I went to a 4-day workshop recently. The workshop overused my social battery, but it let me realize how enjoyable it was to have meaningful conversations with people that share similar interests.
Research life sounds even better after this event.
At first, someone recommended this event to me because I have a general interest in mathematics and computer science. "You can also apply for a waiver," he said.
I applied for courtesy. Going to this kind of social event sounds daunting enough, so I didn't expect myself to actually attend. Not only because "I am an introvert" and I hate starting a conversation with "how's the weather today", but especially when I knew nothing about the topics of this workshop (also because I live very far away from the venue). And then I thought to myself: just apply. It's free. It doesn't hurt.
It was later when I received the confirmation from the event organizer, asking me if I was applying for a waiver or a travel fund. They cc-ed the person that recommended this to me, which scared a whole lot of me because now he knew I applied, I had to go just to show my respect. (I later discovered he was one of the co-organizers, and he most likely sent that email to me himself.)
Not surprising at all, I was late on the first day because I couldn't get out of bed. The event started around 8:30 AM, but I arrived at 10:05 AM. I wandered in front of the theatre entrance for a while as I thought it would be awkward if the door was right next to the speaker. Fortunately, someone came out and I followed her in - phew, the door was located at the back of the theatre, I could come in and sit without drawing any attention.
Those sorts of "introvert" drama happens a lot, and they are the reasons that stopped me from attending huge events.
I took a seat and began to fugue. Math became harder and harder to comprehend as all kinds of vocabulary overcrowded my brain. Soon the talk was finished and we had an "Informal Discussion ☕" session. This was the worst part since it sounded like a lot of socializing was involved, so I went outside just like everyone else and grabbed a cup of sparkling water and started to stand by the wall (罚站). I didn't expect anyone to approach me; I just wanted to "stand-till-the-end-of-the event".
Yet, surprisingly, a female walked towards me and greeted me. I will call her L for the rest of this post.
"Are you here to attend this workshop?" she asked.
"Yeah, I am!" I replied.
"Oh-a postdoc or PhD?"
"Nope" I am just an undergrad (3rd year, majoring in Stats and AI)."
We began to talk about each other's research interests. Then someone else came by; it came out to be her colleague. She introduced me to T and A. I didn't expect to talk to postdocs or PhDs because we are at significantly different career stages. But she was very kind, introduced me to her research topic, and explained every detail that I didn't understand.
I am very grateful to have met someone brilliant and supportive like her. She led me out of the "awkwardness" when I first arrived. I won't be able to do what she has done if I am in the same situation. She inspired me to realize that I can start socializing by approaching people that are "introverts" like me—there are people more nervous than I am.
I had my lunch alone at the café inside the venue. I bought a cold chicken sandwich and sat outside. It was really windy, so the sandwich tasted extremely bad. The sandwich was freezing and dropping bread crumbs. I hated it.
After lunch, I went back for the afternoon talk. This one was better since it used more plain language and mentioned something that everyone was interested in: politics. It was a talk about the security of online election voting and how ridiculous the current system was. The talk also introduced me to the idea of zero knowledge proof, which I found interesting afterwards.
There was another informal discussion after the talk, but I decided to go home earlier as I was pretty tired from math. When I was walking towards the station, I felt like someone was going to approach me. I turned around, and it was T. She is also an undergrad from the same university as I am, although she's in her 4th year of her double degree. We walked together and chatted about the talk – apparently she can't understand it either. That's great to hear 🤣.
I didn't attend the event on the second day. Mostly because I had a tutorial back at the university. I met someone from my subcommittee.
Because Day 1 had such an amazing experience, mainly the conversation with L and T, I decided to go earlier that day – I wanted to meet them and chat with them again.
I arrived on-time that day. I had a coffee and joined the conversation with T and two senior professors.
After the first talk, I tried to chat with other people. Me and L joined a conversation with a postdoc from WA and a PhD from VIC. The conversation died quite quickly because one person is a bit quiet, and me and L aren't that talkative when the topic isn't that interesting. I felt the awkwardness, so I excused myself to refill my cup. I came back by joining another conversation with T, a PhD and an undergrad, both coming from USYD. They chatted about teaching and that PhD's honor thesis. It was way more complicated than I thought.
I knew I was an introvert from a very young age. I don't like to talk to people because their topics aren't usually interesting. They only blabbed about idols and TV shows or gossiped around the school. But after that day, I feel like I have grasped the essence of socializing ;)
- Stand near them.
- Look into their eyes.
- They will start to pause/panic because you seems like you want to join their chat.
- Then, start introduce yourself in the pause like "Hi, I am …"
Remember, there are people way more nervous about socializing than you. Make them panic, but don't panic yourself. (My friend joked that I am still 社恐, a 社交恐怖分子 socializing-terrorist instead of 社交恐惧症 anti-social. The pun is in ‘恐’ ;)
I had many long conversations with people that I can hardly remember. I told them my preference for grad school, my offer for exchange, and why I was hesitant about it. They are really nice and kind people, helping me to analyze pros and cons and how I should choose my PhD application.
Day 3 had a dinner event at night. Originally, I said I wouldn't attend in the Google Form because of the similar reason I wrote above – social anxiety. However, after those talks with L and T, I decided to attend the dinner simply because I enjoyed the conversation so much that I wanted to prolong this joy.
Before the dinner, we walked to a place near the venue to watch a light show. At the light show, I received my offer for an internship. However, the light show was terrible since no one really understood when it began and when it finished – we wasted another hour.
Then we walked towards the dinner place. On the way, me, L, and the master student Y (I forgot his name – sorry!) were talking about my course requirements. Y had a general interest in quantum computing and machine learning, so he said he wanted to do research in quantum learning theory (I don't know if this is even a thing yet).
As we arrived at the dinner place, the room was very warm. I knew that I was exposed to COVID since the room was a closed region with air-conditioning and everyone sat close to each other to have dinner. But I don't regret it. The experience was worth the risk.
We sat at a table with a professor, a postdoc, and another guy that I knew nothing about. That postdoc thought I was a postdoc as well, so he looked a bit shocked when I said I didn't understand much of the talks. It was a bit hard to join their conversations since they were in a later career stage.
The conversation was dull, but the dinner was great. It was a two-course menu, with an entrée and a main. The entrée was an avocado and seared haloumi salad, with the haloumi tasting like crunchy, salted tofu. The main I chose was a medium-rare steak with Buk choy on the side (how weird is this combination?). The dishes were not bad.
We finished dinner around 20:30 and I decided to go back. It was very late when I got home.
Looking back to day 4 of the workshop, I can't remember much. I got mild flu symptoms that day but tested negative for COVID. I am early to the venue as well, starting the day with a coffee while talking to T. She said she came here around 8 AM everyday and just had random walks around the university.
The informal discussion session in the afternoon was more interesting, as was the poster session. The master student that sat with me and L at the dinner didn't come, nor did the undergrad that got accepted into ETHz. We had brownie and cranberry muffins as snacks that day, they were cut into 4 pieces, it was quite dry after exposing to air for long period of time.
We also had a women in mathematics mentoring lunch that day. The lunch was pizza. They mostly talked about balancing family and work, which was totally unrelated to me. The conversation leader always looked at me and hinted, "if someone has not spoken, we really like to hear from you." — but I had nothing to say, simply because I have nothing to contribute career-wise — my career hasn't even started yet.
After lunch was the poster session. T made me a cup of her favorite oolong tea (she had a tea box and carried a tea silo with her everyday, amazing!). Me and L talked about how to ask for recommendation letters and the general career path into academia. She also told me her motivations and reasons for going into academia. It was very inspiring.
The workshop experience ended nicely. We took a photo together on the spiral stairs. I smiled a bit too much (accidentally).
This workshop was far beyond what I expected. I thought the research workshop was no more than normal socializing but with an academic vibe; this is both true and false. It was more than just normal socializing because you talked about the inspirations for your research, which was more profound than normal conversation topics.
Meeting people with similar minds was indeed the best experience I ever had.