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re: conferences

I attended a conference this weekend on the strength of an abstract I sent in earlier in the summer. In between being accepted to the conference and now I had some significant feedback on the paper upon which the abstract was based (short version: write a better paper) and so the content of my intended presentation changed significantly during the last month. Arriving at this gorgeous facility the night before, then, my slides needed some work. In addition, I had to condense about 25 minutes of material to 20, then 15 once I found out that was the intended time, and psych myself up to explain my ideas to a room full of invited big-deal speakers. I want to point out some things I noticed while getting ready.

First of all, under the stress of getting this talk ready over the last few weeks, I had been surprisingly good at devoting time and mental energy to it. Basically, the reason I was burning the midnight oil on my slides was not that I had been slacking off, since pretty much all I've been doing this month is work on or think about this paper. However, once it was the night (and early morning) before, the insidious habits that largely defined my work ethic before I started thinking about productivity came creeping back. Did I need to check my email? No. Did I need to walk down the hall for ice? No, although the ice water was refreshing. But I did those things repeatedly. I have a feeling that these were mainly due to nervousness. Why that nervousness didn't motivate me to focus on the work intensely, leaving more time for sleep, I don't know.

Second, as student we have the misguided notion that our professors don't share the ridiculous foibles of grad students-that is, until we get to know them better. The first time a prof told me she had left a paper revision for a journal to the last minute and needed an extension, I was really surprised. (Now that I work for a journal I know that getting authors to respond to a copyedit on time can be tricky, like "herding cats", an expression that seems to be gaining ground in our department. The ONLY time that's not true is when we tell them "your paper will be published online in 3 days as is unless we hear from you," at which point I get answers in 1 day, if not a few hours.) So it shouldn't really have surprised me that every prof at this conference talked about throwing slides together the night before, not being able to hang out with prof buddies until the talk was finished, really appreciating the free freshly-ground coffee at the end of the hall all night, etc. And these are the big-deal people in my field, the ones whose papers we all read. Hilariously, they also talked about having the same fear I had-namely, that the person whose work I was discussing would be in the audience and disagree with what I say about them. So, we all procrastinate and we're all insecure. That's good to know.

I also want to share a little chunk of serendipity that helped things work out for me. Just before dinner on the night before my (early-morning) talk, I thought to take a stroll around. Leaving the building from the staircase near my room, I ended up not on a manicured path but out back behind our row of hotel rooms. I walked over to the woods and found myself face to face with a deer, who bounded off into the thicket. Wow, I thought, I've never been that close to a deer before. I walked back over to the building, not wanting to freak out the deer, and almost tripped over a rabbit who didn't seem to mind that I was tromping around and remained focused on the task at hand: eating the bush growing under our windows. I won't go into the details, but this sequence of zoological encounters led me to figure out the example I needed to tie a section of my talk together.

Finally, I want to share just how awesome this conference was. The hotel/conference center is also a playground for MBAs and executives-they come here for leadership training (seminars, team building, a ropes course) and this place knows how to cater to the business elite. By staying here we got that same treatment and it was nice. Gourmet food, gorgeous grounds, helpful and smiling staff bringing you more Kleenex boxes when your cold gets worse, etc. And award-winning coffee breaks. I read that on their website with skepticism, but I'm a convert now: one afternoon our coffee-break snack was a full spread of candy. There was a definite rise in our group mood when we spilled into the foyer and saw the table laden with gummy worms and candy bars and those little glass Coke bottles. And it seemed like the the older they were (the longer the attendee had gone without candy in their life?) the more excited they were to get it as a snack. So, not only are big-deal academics just like grad students, they're also just like little kids. Awesome.


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