Friday, October 29, 2010

Advice on getting connecting to the community (guest post by Daniel Apon)

(Guest Post by Daniel Apon.)

As a follow up to the last post on Do Conferences Build Community? I offer some advice for people to get connected to the community.
  1. Be Confident (And Smile!). It's absolutely important to give a positive first impression when introducing yourself to someone. Making eye contact, smiling, and speaking clearly go a long way toward making yourself an inviting person to have a conversation with. On other hand, one of the best ways to guarantee an awkward social experience is to act creepy; avoid that at all costs. And most importantly, meet as many people as you can!
  2. Great Researchers Are People Too! Sure, the person you're talking to could have a history of landmark publications dating back before you even know was NP-completeness was, but don't forget that everyone you're meeting is a human being (really). Be respectful of course, but remember that they're probably in a similar situation to you -- meeting new people during a coffee break!
  3. In the words of the immortal Fonz: Be Cool. One of the biggest turn-offs will be giving the impression that you want something from them. Go ahead and throw those types of ideas away immediately. If you're interested in the same things, conversation will flow naturally. Don't try to force anything; just let it happen.
(Comment from Bill G: The same advice applies to meeting people in bars, though you probably won't be discussing Fourier transforms over finite fields until your third drink.)


  1. Is it enough to talk to researchers at bi-annual conferences or do you need senior researchers at your university advising you, sitting on your committee, and attending your talks to succeed?

  2. beginning grad student9:58 AM, October 29, 2010

    I usually get stuck when asked what I'm working on. I'm at the stage where I'm reading papers and trying to find what to work on, I don't have anything specific to talk about yet. At this point the conversation usually grinds to a halt.

  3. @beginning grad student: As a quick fix, think of the things you find the most beautiful in TCS and talk about them instead. For me, I've always been fascinated how the GW MAX CUT approximation ratio so neatly matches up with the inapproximability ratio under the UGC. I'm sure you've got something similar that fascinated you, or else you wouldn't be studying TCS and attending TCS conferences!

    As a longer-term fix: Start working on something! It's a lot easier to talk about things that you spend huge portions of your time swimming (drowning?) in.

  4. "The same advice applies to meeting people in bars, though you probably won't be discussing Fourier transforms over finite fields until your third drink"

    It also helps to know that most FOCS-STOC types only pretend to know about Fourier transforms (leave alone transforms over finite fields) -- so careless dropping of certain phrases such as "Gowers' latest posting on the arxiv" (they don't read those either) will usually suffice to join the club of the highbrows....

    just kidding.

  5. Although I think roughly the same % of people at conferences are arrogant jerks as in ordinary life. If someone blows you off at a conference (or in ordinary life or at a bar), forget about them and try again with someone else.

  6. Many (most?) in the community are introverts; we just don't like to smalltalk or socialize all that much if we don't have to.

    On the other hand, I do agree that if someone "blows you off," you should just move on. There will always be other fish in the pond, dating or not.

  7. As a guy who knows/talks to a lot of people at theory conferences, I think that very few of them are truly arrogant.

    In general, theory people can be a little shy, be at a loss of what to say next, or (in some case) be completely lost in thought on their current favorite problem, so they may not even notice that someone is speaking to them. This is not arrogance! We have a lot of characters in our field with a lot of different personalities, but not many are jerks.

    If you are a student, you should introduce yourself to people at conferences just for the purposes of meeting cool people from all over who think about topics related to your own thoughts. There aren't many other people in this world who can relate to you in this way, so talk to them!

    Don't assume they will immediately love your research, or whatever your random thoughts are at the moment on famous problem. Just try to meet new people who may be your future colleagues.

  8. I have come to realize that many people in our field are just very socially awkward and this can sometimes make them seem aloof.

    Trying to draw a shy person out can be very difficult - so don't feel bad if you fail.

  9. I think the problem is rooted deeper. Most students worry all the time that they will make mistakes and famous people will think they are not very good. I see the same thing in my classes all the time. They don't ask questions even when they don't understand a bit of what I have said in the lecture. They just fear that they will ask the wrong question or a silly one, and that can be the end of world. They think they have to genius from start, understanding everything like an expert. Unfortunately most people don't understand trying and making mistakes and learning from them is a part of learning.

  10. If there's someone you want to talk to, I have an opening guaranteed to succeed:

    "I was reading your paper on X and found it very interesting. I was wondering, did you ever consider the variation Y?"

    If Y is chosen to be sufficiently interesting, I guarantee you can get anyone to talk for 5 minutes about X and at the end they will think you are the most interesting person they have met so far at the conference.

  11. Most people at conferences are rude to students. If you engage them as a student they might talk, but if someone else comes they will just show off how unimportant graduate students are. This is especially typical for USA academics. Very few have decent people skills not to be plain rude or realize how important to students is not to be arrogant, and are totally blinded with their enormous vanity. If you ask a question after talk, they often resort to primitive mocking (this is experience of so many people, and can go from uncalled derision to hypocritical condescending). There are a lot of jerks out there. The first question to a graduate student is typically "who is your advisor", and they will base their attitude to "it" (a student) on how much they can gain in the inter-advisor trading by treating another human being (yes, students are humans too) better than some annoying stray dog - a dog with a proper "owner" is less worthy of kicking.

  12. You'll be able to tell the ones who have read this at conferences. They'll be the ones walking around looking at the floor, and muttering, "Don't be creepy, don't be creepy"...

  13. Amusing video: "So you want to go to grad school in theoretical computer science?"

  14. ``Most people at conferences are rude to students.''

    To paraphrase my last blog:
    this kind of generality is false
    since it varies tremendously
    from professor to professor.

    Also, from the comments on this post and the last one there have been
    positive concrete stories from students interacting with profs at conferences, advice on how to do it,
    and some vague generalities about professors being hard to talk to.
    NO actual examples of such.

    To those who think it is hard to talk to professors I INVITE you to approach me and talk to me at FCRC
    (I'll be at STOC and CCC). I will respond to you with respect and talk to you about whatever you like. I'll listen to your ideas, have comment on them
    (cannot guarantee it will be intelligent commentary), tell you what I am working on, or talk about whatever else you want.


  15. OH- I just noticed that in the last
    comment I invited people who think its hard to talk to profs to talk to me.

    Actually, ANYONE who wants to talk to me I will respond to with respect.
    (and copy the entire last comment here).


  16. GASARCH says: "I INVITE you to approach me and talk to me ... I will respond to you with respect."

    GASARCH's post stands among among the finest (and most-needed) posts that I have ever seen in the STEM blogosphere.


    Anonymous asks: "So you want to go to grad school in theoretical computer science?"

    Anonymous, that same video was posted on Scott Aaronson's Shtetl Optimized. It is no secret that these sentiments have become widespread among STEM students in every discipline ... and that these sentiments are justified by modern realities.

    Last week's reading list of our TCS/QSE Litotica seminar challenged students to go beyond that video's (shallow) reading of the challenges that the STEM community is facing.

    Anonymous, that video is too cynical to be allowed to stand as the last word on these tough STEM issues ... it is preferable to view the video as an invitation to start thinking, not stop thinking.