Ever notice how conferences are like high school?

The past two weeks have been conference overload, so maybe this post arises from the inevitable post-conference brain scramble. But it’s an interesting analogy to consider, particularly while listening to music I first got hooked on in high school. Think back to the last conference you went to, and see if you can identify the following groups.

GEEKS: These are the scientists who are fascinated with new technology. Not as a tool, or a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself. They’ll show you the latest in remote-controlled LiDar data collection, or the newest robotic total station that allows you to survey an entire stream reach by yourself. But that’s pretty much where it ends. The ‘gee wow’ factor never translates into anything about how this ties into current theory in a specific research discipline, or how it could expand our understanding of specific processes. It’s just cool stuff!

STONERS/GOTHS/PUNKS & OTHER OUTSIDERS: These are the scientists on the periphery. They’re a bit weird, perhaps somewhat socially awkward. But brilliant. They see the discipline from a completely different perspective and so approach research questions from far left field. While this sometimes results in major failures, it doesn’t phase them – even more so because this approach can often lead to astonishing new findings. Definitely outside the status quo, working to the beat of a drummer no one else can hear.

AVERAGE KIDS: These are the workhorses of academia. Plugging away at basic research questions that have been addressed by others in the past, but maybe not at this location, or not with this small twist in the hypothesis. There’s nothing particularly new or groundbreaking in what they’re working on, as it largely confirms what’s been done previously. But the methodology is solid, the data analysis decent, and the outcomes make sense. They easily fit in with the rest of the group because they’re even-keeled and have minimal ego.

JOCKS: These are the scientists who are more likely to focus on the cool stuff they saw on their way to take a sample or make a measurement, than the outcome of that data collection. They like the camaraderie of hanging out with a group of researchers, drinking beer (or scotch) and telling outrageous field stories. But when it comes to their own research, it’s a bit thin on the details and heavy on the nice pictures, with tales of all-night sampling campaigns or getting charged by a polar bear while climbing into a Twin Otter to fly home.

POPULAR KIDS: By far the stars of a conference, these scientists have the most influence and draw other conference attendees like bees to honey. If you can just talk to them, touch them, maybe they’ll notice you or some of their influence will rub off on you. While they may not be fantastic scientists on their own, they’re good at coming up with big ideas that other people work on – like the OUTSIDERS – which the PKs then take credit for. Their winning combination of strategic politicking and car salesmanship convinces others of their stellar worth and high standing in the science field. This then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: when they submit papers for publication reviewers automatically think it must be good work, and when government or industry is looking for experts they go to the popular kids who have the highest profile.

While these groups can be awful but necessary in high school, they serve the same purpose at conferences – and in science as a whole. We always want to divide into groups, if only to better comprehend the world, and it’s the interaction between these groups that pushes our work forward. While these particular groups aren’t static (I’ve definitely been a member of several of them over time), their general boundaries are pretty clear.

In which of these categories do you see yourself now? Which do you wish you were part of – and why? Have any groups been missed?

*Already have a suggestion for a ‘multi-tasker’ category, that straddles groups.

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5 thoughts on “Ever notice how conferences are like high school?

  1. Another category: those that sit there and soak it all up, play in their mind with the ideas presented, and ask questions to satisfy their curiosity.As for the "popular kids" – Feyerabend describes the phenomenon in his hilarious book : Against method".Jan

  2. Dr. Boon, Last week I attended and presented at the CGU/CWRA conference in Banff, Alberta. Based on my presentation I would say I currently fall into the 'average kids' category. My master's work under Dr. Masaki Hayashi is numerical modeling of snow, soil physics, frozen soil snowmelt runoff, and depression focused recharge in Western Canadian Prairies. Many previous researchers have focused on this topic in Saskatchewan, so the place is new with slightly different conditions (Chinooks). As you state in the AK category, these topics have been addressed, and conclusions will not be groundbreaking. Yet, the contribution for the area (as well as the bigger project for Rocky View County) is important. I see myself in the AK category because I'm still gaining experience as a scientist. As a masters student the science world is vast and my eyes are widening everyday. The AK approach is a great fundamental start for any career one may take in science – strong development of a sound scientific foundation. As I gain my "science water-wings" I hope to migrate through a few of these categories. In addition to your questions I raise 2 more questions:1) Do most graduate students initially take on the style/category of their adviser (or based on their project) before potentially breaking into a new one?2) As a scientist yourself, do you find you crossover into different categories at a different stage in your career and/or straddle a few groups?By the way, just stumbled onto your blog. It is a great read, thanks! – Chris

  3. @Chris: Thanks for the comments. I agree that grad students – particularly MSc students – will likely be in the AK category as that's where you can cut your teeth. PhD students are starting to develop their own research 'personality' and so may change groups. I don't think students necessarily take on the category of their adviser because each of us has a different approach to research, including what we enjoy most about it and how we integrate it with our other responsibilities. I definitely find crossover between categories and/or straddling groups, both at different career stages but also for individual projects. I think that's also what makes science work – there are a range of perspectives and approaches to move science forward.

  4. I deny membership of any group in science and reject the concept of categorization of such eccentric and generally brilliant individuals. Like many, I entered science to discover new things, not to be in a group. True scientific discovery in hydrology is ultimately a solitary task where the intellect and skill of the individual is pitted against the infinite complexity and beauty of nature. Yes, we have collaborations and artificial 'networks' to keep funding going, but these often detract from true scientific advances. And we do have 'used car salesmen' and 'warlords' but any recollection of their contribution passes quickly as the shallowness of their 'synthesis' becomes apparent. Look how Hortonian overland flow faded in importance once Horton's bullying of scientific community ended – that is because it was a bad theory. The scientific method will allow the pearls to be plucked from the muck by those who carry on. So leave pearls and not bs.Poms

  5. How did you manage to find this out of the way blog, John? :)Good points – ultimately any categorization, whether it be of people or streams, will fail to identify the commonalities between groups by focusing only on those within groups. In the end we're all working towards understanding nature, and it's our individual connection with and contribution to that study that makes the difference. These days it's hard to separate the pearls from the bs, however, given the volume of information and its 'repackaging' that we've both seen at conferences.Feynman puts it in perspective in this clip re: nature & science.

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