Musing on schmoozing

In my previous entry I expounded my own view on the wisdom of sending graduate students to conferences, Summer schools, as well as to other institutions and/or laboratories to carry out work under the supervision of someone other than their advisor.
To me, one of the main reasons to promote this kind of activity is to increase a student’s visibility within his/her community, as well as create opportunities for students to have some “face time” with prospective future employers.
OK, now, what do I really mean by that ?

The Inorganic Gardener (TIG), in one of the comments to my post, unequivocally expressed his distaste for “schmoozing” [0], stating his preference for letting his CV speak for itself. I tried to clarify my stand in subsequent comments, but then it occurred to me that maybe it is worth writing a post about this very subject.
I surely did not mean to imply that students ought be sent to conferences or Summer schools so that they can approach potential employers and, by skillful use of adulation, induce the person(s) to offer them a job, or derive any other personal gain.
Aside from all the other legitimate qualms that one may have, in my opinion this strategy simply does not work. It may produce, at best, only a minor, short term gain, and it is almost invariably harmful in the long run.
Anyone worth schmoozing to, is likely quite used to receiving that kind of attention, and can instantly tell whether the interlocutor is genuinely interested in entertaining a conversation; as a result, the schmoozer is not likely to get very far. Conversely, anyone who is swayed by flattery is almost certainly not a very desirable employer, for a number of easily imaginable reasons.

So, what is a student to gain from the type of exposure arising from participating to a conference, for example ? In order to make this clear, it is necessary for me to provide some background on the situation currently faced by most aspiring young scientists, seeking a position in academia, or more generally in a setting allowing them to pursue basic research; this is, after all, the desire that many, possibly most of us harbor, as we initially choose a scientific discipline as our concentration for our college education.
Academic positions are hard to come by, and competition is quite keen, even for a post of postdoctoral associate at an institution that is not particularly highly ranked. Odds are always stacked against any applicant, including the relatively few who have the proper “pedigree” (typically a doctoral degree from a world-renowned university, and at least one prominent scientist for mentor).

The problem with just sending an application and then “letting the CV speak for itself”, is that virtually no CV can ever speak loudly enough, especially early on in one’s career. The CV of the vast majority of us may be distinguished, remarkable, but insufficient by itself to propel us to the top of a pool of applicants of size easily in the hundreds. Regardless of how “quantitative” a set of criteria one adopts (i.e., how many points to assign to a first-authored article on a first tier journal, or to an invited talk at a prestigious conference — assuming that any two people can agree on any such scheme), invariably at the end of a preliminary screening based exclusively on the application material, there will remain several applicants whose credentials and qualifications are very similar — or, to phrase it differently, differences among them are too small to justify the selection of any one of them without additional information [1]. In ordinary circumstances, this “first cut” of applicants is still too large to proceed with actual interviews (either on campus or by phone or Skype), and some additional “weeding out” will occur — based on increasingly subjective (read: whimsical) criteria, as the differences among candidates become less and less noticeable, and committee members eventually run out of excuses to eliminate any of them from contention.

This preliminary stage is where the aspirations of many potentially excellent applicants go up in smoke, for essentially no other reason than the need to reduce the size of the pool. These individuals are often talented, bright young scientists, whose misfortune consists of having obtained their PhD degrees at second-tier universities, or not having co-authored any publication on some high profile journal, or not featuring any member of the National Academy of Sciences among their references, or, more mundanely, not being a student of anyone known to one of the members of the search committee [2]. These applicants pay dearly for the lack of anything about them that “sticks out”, that may give a member of the search committee a reason to request that their file not be discarded.
It is precisely at this stage that an applicant can benefit greatly from having been seen deliver a talk at a conference, or having been at a Summer school and impressed the lecturers, or even having engaged in a worthwhile scientific exchange with one of the members of the search committee. If at least one of them can attach a face to a CV, this may well make the difference for the candidate’s file between ending on the “Interview” versus “Rejected” pile.
It may be argued that this mechanism cannot possibly make a big difference, but, to me, when one is talking such low odds, and given the randomness and serendipity of it all, anything that can help should be seriously considered.

I am not talking about getting the job, which ultimately rests with the candidate him/herself — I am simply talking about survival, namely a chance to make one’s own case in person, without being discarded early on. The notion that the CV alone can do that, is naive.

[0] Schmooze | SH MOOZ (also shmooze) verb
[intrans.] Talk intimately and cozily; gossip
[trans.] Talk in such a way to (someone), typically in order to manipulate, flatter or impress them.
[1] Of course, there are also important qualities that a candidate should have, that can not be inferred from a CV, or a letter of recommendation. One of them is effectiveness at communicating verbally. This is why very rarely is anyone hired anywhere without a face-to-face interview, a telephone conversation, some kind of verbal communication with the prospective employer beyond a written letter. This happens not just in academia, but virtually in any professional sector.
[2] Irritatingly shallow and silly as these reasons may sound, one has to feel somewhat sympathetic with search committees that simply do not have the time to carry out in-depth investigations of dozens of applicants.

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5 Responses to “Musing on schmoozing”

  1. Odyssey Says:

    Great post! I know I am where I am in part because of who I have had the opportunity to interact with in the past. Perhaps one of the hardest things for a young scientist to learn is self-promotion, and schmoozing is certainly a part of that.

  2. Massimo (formerly known as Okham) Says:

    schmoozing is certainly a part of that.

    OK, I guess today I am not having much luck at getting my point across 🙂

  3. Odyssey Says:

    “Schmoozing” was the wrong word to use. I meant meaningful conversations. I did get your point, and agree with it. I was a little quick with the typing. Sorry.

  4. Professor in Training Says:

    Students and trainees also need to be aware that it’s rare for scientists to effectively conduct their research in a bubble and that getting out and meeting other people can benefit them in so many different ways – jobs, collaborations, invitations to speak, whatever. And someone can have a stellar CV but may have gotten it by riding someone else’s coat tails and that will become patently obvious during a face-to-face meeting. Similarly, someone who is just getting started may have great ideas or some preliminary stuff that hasn’t been published and if they don’t put themselves out there professionally, nobody is ever going to know who the hell they are. Whether these conversations or schmoozing occurs at meetings, lab internships, summer projects, etc doesn’t matter. Exposing students/trainees to a variety of science AND scientists can only be a good thing.

  5. The Inorganic Gardener Says:

    If you mean genuine “I actually really AM interested in your work and I’m not trying to get a job” then fine, but I’ve seen people schmooze far too often. I know of one serious up-his-own-arse PDRA go to a conference with his Palm (who even uses one of them?!) packed full of notes he’d made on all the “top” academics present (inc. their photos) so he could go and suck them off in the breaks and try and get a job. The result? One of them told him to “fuck off”. Schadenfreude……(prob spelled wrong)

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