Scientific Ostracism: On being black at an academic conference

You probably heard a dozen reasons you should attend an academic conference: practice public speaking, learn the latest practices, trends and challenges, showcase and receive feedback on your work, and network for future collaborations. After attending academic conferences for 10 years, I’m convinced they are overrated. The truth is academic conferences are not meant for everyone.

Maybe I have a buyer’ remorse and I’m disappointed with my poor returns after attending numerous conferences in three continents. This year, I intended to attend another conference in a fourth continent but I decided otherwise. Because it wasn’t worth it. I submitted two abstracts, one for a poster and the other for an oral presentation. They were both accepted as posters.

I’m an early career researcher, and I am aware attending international conferences is good for my resume. And at this stage of my career, I need to actively make new connections. I need to know the right people at the right places in the right positions for future research and possibly a future job. But all things considered, expecting that from an academic conference is a pipe dream. It ain’t gonna happen.

Let’s be honest, how many of you would pursue a collaborative relationship with a postdoc from Africa who is currently working in China? Here’s the thing; humans are highly selfish social animals. I am a selfish social animal who only pursue relationships that has obvious benefits to me. That’s human nature. Unless you are into anthropology, there’s nothing you could benefit scientifically from an African who lives in China. Period.

I agree with Rebecca Bodenheimer when she wrote at Inside Higher Ed:

When you meet someone at a conference, invariably the first thing that person does is look at your name badge to assess the institution with which you are affiliated. For many academics, that tells them how much time they should spend on learning about you… But if you’re at a no-name or regional institution or, even worse, an independent scholar, you can’t do anything for them, so you’re disposable. And often they’ll jump at the first chance to start talking to someone else.

You can replace independent scholar with African and a no-name or regional institution with Chinese university. And you get a guy like me.

You see I have two things working against me before I take a flight or book a hotel for a conference. One. Researchers are always skeptical of studies from China. I have reviewed for at least 20 journals, and I have noticed Chinese scholars are often maligned and overly scrutinized. Two. I’m an African. Should I say more about the perceptions the scientific body has on African researchers? You can check what other people are saying at NPR.

I used to think I’m poor at networking during conferences because I’m not a social person. My academic advisors in the US, Zimbabwe and China often adviced me to be more sociable. I tried. At an ACS annual meeting in Boston, I gave people my business cards, visited at least 200 posters, asked questions, and even emailed at least two dozen people after the conference. No one responded.

The thing is all those wonderful benefits of attending a conference are not for people like me. The problem isn’t I’m not a social person. It probably has to do with my dark skin and thick accent, which quickly informs my suitors that I’m of no advantage to them. Maybe I’m wrong. But unless I get full-ride travel grant, I will pass from attending conferences. It’s not worth it.

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Edmond Sanganyado

Edmond Sanganyado (PhD, University of California) is a postdoc in China. He is interested in the effect of organic pollutants in aquatic environments. His work has been featured at Publons, The Good Men Project, and University of California Riverside's Gradsuccess blog.

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