New York and big city habits

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What I most enjoy about a city as big as NYC is the feeling of being unremarkable and anonymous and hence getting a lot of your own space (not always literally). My impression is not everyone likes this feeling and there are sociological theories against it: indeed it figures many move to small towns like the one I live in now to sense knowing the place and having a degree of predictability.

For those who have always felt different in whichever environment, embarking to a big city can be a refreshing experience, though.

Am wondering around with a book I bought, in a red bag, hair still wet, I sit in a cafeteria to read it and write emails. The taxis go past, the coffee is ok, I seem to be noticed by no-one with my slightly worn clothes, also slightly worn smartphone, and a book that accompanies another book of a 19th century political economist.

I suppose I could literally be a graduate student from the next university, a professor from the next state, an academic tourist from Finland – none of which I am – and nobody could tell the difference nor even reflect on it.

To embrace this new sense of normalcy I adapt new habits: I like it that I always feel busy here even as I am walking to nowhere in particular and try developing a kind of a blase attitude to accompany the busyness.

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Ithaca semiotics

I am sitting by myself in an Ithaca cafe, upstate NY, and someone uses the word ‘semiosis’ in the table next to me.

Are you right to feel enjoying a place based on a two night visit, neglecting how it is when you are in a daily routine? I do like the place and feel it resonates with things that are important to me: from locality to vegetarianism, a university and Science & Technology Studies, and indeed semiotics.

To a new land

I had tried to find a job and research funding for a while when things began to happen. Namely I just learned that I was accepted to an open position in a major university in the US. I immersily look forward to pursue my research and meet the people there, and I think there’s a lesson for PhD’s – to keep writing those applications if you want to do scholarship.

Hence, in September and beyond, you will find me in NJ, to continue articles about what I most enjoy researching: risk, systems, infrastructures, and disaster in the context of sociology and international relations as well.

Another conference diary

I literally crossed the sea to meet all of you again.

I go to work with good intent to do various things but just mainly end up printing my tickets to reach the ferry terminal in time. The lines in the ferry are long and I have brought a bit too much to read. I end up skimming through the introduction to a book related to my presentation and a thesis of the main organizer that I have promised to read. Alone in the streets of another city and checking into the hotel, I have a few hours in my hotel room. I also cross the university I am headed to on my way and consider for a while whether I would go there to read in the cafeteria.

I finally decide to walk to the university, which is just one block from my hotel, half an hour before time to be punctual. Barking into the room where the first lecture takes place, find two guys who speak English. They are however just operating the camera. Then to the university cafeteria to have a tea. Someone glances at me from the other table. As the drink ends and I am not sure if the place is still open, I eventually go to sit in the (quite magnificent) lobby of the university. Someone that looks susceptibly familiar as well as a Finn walks by and seems to recognize me but does not come to talk yet.

I go to the seminar room again and there are still the camera operators and no-one else. It is now what I believe to be 15 minutes to the start of the lecture albeit the real start is 15 past so I am actually 30 minutes early. Pick a seat pretty far back. Five minutes go and what seems to be the speaker walks in. I do not know him yet so I do not go introduce myself just now. Then one of my acquaintances from a conference over one year ago walks in. As far as I recall, we know each other from sharing a breakfast table and a talk for 10 minutes in the same hostel albeit there have been a few emails more recently because of this seminar and he interviewed me as part of the event with a web camera.

He walks to gently greet me and the result is what this conference is going to be like many times. Namely, I am talking to people I have literally almost just met as I if I already knew them very well. The person I mentioned earlier in this marking also walks in and takes a seat in front of me, asks who I am by my real first name. Turns out she was at my doctoral defence and a colleague of others I know in Helsinki. Then the rest of the seminar presenters arrive after sharing a cab. There are hugs in the front but I’m too far in the aback to join as there are quite a few people now in the audience. One of them, though, to whom I have written long emails over our common ideas leaves the room and enters again and as I wave my hand, crosses rows of chairs over to ask how I am.

The keynote speaker provides an excellent long presentation. Later we all head for a dinner. I can just repeat the experience I noted earlier: End up discussing with everyone like I know them and who knows maybe I do in a way. After all, we obviously share a lot, maybe it is just a sentiment of doing a similar thing and being networked. Based on this, I could strongly claim there are friendships within networks, there are needs of being in contact with someone, and there is clear respect (I notice I agree with one of the persons from the seminar all the time, all of her ideas are so well crafted and based on close actual reading of what academics meant.) As a result I too end up being I feel very different from what I am at home. For example, I am not that sure that I ever or at least that often compliment anyone, make public jokes, start chatting with strangers, and here I am doing all of that abroad and it works. To be clear there are also all the usual limitations and obstacles. To pick some examples I can think of: You cannot or at least should not try to dominate seminar discussions; other people may find you irritating at times; others may make light-hearted jokes about you in a company; if you make points that are not good and clear, no-one will think they are clever. But that’s fine if 90% of the time everything feels like it works. I am obviously not against the limitations of social life but am against that becoming your everyday life all the time.

All in all, the very nice experiences of this conference continue throughout the three days. I repeat just some for the sake of illustrating and maybe making a point: this is how academic socializing can and maybe should go, if everyone is just up to it. One, am feeling a bit guilty that I did not introduce myself to a PhD student during the first night’s dinner so I take the opportunity during the break in the seminar. Several times after this, during the coffee breaks, we find each other chatting, which is great because I am usually not very keen at going into conversations during such breaks (it often feels a bit forced which it should not because everyone is in the same situation as you are). Two, returning after the last day, one participant walks with me to a bus stop and ends up just during this 10 minute talk sharing experiences about job seeking that are most valuable at this point for me. That practically no-one tells me these things may be revealing.

Three, during the days I manage to tell what I think my work is like and about my uncertainties concerning a career. I always seem to get first a get a long pensive look and then valuable support. One could easily find this impressive. Namely, in effect, one could really claim that I am just complaining and not realizing “what the game is like”. However there is no arrogance nor avoidance of difficult issues anywhere here. Could not academic life be like that all the time?

I will now not go to the details of the content, suffice to say, I learn a lot. A field called “ecological anthropology” may relate very closely to what I am doing. Some also say that anthropology is a very open discipline that welcomes outsiders too and at least these three days confirmed that experience in every possible way.

Maybe what matters now for the purpose of this marking is what just happened then. The seminars ends at noon and my ship leaves at around 18:00. We consider some final get-together but the others need to work and I start to feel like I need to take a walk. (This is a choice I often find myself taking; I know what it’s like like not to be part of things so when I am more included, I try to work my best not to impose my company.) So one last time say goodbye to everyone with hugs.

I end up taking a pleasant and pensive walk around Tallinn where the seminar is. In Kalasadam I am so impressed by the buildings that I text the person I live with that we should really find a place and move there. Next to the railway station I visit a market place that is all what I remember such market places to be like. At the railway station I visit a big grocery store (that was not there before) to buy a soda and a bun. In the line there’s a baby that is shyly looking at me, very much like our daughter, then gets almost over-enthusiastic when I smile back at her. Certainly this is something I would not have noticed before having a family. I finally am back in the old part of Tallinn and recall how much I’ve been here with my family as a teenager. Maybe there’s some good in visiting more often.

I end my visit to a big record store and seem to enjoy being in one for the first time in many years. Over the sea I already miss the event and the people and know that as per motivation, my academic career has just gotten a one year extension.

The unexpected

I know about the long pause in my writings. There are a couple of reasons. One is job seeking. The other is family extension. So the lots of free time I used to have is spent on other things now, including writing applications that are not always answered and in another somewhat more rewarding vein, taking care of a five-month-old toddler.

I guess a lot of my thoughts are still with making a dissertation and how that changes things or not. At the same time a compilation of lists of “what making a thesis taught you” are doubtless very common and I know already went through this thing in this blog a couple of months ago. However, maybe there is a reason for an update, now that the wishes I had of certainly getting an extension have not been fulfilled.

I am going to divide this report to two different postings. The first is the unexpected and I would say some of it disdainful: what I did not expect that thesis making would be? The second part is about the good things and is written as a conference diary. With all the things going on, I think emphasizing how good conferences can be serves some very important purposes.

First things first. What surprises a thesis maker when the thesis is finished and thinking about it in the aftermath?

I should have known but did not expect the amount and extent of the competition. Namely I sort of knew the funding is competitive as are academic positions, but not that it is only the starting point. To joke but not too much, almost anything that can be turned into a competition is also going to be turned into competition. These are just a few examples based on experiences: you compete about funding but after getting the funding you also compete about getting into projects and collaborations. A project meeting could not be so much a meeting at all but a competition about whose ideas are listened to. When desks and chairs are distributed there are official rules but these too are only the starting point. In the end what seems to matter is who can make themselves to be a member of the community. Those who are not willing to compete will get a desk that no-one else wants to have, even when they are entitled to one. It is very petty as someone remarked well (in a conference of course, it is not likely anyone would admit this much in a work place). If then you are the kind of person that feels very confident and self-aware – and can express yourself like that too – then you are going to have an advantage. And why should this be the case? I believe it is because the resources are always scarcer than the actors. People have to compete whether they like it or not and some are better and less worried about those things. I am also strongly starting to believe that many a research project could be practiced in fairly loose international networks, but good luck with that idea and getting a job.

I did not expect how many people I lost touch with over the years. Back as a student with “good ideas” I used to go to long lunches and coffee with some 3-4 people almost all the time for years. We talked and improved the world as one says, knowing especially well what sociology should be like in the best possible world. I was somehow  very much expecting to continue in these same “networks” and maybe even collaborate in them. That just did not happen. The contacts were almost just lost immediately after I started to make a PhD, the phone calls ceased, people went on with their own things. What happened instead was that one builds new networks. It works well too and I continue to be amazed by it (see next post), but it is strange to know so little about people near you.

Related to that I did not expect how lonely the work would be. Again this is something you sort of know about and joke about: about the researcher in the chambers. But working non-stop for 14 hours a day without talking to anyone for months is the reality that maybe has to be experienced to be really be appreciated. There is some good in this kind of working practice: you get to concentrate a lot to a single thing. But there is more bad than good I think. Vonnegut whose “Last Interview” book I read over the holidays said nicely that literature should be about something else than just literature: it is experiences with other things like science and technology (as his own example shows) that fuels literary works. Ditto for sociology: it should be about something else than just about sociology, a sociologist should know about something else substantial than just the sociological canon. I would indeed strongly suggest it is the real lived experiences with other people and professionals that give you new ideas academically. With no input like that, who knows where your ideas will end up to.

I did not really expect to start to feel old eventually. As an outsider, it seems like people inside the academia hardly age at all, staying in touch with the kinds of ideas that animated them at 23. But within the place, one’s age still does matter and that is made rather apparent in many ways. Indeed this could also be accentuated by today’s competitive environments. In some fields, a 35-year-old like me should have enough publications to almost be a professor. If you make a PhD before 30 then that is going to help a lot. To be clear there are ways around these limitations but it gets more difficult as you age. I feel one has to rely on luck and opportunity more than resources. All in all, however, the aging part still worries me quite a little and seems to do less the more years pass. Maybe one reason is that I seem to notice that at around 35, many people I know have started considering a new career. I do not fortunately really have that worry at least in my thoughts (employment is another matter). If possibilities existed, I would be very glad to continue my research when I am 55 or something. And true you notice that new PhD students are continuously younger than you are: compared to a PhD at 35, a candidate at 25 is rather close to being almost a student. But on the other hand, conferences are a nice way of experiencing your age differently maybe because conferences are centered around a theme and not a work place or a community that needs to define who can be included.

I did not expect what complete academic freedom coupled with a lot of time would do to you or for you. For the last year I have had the benefit of not working for anyone but myself. For the last six years I have at times had my supervisors and bosses but they have generally given quite a little oversight to my work, comparatively speaking. My working hours have never been fixed nor have there been many proper deadlines. This is kind of nice but also creates unforeseen behavior maybe simply because you cannot always force yourself to work. I notice for many years I started doing a lot of things I had not been doing as a student because back then I was so focused to have a degree fast enough. But as a PhD candidate, I started sports and exercising even for hours at a time, going to a shopping mall, biking around, buying and playing games, going to movies, visiting flea markets, and libraries plus book shops. Perhaps I was not quite as efficient and fast as before. Anyway a PhD is a long project and maybe all of this was necessary to relieve stress or something. In the aftermath, maybe that time could have been spent better to improve my career, but the fact remains: when no-one practically tells you exactly what to do, you are also not told what not to do.

Finally, I did not expect that your relations with other people do not necessarily deepen over time. Contrary to the advice that it takes time and effort to get to know people, I feel that you meet people once and then in the first or the second meeting you know what it’s going to be like for the rest of your knowing each other. If you get along great together, then a coincidence of sharing a breakfast table in a conference might make you a contact that you think about all the time, more than about your close friends in many ways. If you have a bad start with someone in a seminar – if they look down upon you, for example – then expect this will endure for the rest of your career. That might be a trait of academic networking. But are the academic networks “real” relations with other people? Considering that I have received Christmas wishes and a birthday card, or considering that I have spoken with people I met at conferences non-stop for hours and kept having something to say, I think they are as real as relations as one has with relatives and friends. The only thing is that they are so focused – or not – that they seem to be almost fixed to their place from the start.

Finished doctoral thesis: what it meant?

The one key content of this blog and its markings is changing soon. Namely I finished my doctoral thesis after almost exactly six years of working on it. I am happy to say the defence was an excellent day including the after-party. But how does it feel now, what did this all mean? I have thought about this certainly enough, including in this blog, that an answer is in place. Were any of my considerations, meticulously drafted here as notes, right about what it means to make a doctoral thesis?

Overall, I have to say I have had a number of misconceptions. Not that this is a bad thing. It feels much better in unpredictable ways to make a thesis than I previously thought. Even though my future is open and uncertain, it feels much better a choice to make a thesis rather than not make it. But the reasons for this were rarely the same as I envisioned. Put things yet more differently many times I seemed just to be putting the cart before the horse.

Going through my old markings it is useful to see what exactly I did consider, after a few years, that a doctoral thesis would achieve.

One, during the phase of making a thesis I should be able to connect my independent PhD project and other intellectual endeavors to some larger social whole and should try to do this continuously. Two, in so doing, I would also learn to be something of an outside ethnographic observer of the academic community and make in addition to my thesis some kind of a science studies work about what it was like to “be” an academic. Three, I would actually rather take some topic I was interested in when I was studying and the doctoral thesis topic would have to be changed to address that “original interest”. Four, in actuality I would start doing technology again more than doing social science. Five, I would concentrate to have a rich free time (e.g. sports and hobbies) if I felt difficult at times to do the thesis. Six, the thesis would be theoretical even though its materials are empirical: that way I would not be too fixed to my empirical topic. Seven, I should do more networking before I can be finished. Eight, I would actually have to seek a “secure” job (little did we see what the current crises would do to those) and finish the thesis in the evenings and weekends, so that there would be something to do and something of a community after the defence. Nine, the technicalities of research – like learning to use new gadgets, notebooks, recording devices, data analysis – would be crucial to learn on my own. Ten, the thesis making would be an ideal period to grow as a person and learn more about oneself. Eleven, actually all the time I was just waiting to be rediscovered as an engineer. Twelve, I should really teach, work in projects, supervise etc. to become integrated into the academic community. Thirteen, actually other people were doing pretty interesting projects and I should get involved with them, maybe that would be more social than making a thesis.

These are in a random order and they are maybe random thoughts, but it is important to stress, I think, that the social fabric of making a thesis somehow produced these considerations. They are maybe a matter of having too much time coupled with resources and no clear deadlines. To me it seems definitely a matter of listening too little to reasonable feedback (having it was never necessarily a problem). In the aftermath of holding a thesis in your hand as a book and having gone through a public defence, I would say above I got something right and a lot of it plain wrong.

What is clearly right is the importance of building your networks and getting to know what kind of circumstances (e.g. teaching, lecturing, conference networking) you are comfortable with and those that you are not. What seems to be more misguided to me is that now, a thesis seems like the starting point, not the end point, of your scientific career. It would be reasonable – as many people told me and I did not believe it enough – to think about it as a phase of demonstrating that you can do original research. Then, after that, you can teach, supervise, write books, find projects, run projects etc. Hopefully, although time will show what happens now, it will be easier to do those as you are considered a fuller member of the scientific community. Interestingly, it seems to me now, it is the membership of the community that allows you to be more independent.

The ideas about changing your topic to match some “original interest” or a “theoretical interest” seem particularly dubious now. Though you could be fixed to your topic, especially in the public and the media, there is also life after a thesis. Certainly you can find new projects, or even just make audience comments in conferences, based on any interest you may have. A finished thesis does not have to preclude that, but if it has any effect, it should make it easier.

The things about personal growth and becoming a member of the academic community are the ones that seem to be putting the cart before the horse. To repeat, it now seems to me that a thesis is a starting point, not the end point of these kinds of aims. To illustrate, I could just give a list of some of the things I am doing now after the thesis is finished.

  • In a few years I would like to offer a book, to a quality international publisher, based on my research.
  • I have 3-4 interesting article ideas in my mind, many of them based on the feedback from my thesis opponent.
  • The aforementioned person has also already invited me to visit his university.
  • The world is full of post-doctoral applications to visit abroad for 5-10 months. If one looks beyond Finland where I am based, many of them are also directly concerned with what I am interested in.
  • Talks about new projects with new people are ongoing, with new emails concerning these arriving at least once per week.
  • I am in the middle of editing a few special number for journals.
  • I am also in the middle of informally reading two doctoral theses and one book sent to me and the persons who sent them really seem to expect to hear what I think about them.
  • My colleagues also now send me open job applications that would have been often impossible to apply or commit to as a doctoral candidate but that are viable to a doctor. A promising international place arrives to my mail box roughly once a week. (These numbers do not apply to Finland, though; here the rate seem to be one possible job once per month and seldom having enough qualifications to apply for them. The government saving in research has led to at least one major research institution having a recruitment prohibition. It seems to me that when you read texts like Phil Agre’s Networking on the Network and its instructions for job applying, they are concerned a job market different from a small academic field in a small country.)
  • Perhaps most importantly, with the achievement of having symbolically defended a thesis, I feel one is finally allowed to say “no” to people. As a doctoral candidate, the situation was the opposite: I felt I always need to take every offer I can because I had no position, no power nor influence on anything. So I needed to show I am “someone” who can do things by being open to all invitations. It seems to me that this tendency to “prove who you are” is quite wide-spread among candidates and I have to say from experience that it can have a number of unintended, negative consequences to yourself and to others. With the fortune of enjoying many collaborations that also work and are comfortable, they do not seem to contain an element of forcing your presence. They happen by their own accord, because people like you and you are somehow useful to them, and as result you feel like a fish in the water rather than out of it. Saying “no” to the countless possibilities there are is hopefully a precondition of finding many more collaborations like that.

Just to be clear not everything is fine and settled for my coming years. For one thing, I have no definite funding beyond early to mid next year although I am continuously applying; there are likely very few jobs for me in Finland; and for another thing, in addition to its defence that was well attended, it seems my thesis has not gathered much attention though to be frank I am happy with that situation. To me the audience of the thesis is international and mostly other academics and experts; I wrote the book for them and much of it is probably too specialized to garner public attention.

And yet things seem clear, settled, and consistent more than they have felt in a long while. That has to be the effect of writing a thesis and I look forward to many similar experiences in the future.

Two conferences

(EDIT: The former version of this post was missing a concrete recommendation that I have added to the end.)

I just finished visiting a major conference yesterday mostly in the capacity of a session organizer. Doubtless this the most I have ever worked for any conference event: to let you into the numbers a bit there has been about one year of preparations, months of promoting, selection and reading of abstracts and papers, and in the event, many chairings and commentings. As is usual in a conference (I always try to talk a lot) I met a number of people and discussed in the sessions plus shared emails. At the same time, I do not think I got to know that many new persons outside of the sessions and shared a few dinners and a bar trip with my good colleagues but ended up on my own after the event. It is somehow a peculiar combination and an unpredictable one but one that people who organize such events seem to know about: you both end up knowing about almost everyone but then “networking” or even discussing with fewer. Yesterday when I was walking alone I tried to summarize my experience of two kinds of ways of experiencing a conference.

The first way is what I did before I became engaged as a research network organizer and is what I still do at most other conferences. This is you arrive to a city in another country, usually know only a few people before hand, stand around in the first coffee breaks and hope to talk to someone by accident or by intent, make comments and start talking to presenters and other in the sessions, usually then start to get to know some other people better, attend to the conference dinner, continue to some bars, and invite or be invited to a dinner with some of the people you have met. It is very enjoyable in almost all the cases. The duty part, that you can give a lot of attention and efforts, is your presentation and its slides. In any case that will be over in 20 minutes. Afterwards you chat with other people about how good (or maybe more often whether it was not) your session and the whole event was and hopefully manage to turn your stay in some magnificent location into a party. After partying until 4 am you stumble to your plane the next morning hung over and regretful of some of the things you might have said or done. If you are lucky you receive a few emails after (from all the tens that were doubtless discussed), if you are very fortunate, you could have made a new friend or two.

However, this “networking” kind of a conference is not the only way to experience one. Here is what I did this time. In addition to the preparations I mentioned above, we sat in every session of my own network and tried to be most attentive we could to the presentations. This means about 35 presentations each of 20 minutes over four days, making notes in every one, making comments in many, and chairing more than once. I do not think if people who just attend a conference think about it that often (I would say I do not), but I would say that almost nothing of a good active conference session happens by accident. Conference sessions are prepared and the papers are screened meticulously before hand. Research networks take trouble to find social, polite, and energetic people as chairs to stimulate discussions. And if you receive a lot of comments as a presenter, it is not a secret that this is almost certainly because those active in a network are in the audience and being attentive for the purpose of keeping up a conversation. These things then do not happen automatically (the lack of attention to these details is why many conference sessions end up failing or even canceled without notice, in my humble opinion). They happen because rather than just visiting a conference and giving a paper like most do someone dedicates weeks or months of their free time to be an organizer.

Of course as an organizer you also typically get to do other things than sessions, like go eat out and maybe have a few beers with the other organizers. But that is usually during one night since why would you go out with the same persons every time? You certainly end up talking a lot with people in the audience and in your sessions, but my experience is that the interactions are short as people often take you as kind of a conference employee (even though you are not paid anything, in fact, you pay to do this work just like people pay to attend the conference to present and to party). For other dinners and bar rounds, at least in this conference’s case, you rarely end up being invited maybe because getting engaged to a large event requires that you attend to the conference more than its organizing.

Having said that, to be clear I do think organizing a conference is very valuable for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that there would not be conferences without people who make them, both the participant and the organizers. The second is equity. I believe being an academic involves many random things that you cannot altogether influence in your own university, like the people you work with and who supervise you; maybe, in the bad case, you could have just ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I know this happens to many people based on discussions. That is why receiving comments, or more simply being encouraged, can be crucial to people and getting their theses and articles finished. I have heard this enough times from other people and even somewhat experienced it myself to think it is true. I think the aim here is to increase the diversity of research by encouraging topics that might not be supported enough other wise. Thirdly organizing can offer you merit in some way, although I also think this is quite limited. It is not like chairing a session will become a major part of your cv. What I do enjoy very much, though, is co-organizing with international people and meeting them personally. It is fair to say that these people become your friends and your work mates in a very nice way. Think about having a job where you are allowed to travel all over the world and work intensively with people from around Europe and elsewhere. I do not think many such works exist at least before meticulous seeking and applying, but being a conference organizer can be a way to achieve this in just a few years.

For me personally, I have now finished my thesis and I do not know what the future holds. I think with all my duties and having a finished thesis for the first time, I expected that this conference would be all different than others. In the end I have just ended up working a lot, as was expected. The conference dinner was similar as they have always been; I still find the best strategy is to visit one briefly and go someplace else in a nice company. I did manage to go to a bar with good friend of mine, so it was a nice evening; but other wise, in many ways I think this has been one of the most busy but the least social conference I have experienced so far. So when I finally catch sleep alone in my room at about 4 am Saturday night some conference goers I do not know are having a loud after-party under my window in the university accommodation that I took (I thought I would meet more people here and right it was). This difference between the conference goers fun (that I like to think I had maybe in part helped to establish) and my attempt just to have a rest after hard work helped me think about my attitude to academic networking in a new light.

I was reminded that I think Manuel Castells wrote about how in a network society, there are those who get benefit from the networks and then there are those who are just supposed to maintain the networks. I think there is something true to this, even though I must emphasize how rewarding it often is to maintain a research network and how many interesting things that has brought me. But still, at the same time, it could be that this conference has managed to turn my head a bit regarding academic work, and it is very good that it did. Of course one should not expect everything is fun all the time (an attitude that fails your expectations all the time), but I do expect that things in your life have some good trajectory. I always thought this trajectory was the more you publish etc. the more you can do at a conference. Ending up alone on a Saturday night next to a noisy party outside shows this is not always automatically the case.

I am raising this post mainly because in the academic life conferences like this are part of your work just as much as writing and publishing. How you experience a conference then is not something insignificant, nor are conferences just random acts of traveling nor tourism. Even if we are just making theses or recent PhD’s, what we do has to have value just as the work of others and it is certainly not just something of a resource to other people so they can do their “networking”. My network friends whose company I enjoy so much have always been clear about the role of my support and I appreciate it a lot. If it is so difficult to feel appreciated otherwise for all the hard work, I am alas not yet certain what is the motivation and the rationale  to continue these academic routes.

EDIT: To be more constructive, I end this post with a few suggestions. This is because I do not want to complain rather than think about how organizers could be perhaps rewarded for all their hard work. The first is on the general level. Major conferences have a budget and they could give some small reward to the chairs of sessions and to board members of research networks and committees. I know this is possible because many conferences precisely do this for PhD workshops: if you attend a PhD workshop, you are often given something back from your flight ticket as well as a free registration. In these times of austerity even minor reductions in the extremely high conference fees of organizers would be an excellent thing — and an incentive to participate more for example from debt-ridden countries. If reductions are not practical for the number of persons which may be the case, then another idea also stems from PhD workshops: why not have all board members and chairs of research networks or councils meet in a common networking event with some drinks? Personally I would have loved to see who else is chairing in other networks, I suppose I know many of them already, so that would have made the event less fragmented.

I do understand that changes like these are not easy to “lobby” to an entire conference that has its own decision making rules that change slowly. I then turn to another suggestion, which is on the level of research committees or networks. In my case, at least, these bodies have a small budget of a few hundred euros, but still it is something to start with. Could that provide some kind of help and reward to the chairs of sessions and to the board members that we are practically asking to participate in each session that a network/other organizes? For these budget sums we are probably not talking about about reductions in fees or reimbursements from traveling, but maybe a common dinner or rather a buffet and wine would be feasible.  Or just give something to these people, a book or maybe even some coffee to be had in the long sessions.

From my doing a lot of volunteering, I find that people are generally very eager to help others as long as they get something out of it, like interesting new experiences with others or feeling of being a part of a larger community. These do not come automatically just as a good session does not. If you are just asking people to commit all of their time and then leave them tired to do their own business or return home, it does not really feel just. Change that to some fun activity together and appreciation of their help and the situation could be very different.