It’s that time of year again: conference season. Great opportunities for academic exchange in different guises: presenting your work and hearing about the work of others, but also multiple venues for socialising, schmoozing and networking. Making the right connections may help you get that publication out, obtain that next job, and open the doors of success, glory and wealth.
For young and ambitious academics eager to distribute their stack of business cards, however, networking is not such a straightforward task: identifying targets for socialising can be tricky. Time is limited, and the aspect of people cannot be taken as a proxy for their value and usefulness, so it is difficult to make rational decisions. You may spend too much time talking to people working at no-name universities or even worse, PhD students, while missing out on the editor of some prominent journal specialising in non-parametric methods. It is easy to identify unsuccessful social interactions ex post when people regularly browse their surroundings while talking to a particular person, looking for an opportunity to escape. The main problem is that interacting with actual human beings is a much more messy business than the safe, precise, clean and predicable environment of statistical analysis. In the comfortable zone surrounding your computer, everything can be measured, quantified and ordered in a limited number of variables.
Now there is no reason why the safety in numbers that many political scientists find in front of their computers could not be extended to social interactions at conferences. A fairly straightforward way to reduce this uncertainty would be to attribute a score – corresponding for instance to people’s H-index – that conference participants would display on a giant shield. This would signal whether it is worth socialising with them or not. For a more technological solution, participants could also display a barcode on their foreheads that special readers could link to their Google scholar profile; one could also imagine a detector that would beep at closer intervals upon approaching a prominent political scientists, like a Geiger counter. Technology opens endless possibilities.
My favourite low-tech solution would be to physically signal the status of participants by specific pieces of clothing such as hats. Academics with lots of publications would wear giants hats. Their size would be proportional to their status. Different disciplines could also be signalled by different colour codes: green for international relations, red for comparative politics, and so on. The problem with this system is that prominent but very short academics would probably be laughed at, and therefore fail to receive the respect that their status deserves. In order to solve this problem, we could also use stilts instead of hats, so that really big shots would gravitate high above everybody else, closer to the stars. At a time when research is ranked, measured and quantified, this should only be a natural and more efficient evolution of the profession.