On Monday I gave a talk on how internet tools can be used to make the job of being an academic a little easier. I had given a very short version of the talk to faculty in the department over a year ago, but this time I was given an hour in a forum for early career researchers, PhD students and postdocs. The subject of twitter, covered early on in the talk, aroused a lot of interest, probably because I got very animated about its benefits for those in the early stages of their careers.
To provide a little context for my enthusiasm, it probably helps to know a few things about me, about my situation, and about my recent experiences.
- I am an introvert. Despite my best (and occasionally successful) efforts to project a different image, I do not find talking to people I don’t know very enjoyable.
- I am an early career cognitive neuroscientist keen to build my own research programme and develop links with other researchers.
- Last month I attended the Society for Neuroscience conference, at which I attended the best conference social I have ever attended.
Given the received wisdom that people in my position ought to be networking, I often drag myself kicking and screaming to conference socials. The result tends to be a lot of standing around on my own drinking beer, which gives me something to do, but which I could do much more comfortably with one or two people I know well. The major problem at these events is not my nature, or my status as an early career researcher, but the fact that the people I have imagined myself talking to usually don’t know who I am. Conversation is therefore awkward, one-sided and introductory. Once the niceties have dried up, and the level of accumulated conversational silence edges into awkward territory I invariably finish my drink and bugger off to get another one, ending the misery for all involved. This is probably a universal experience for those starting out in academia, though thankfully it is happening less and less to me as I build something of network of real friends who attend the same conferences as me. But as a PhD student and postdoc, the experience was excruciating.
I had a totally different experience when I attended the SfN Banter tweetup*. The event, organised by @doc_becca and @neuropolarbear, was a social for neuroscientists who use twitter and changed my view of conference socials. They do not have to be endured, even by those doing PhDs and postdocs. They can be enjoyed.
I was excited about going and that excitement didn’t leave me feeling shortchanged by the time I left. I spoke (actually spoke!) to everyone I wanted to speak to. Moreover, I had good conversations with people to whom I was speaking for the first time. The reason is fairly obvious – twitter allowed us to build on a body of shared (or at least assumed) knowledge. I follow people, they follow me, I reply to or retweet their tweets, they do the same – and this is all before we’ve introduced ourselves. When I finally meet someone with whom I have such a history of communication, introducing myself is the least awkward thing I can do. The barriers to conversation are removed**.
Sure, this pattern followed for most interactions at the tweetup because we were all there to do exactly that. Would the experience be the same at the ‘fMRI social’? No. But, I don’t think that matters. If I could have had one of those conference social experience during my time as a PhD student, it would have given me an idea of what I might have to look forward to from conferences if I stuck at it. Light at the end of the tunnel, a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a variable-ratio schedule-determined stimulation of the limbic system following an umpteenth lever press.
It will take a while (there’s no point joining in September 2013 and expecting great things at the SfN tweetup in San Diego), and it’s probably not the primary reason to join twitter (see Dorothy Bishop’s blog and Tom Hartley’s blog for far more comprehensive discussions of how and why you should join), but it’s another reason, and it’s one that could make you feel good about your role in academia. It’s worth a shot.
* tw(itter) (m)eetup, see?
** What you do afterwards is up to you. I still had some awkward interactions, but I think that’s probably down to me (see context point 1).