A chat with Sho about going to conferences

Christina: “So, Sho, we were recently in Boston attending the annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (BUCLD). Let’s chat a bit about conferencing as a post doc. How, if at all, did attending a conference change between being a PhD student and a post doctoral researcher?”


Sho: “That’s a good question! I guess for me it’s been more of a gradual change (except for the conference fees of course!) My first conference was in 2010 at ICIS in Baltimore, when I wasn’t even a PhD student, the only person I knew was my supervisor, and I couldn’t believe someone whose name I had only read on papers so far was actually standing in front of me and asking questions about my poster. At that conference I didn’t have many interactions, because I was too afraid to walk up to anybody, and nobody knew me. Then with each conference the number of people I knew increased. On the one hand, the people I had met at other conferences or at lab events increased, and on the other hand, I think especially once you start giving talks people start recognizing you and come up to you to discuss your work.
And by now, one of the things I look most forward to at a conference is seeing all these people I know.”


Christina: “Do you meet new people or tend to reconnect with people you already know and met at previous conferences?”

Sho: “Both I guess – I must say, this time around it was more about reconnecting for me. That has to do with the fact that I have moved twice within the last year (Netherlands-Japan-France) so there was a lot of catching up to do, both professionally and privately.”


Christina: “Do you have a ‘strategy’ ready before going to a conference?”

Sho: “Haha, no, never – maybe it’d be good to have one, especially if you want to talk to a specific person. But by now I’ve made the experience that, luckily, people in our field are mostly very open and accessible, so you don’t need elaborate strategies to get a chance to talk to them. So it’s usually quite easy to just talk to someone during coffee break – the only problem being that the people I want to talk to but never have tend to be these super busy and popular ones that never stand around alone. But then you just have to wait for the moment they step aside to grab a cookie, and dash to the table and also grab one, and chat to them in this 15 second slot. Can go right, can go wrong!
But I can totally see how this could be different for other fields, or for other people – see the first question, the 2010 me would never have been able to do that! So in general it’s always good to ask around whether anyone you know well is connected to the person you would like to talk to – and then try to get introduced.”


Christina: “Did you start new collaborations based on discussions at a conference before?”

Sho: “I think the fact that I am doing what I’m doing, that’s the result of discussions at a conference way before I entered the field. My supervisor in Japan heard a talk of a Dutch professor who was gonna end up being my PhD supervisor – about a linguistic tendency that tended to occur in many Western language, but apparently not in Japanese. So they started talking and got really enthusiastic about doing some cross-linguistic research together. Just they lacked the student to do that for them – until one day I showed up in the lab in Tokyo, saying I’d want to do some cross-linguistic research! And there I was, having my dream PhD project that allowed me to travel between Japan and Europe, and those two had their collaboration.
And then there’s us and the Metalab project with the Stanford people – I think this collaboration really started this spring at SRCD when we had talks in the same session.
In both cases, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that these collaborations wouldn’t have happened without conferences, but they certainly created a good occasion to interact.”


Christina: “What is more important for you, going to talks, posters, or discussions in the hallways and outside the conference?”

Sho: “In general, I think talks provide a great overview, posters allow more in-depth discussion, and the off-program discussions are good for integrating the new things heard with your own research. Personally, I am not so much of a poster person – both when it comes to presenting them and looking at them. I find the whole concept makes for a slightly awkward balance – but on the other hand of course also for great discoveries!”


Christina: “Spontaneous or scheduled; did you plan meetings and lunches ahead of the conference?”

Sho: “Yes, I did – I myself am by far not known and important enough for that to be necessary, but some of the people I needed to meet up with have very busy schedules, so we fixed a meeting time in advance.”


Christina: “Are there any recommendations you want to share with pre-tenure researchers that attend a conference?”

Sho: “I guess my main advice would be to not stress about it too much – as I said before, the first time you go you might not know many people and end up alone sometimes, or you might give a suboptimal response to a question at your poster. But the former will just change over time, and about the latter, everyone has gone through this first poster session thing, so nobody expects you to be perfect. Oh, but the only thing one really needs to stress about, unfortunately, is being comfortable with speaking in English. That is just absolutely invaluable. It might be something very obvious and natural for some, but I know especially from the Asian researchers I know, that the language barrier can be a big obstacle. It’s unfair. But it’s a fact.”


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