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.