As a new grad student–or an older grad student in a new venue like a national meeting–you need to meet people. Science, after all, is a social enterprise in which you exchange ideas, review other peoples work, collaborate on experiments, and work together on often tedious but necessary committees. Getting to know the folks in your field, and getting them to know you, is an under-appreciated part of the process.
A second under-appreciated part of the sci-biz is the importance of the first impression. It is a truism that first impressions matter, that the first experience with another person sticks in your brain and colors your opinion and expectations. Research by Bertran Gawronski at U. Western Ontario suggests that subsequent impressions that conflict with the first one tend to be explained away as one-off phenomena, exceptions to what that person is really like, good or bad.
So if a basic part of science is building networks of colleagues, and first impressions matter, it is key to be prepared for the inevitable encounter with folks you want to get to know. As silly as it sounds, it is important to craft, memorize, and practice, your academic elevator speech (named for the amount of time you have between recognizing someone who is a captive audience and the time before the elevator doors open again).
Here’s what you should look for in an elevator speech.
- It should take about 30 seconds to say in a conversational tone. Brevity is key, and every word matters.
- It should start with a memorable hook, the first impression of your first impression. The phrase “I study the biogeography of salt.” stands a better chance of catching somebody’s interest than “Ionic requirements are pervasive among all of life, most notably consumers, and given that sodium is distributed nonrandomly in the biosphere, it stands to reason that salt limitation will vary as well.”
- It should lay out the problem in a sentence or two.
- It should say why this is important, to you, to the world, or both.
- It should conclude with where you are in the process. Are you finishing your first paper? Just getting started? Looking for post docs? Each of those gives your listener an opening to continue the conversation (“That sounds interesting, can I see the MS?”, ”Have you thought of…”, “Sure, I have a pot of money but, up to this moment, no idea of how to spend it…”).
That’s a lot to say in a short time, but just as it’s important to market test your title and abstract (to make sure your paper’s first impression is the one you want) you need to do the same with your elevator speech.
Let me know how it goes.
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