The Benefits of Flying Solo
For the past three years, I went to all the meetings and conferences by myself. I love traveling, and going to conferences provides me with the opportunity to go to new places and visit friends.
When I was in grad school in Spain, I usually went to the meetings with all my lab teammates or at least with a couple of colleagues. I was never alone in a meeting, so I didn’t have the urge to talk to strangers, as my mother always warned me against doing as a child. It was easier to hang out with people I already knew and I felt safer staying in my comfort zone.
Needless to say, the word “networking” was not in my vocabulary. I did not know how important and valuable it could be. Looking back, I regret not making the most of all those experiences by meeting more new people. But to be honest, I was not that confident about my skills as a scientist or a communicator.
Now that I know how to push myself, I enjoy going to conferences and flying solo for several reasons.
Putting science in context
As my research involves several topics, I am interested in diverse conferences. For me, science is a puzzle and I need to find all the small pieces that are missing. Yet, sometimes, I realize that I am looking at the project too closely and that I can’t see the bigger picture. Listening to other scientists working in those disciplines gives me a fresh perspective. I can better understand how the field is evolving, and how this can have an impact on my own investigation. Going to conferences by myself allows me to be open-minded and critical, without any external opinion.
Nowadays, I am also trying to develop my own line of research. These conferences are the perfect place to brainstorm new ideas. I like to look at my current projects and give them a twist far away from my PI’s lines of research. Finding new methods and useful tools is also a plus.
Networking, of course
Let’s be real: if I am going with all my teammates, there is no need to talk to anyone else. Why the effort? But as I grow in my career, it seems that collaborations and connections are key, and without the comfort of teammates around, I have to force myself out of my comfort zone by approaching and connecting with different people.
For example, when you are in grad school, you can meet your future postdoc mentor. If you are interested in a particular lab, you could email them and see if they have some time to chat with you. This works nicely, especially if you live in a different country from this particular lab. In-person networking gives you the chance to meet people in person, avoiding going through Skype interviews as your first impression.
My favorite time for networking is during poster presentations. It is like a one on one interview, so it makes communication easier than in a big group. I was lucky to have my poster presentations the first day of meetings, which allowed me to make the first connections early. Thus, the upcoming days I always had a familiar face to chat with.
Breakfast, lunch and coffee breaks are also a good places to start connecting. Talking about how good or how bad the coffee is can be a great conversation icebreaker. After that, everything else flows.
I am an extremely social person. I like to chat and be surrounded by my colleagues, friends, and family. But sometimes this can be exhausting and it is hard to find time for myself. Being away for 3-5 days at a conference allows me to take a break from my daily routine. I can finally read that book that was gathering dust on my nightstand. Or I can binge-watch a whole show on a red-eye flight. But I can wander. I usually indulge myself with some shopping and tasting the local food. I love to walk around a city and discover its people, its secret places, and the best coffee shops.
This free time, it is like fresh air to me. It resets my brain and recharges me. It gives me the opportunity to put my thoughts in order, prioritize them and breathe! To be with myself and listen to what I need/want is fundamental to me. Some call it mindfulness. I call it survival.
Always challenge yourself
Sometimes we need to get out of our comfort zones. It allows us to do more than we think we can. Don’t limit yourself. Go to conferences, meetings, and workshops where you can meet people and enjoy a new environment. The worst-case scenario is that you will go back home and will have learned something new. But it’s likely you will come back home with a new colleague, collaborator, mentor or idea for a project.
What are you waiting for? Choose your next conference and enjoy flying solo!