Since Basti just shed some light on the Dark Side (Haha :P) of some aspects of the life as a research assistant, I take my chance to give my two cents on the bright side of the same topic: conferences.
I’m not here to contradict anything he said there and as he also pointed out some of the good points. I’m not going to embellish everything, but I actually enjoy conferences and I’m here to tell you why.
(Order doesn’t imply anything at all)
I’ve worked hard most of my life. Not like some kind of rags to riches story, not at all, but during my time studying (and even after that, to be honest) I did go on barely any great vacation worth mentioning. There is no real reason, maybe apart from me preferring to spend any spare money on nerdy gadgets rather than travelling.
But now my job offers me the opportunity to travel to cities, that I have not been to before. While it’s not even remotely vacation, there is often some time in the evenings or on arrival and departure day where you can just leave the hotel and go out to gather some new experiences. It’s a little bit about leaving your comfort zone. I even prefer to go for a stroll without a map, just strolling around the city, resisting the temptation of google maps in my phone, and get a feeling for the city. Last time, in Linz, I did not even buy a public transportation ticket.
Honestly, if you are the kind of person who depends on appreciation, the scientific field or life as a Research Assistant is not what you are looking for. You need intrinsic motivation, a healthy portion of idealism or the really, really strong desire for those two letters in front of your name to go all the way. Of course, there are moments, when a student thanks you for a good seminar or your supervision of your thesis, or your professor congratulating on your good work (and both Basti and me are pretty lucky with our Ph.D. advisor), or seeing your student getting a reward for their thesis.
But for me, somehow, it’s a great form of appreciation to get my butt down into that economy class air plane seat, checking into that pretty okayish three-star-hotel or registering for the conference knowing that my university is paying for all that just for me to give a 15 minute talk about my research to an audience of twenty moderately interested people.
It helps me continuing my work, showing me that it must be worth my time, if it’s worth that kind of money to my employer.
Networking is a topic with many different faces and even more opinions on it. There are different forms of networking and, honestly, I like only some of them. I don’t like all that trying-to-impress the who-is-who in the community. I don’t like ass-kissing, I don’t even really enjoy meaningless small talk about the weather with colleagues from around the world. I need my time to get into real networking, so the usual coffee-break style of networking is not mine. But more often than not, opportunities of networking arise when you don’t really expect them. I went to Austria to present my work to an unknown community of researchers with a broad background. I didn’t expect too much beforehand, but I didn’t expect to meet two colleagues from computer science didactic departments of other universities in NRW. We talked a lot, and that is the kind of networking I like. We exchanged experiences, talked about obstacles and progress in our research projects, planned doctoral meet-ups and got to know each other better – not on the conference venue, but walking around looking for Currywurst and souvenirs in the evening.
Same for the first two days – Basti and I walked a total of nearly 50000 steps each day. The result is this blog.
So, no matter if you talk to a one-of-his-kind professor from the other side of the globe or a fellow research assistant from a building down the street, no matter if during the coffee break, fireside chat, conference dinner or strolling around the city, it’s all about looking beyond your little office.
Last but not least, conferences always kind of ground me, give me confidence. And there has not yet been a single conference which did not achieve this. No matter the rating, no matter the focus, no matter the sponsor. If you look close enough, all the others still put their pants on one leg at a time. Research isn’t magic and if you are in doubt of your own topic/ideas/methods (which is healthy and actually should happen, so you’ll stay critical and objective) you’ll see that others do mistakes, too.
So, stay positive and always strive for the best.