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Social advice?

  1. Aug 28, 2008 #1
    Hi everyone,

    So, I've got some questions that fall into the category of social etiquette. I'm an undergrad, will graduate this year, and am looking at potential graduate programs, so hopefully I'll be visiting a few schools in the spring. I might also be attending a conference in my field. The issue I have is that I'm a bit on the socially awkward side at these events - not that I'm inherently awkward, but just that I tend to be rather shy around people who know a lot more than me. I'm pretty sure I'll want to meet other physicists at these events, but I have no idea how to approach people and what to say. I am wondering if anyone can help me out with the awkwardness. Do any of you know of any great conversation starters? How do you keep the conversation going? Any tips for this social atmosphere? :redface:

  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 28, 2008 #2
    Conferences can be really socially odd when you are first starting out. Everyone can, at first, feel very out-classed. You have a bunch of people who are experts in their fields and you are really just starting to touch the tip of the iceberg that is professional physics research. I know I felt that way.

    People love to talk about their research, so just ask them questions about it. If you don't understand something, ask them about it. Don't be afraid to sound dumb- just pick your questions.

    Good luck!

    EDIT: Is your adviser or any one else you know going to be there? Have them introduce you to everyone they know, you have to start networking sometime and there is no time like the present.
  4. Aug 29, 2008 #3
    Conferences usually have poster sessions where the folks who aren't important enough to give talks get to present their work. There are usually lots of graduate students with posters who are more than happy to talk - and you won't need to feel intimidated.

    You can approach someone with a poster by asking things like "what did you do? and what did you find out?" - or "can you give me the Cliff's/Coles' Notes version of your poster?" If the explanation starts to go out of your depth, stop the person and tell them in your own words what you've understood so far.

    You can strike up a conversation with other students by saying something like "so, did you learn anything new and cool today?" Or "what's been your favourite talk so far?" Even "Have you ever been to <conference location> before?" will start up a conversation.

    When you are sitting in a talk try to take notes. Get a notebook for taking notes in talks. Try to jot down the main point of each slide (sometimes this will mean just drawing a quick graph). If you sit next to someone else from your research group you can also ask him or her questions to clarify things you don't know - "what's that variable?" or "how do they measure blah?"

    Conference dinners are also fun. Ask professors how they ended up studying physics or how they ended up specializing in their particular subfield. One time at a conference I wound up sitting at the dinner table with a Famous Nobel Laureate. I hadn't known this until we were introduced and all I could think of to say was "you proposed the resonating valence bond ground state for the Heisenberg model on a triangular lattice!" Needless to say that was fairly well the extent of our conversation. :rolleyes:
  5. Aug 29, 2008 #4
    The key emotion that you should convey is pure and naked interest in their work. One thing I've learned over these past two years is that professors/doctoral students take a great pride in their work and their research.

    But I think you should try to first seek out the poster sessions and the other grad students.

    Try to imagine yourself in their situation on the other side. I have seen math professors give lectures that was really bad, on the arnold-schwarzenegger-acting-kind of bad on the scale. But they were very inclined to talk about their research and answering questions you might have had.

    I understand it, and sometimes I can feel this feeling to. Will they really care if I ask something? Will they think it's stupid or out of place? Or even irrelevant at all...

    But you need to try to take the first baby steps in the pond before you can just throw yourself from a rock into the furious atlantic. In time, me and you will be able to just take that step also. :)
  6. Aug 29, 2008 #5


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    Lots of great advice here. Here's what I used a lot:
    "Hello, I'm in 4th year physics. What are you working on?
  7. Sep 1, 2008 #6
    The secret is to convert any "closed" question/statement like this into an open one before you open your mouth. The only answer to the above question is yes, change it to make sure that any answer will be a long one, e.g., "How did you come to propose that the resonating valence bond ground state for the Heisenberg model is on a triangular lattice?"

    Warning: you might still get a blunt answer (like "read my paper!"). Many physicists don't have any social graces. Then it might be time to circulate. Assuming it's a coffee session, just shuffle away and chat to the next person standing alone. "What's your line of research?" Try and work them out of monosyllabic answers if the cause doesn't look lost...

    With anyone, even lowly students, don't rabbit on about yourself, always ask them open questions that will inspire long answers about their work or situation. Then you learn, they feel good about themselves (someone's actually interested in tme!), and they will like you. If you find open questions coming back, then you have found an expert socialiser. Just enjoy the ride, and try to throw as many open questions back at them as they throw at you.

    Dinners can be dodgy because you might be sandwiched between monosyllabics. So try and find out the movers, shakers, and socialisers at the coffee sessions. Then you might be able to choose who to sit beside at dinner. Take the advice in this thread, and you could have a choice. Then be brutal, cut the nice student and sit next to Feynman. (You can make it up later with student. "Sorry I left you sitting next to to Professor Monosyllable, buy hey I couldn't pass up chatting to Feynman. Look he's over there (Hi, Rich!), let's me introduce you to him...")

    Oops, starting to indulge in fantasy... but you get the drift.
  8. Sep 1, 2008 #7


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    Conferences and interviews are different situations. Though, for either one, it might help to find your inner actor. Tell yourself in advance what you need to do, even if it's not naturally what comes to you, and just do it.

    At conferences, there are poster sessions. All you need to do to talk to someone there is say, "Can you talk me through what you've done?" and they'll give you their spiel. If that prompts any questions, ask them. If not, a simple, "Thanks, that was really interesting," will suffice. (I'm more of the outgoing variety, so am the opposite at poster sessions, and draw in people who might be just scanning titles and wandering past by asking them directly if they want me to talk them through the poster or if they have any questions or if they just make the "mistake" of looking too long, I jump right in talking to them about it.)

    On interviews, you just have to put on your interview hat. There are some things that are normally expected. When you meet a new person, stick your hand out, shake hands FIRMLY (none of those wimpy, limp, soggy handshakes...practice with friends if you must...one or two strong shakes), and introduce yourself. "Hi, I'm ..., nice to meet you." Make eye contact when doing this. The interviewer should direct you to a seat at this point. Take your seat and try to relax and converse with them. This is the tough part for a lot of people. It helps to think about it ahead of time. What would you like to tell an interviewer about yourself or what you've done? If you have some research experience, be ready to talk about the project you've done, what it's purpose was, what you learned from it, what obstacles you encountered, and how you overcame those obstacles, or if you didn't overcome them, how you might have handled it differently. Why do you want to do research, or go to grad school?

    When I interview someone, personally, I understand nervousness and shyness and don't hold it against a student, because it took me a while to overcome my own shyness and learn how to interview well (I'm not at all shy anymore, but I used to be). What I look for beyond that is passion. Even a shy student needs to have passion for what they're doing. I try to find that during an interview.
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