So What Do You Do? On answering the big conference question

This post contributed by Nichole Bennett, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin

This year’s ESA meeting was my first big meeting as a graduate student. While absorbing late-breaking ecology research is my favorite part of big conferences, I know that the opportunity for networking is equally important. So, at my first social event, I adjusted my nametag and stretched out my hand to as many ecologist strangers as possible.

“So What Do You Do?” The question was passed around the event as often as the cheese plate.

The first times I was asked, I managed to mumble out some key words. The words “climate change,” “species interactions,” and “butterflies” seemed like perfectly good places to start. My cheerful, yet blunt, advisor turned to me and said, “That was awfully vague.”

After that first disaster, I knew I had to develop a sales pitch. I went home that night and worked on a few sentences to ramble off on command in response to the crucial question. I was determined my next answer would sound farther from a beauty pageant contest answer than my first. My mirror, my roommate, and my neighbor’s cat were all pretty familiar with my sales pitch when the night was over.

The task was harder than I thought. Because of my familiarity with my work, I’m easily excited by minutiae. To make it sound interesting to other researchers, I knew I needed to sell the package deal.

People glazed over when I wandered into methodology. I quickly realized that the sales pitch was not the time to list techniques.  I quickly learned to focus my opening lines on the overall goals of my research. Once others were convinced the aims of my project were worthy, they were more willing to let me gush about methods.

After I started delivering a more polished sales pitch, I got valuable feedback from other ecologists. When people were confused, I learned to explain the research better. If they remained confused, I learned about the weaknesses of my plan (and made a mental note). Excitingly, others would point out interesting avenues of future study, fueling my enthusiasm.

On Friday, I will return from the conference even more excited about research. When I started delivering a quality sales pitch, the admiration and excitement in others inspired me.