as well as being schmoozed but you have to do it and I try to optimize it. I will make a list of whom I want to meet, and try to contact them before the meeting and send them some papers with a brief “I thought you might find these interesting” and a couple of pdf’s attached. Some reply, some don’t, but I know most people will at least open the pdf’s. So then I sort of have an excuse to introduce myself and talk about science when I “accidentally on purpose” run into them.

    Of course, you cannot plan 100% on whom you will meet. Sometimes, when an opportunity presents itself that I didn’t plan on, I just go introduce myself, say a few sentences about what I do, and once things become awkward, I quickly leave saying “I am very glad we met. Enjoy the rest of the meeting.” Then I might follow up with an email containing papers after the meeting, to remind them of my existence.
    I think in these cases being a woman is helpful, since there are so few in my field that people tend to remember you — for whatever reason.

    I think you do what you can with a brief meeting, flee once things get uncomfortable, and pick up next time (you now have the excuse to approach the person since you met them at the previous meeting). Of course, some won’t remember you, but don’t take it too hard, remind them of who you are and reintroduce yourself.

    But true, this is all very uncomfortable, but you have to keep doing it, as it does get better. You have to act like you belong in the crowd with the big names, and then it does become a self-fulfilling propfecy. Or so I hear…

    I agree this is all very exhausting though. Lunches and coffes are OK for talking shop with new acquaintances, but I usually end up having dinner with friends.

    Oh yeah — what Dr. G said — there is a special place in hell for those who slight what they perceive as “lesser scientists” while they are busy way climbing up a Big Name’s colon.

  5. I totally agree with you–I truly hate schmoozing. I was never really strong with social skills, though I have gotten better with practice. I am not so good at making small talk, but I have definitely improved with practice, as GMP says.

    I never, ever treat people like lesser beings. I try to treat everyone with respect, and have had some great conversations with students from “lesser” schools. All empathy aside, you never know when a student who you ignore will become a program manager you need to know.

    I admit I look at people’s name tags, but mostly because I am bad at names, and I feel really embarrassed when I can’t remember someone I have recently been introduced to.

  6. Arlenna says:

    I really, really hate schmoozing too. It just feels so unnatural and creepy, and it just brings back all my childhood anxieties about “being annoying.” I just end up hating myself for it. ugh.

  7. I highly recommend the book “How To Talk To Anyone” by Leil Lowndes. It’s a bit fluffy here and there, but overall it contains some solid suggestions for chit chatting at these sorts of events and has served me well.

    Learned about the book from an NSF program manager, funnily enough.

  8. Ugh, hate schmoozing too, and I don’t even put a ton of pressure on myself to do it yet since I’m still a postdoc. Just bought the book FCS just recommended- certainly can’t hurt!

  9. Gerty-Z says:

    I find it sort of amusing that everyone (not just here, but everyone that I ever talk to) claims to hate schmoozing. Yet it is clearly a mainstay of our profession. If we all hate it, why do we all insist it is so important? It is like bitching about reviewers. I know that I am still pretty naive, but we can’t all HATE reviewers. We all ARE reviewers, right? Anywho, in the spirit of this post, I am apparently a decent schmoozer. But I don’t ever try to schmooze…at meetings I get so excited about everything that I talk to EVERYONE. Without even realizing it, I have had beers with program officers and met “bigwigs”. I like this better than crawling up someone’s asshole. I don’t think many people like phony schmoozing, but almost everyone likes someone that is truly interested in what is going on. IMHO

    BTW-great blog! Sorry I was a lurker for so long.

    • Arlenna says:

      See, that’s the kind of schmoozing that isn’t uncomfortable to me–if you’re genuinely excited about something and get in a great conversation and end up hanging out, that’s real. The crappy kind is the kind where you have some reason to feel like you should be talking to some person but you don’t really feel like it and it’s all awkward. Ugh.

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