On a certain other Kinja blog, I am known for my ability to acquire free foods.* I was joking about it on a recent weekly cross-thread and suddenly found myself enlisted to write a how-to post for a group of people who have been named the "most helpful people on Kinja" by a certain editor. So, uh, here goes?
Free food is probably an essential element of the American college experience, so much so that I certainly never thought I'd be writing this post. But I guess becoming good at finding free food - and once you've found it, fitting in long enough to eat dinner - is something of a mystery. For me, networking is the answer to both dilemmas. It obviously has other benefits, like advancing your career or whatnot, but it's also a great source of food.
I use the term "networking" to broadly refer to developing relationships with other people for the purpose of gaining something beyond "friendship." So how does networking == free food?
- Network with your peers: join a club or attend general interest meetings. There will be food, because nobody has time for a meeting without food. It's also nice because exchanging favors with your peers further down the road requires being on friendly terms with them. So why not bond over food?
- Network with your academic colleagues, your peers and faculty in your department: go to seminars and attend the ensuing receptions, lunches, and dinners. Take an hour or two out of your day to learn more about something you find interesting (the seminar) and chat about it with colleagues at the following event with some very smart people - over food. I've learned a lot from listening to people discuss a great talk or paper or what have you. The reception is your chance to gorge yourself and find out what other people know.
But I don't know what to talk about!
I started off the same way. With practice, you, too can reach my level and beyond, but here are some conversation starters that are especially useful if you find yourself under the direct gaze of the speaker at a social event:
- I think every speaker has asked students about their research. Have a sentence or two ready. It actually helps if you've completed one of those two-page fellowship applications recently - you'll have a paragraph of material to draw on for non-specialists. (Go apply for fellowships. $$$$$ of your own is nice.)
- Turn the question around on the speaker. Remember, papers often reflect finished projects, not active ones. You can ask a speaker whether they intend to follow up on the results of XYZ paper, if you are so inclined, or just generally ask what sorts of things people are working on now. Hint: during grad school interviews, you could ask what rotation projects a student might work on in their lab, if you are indeed a STEM candidate in a field where rotations are common.
- Ask about things you didn't understand from the talk.
- Ask the speaker how they arrived at their current research interest, or even at their job. This is especially pertinent for graduate students, who are trying to figure our postgrad career paths. Ask for advice!
- Talk about the food. Seriously, food is a great conversation starter. I found myself sitting across the table from a very famous person at dinner once and the whole conversation around him had stalled because of his greatness. I started a conversation about fish (which we'd both ordered), and we had a great time. (He got really into it and I am nearly always into fish.)
Tips for acquiring food at receptions, specifically
Receptions are quite different from sit-down meals both in terms of conversational atmosphere and free food availability. Here's how to maximize the experience.
- Volunteer to help set up. Guess who gets first dibs on the food?
- If it's your style, chat with the organizers of the reception. Guess who gets invited to take the leftovers? I employed this strategy many, many times in college.
- Stick around until the end. There aren't any leftovers if you leave early.
- If you're stuck on what to do in between, head for the food first, exit the line but stand 5-6 feet away from the table. People you know, or other lost people, will eventually find you and you can chat about the food you selected. If you find yourself in an awkward conversation, you can exit the conversation by needing to get your hands on some of that delicious looking stuff on that other person's plate.
Institutional support for free food is helpful
I wouldn't be able to acquire free food without the administrators who provide money to buy food, and sometimes buy it themselves. So thank you. But I'd also like to acknowledge the students of my undergraduate institution who were so devoted to the acquisition of free food that they created an events calendar had a filter for events with food and a listserv specifically for the purposes of emailing undergraduates about leftover food. The administrators also paid for an etiquette instructor to come and teach us how to eat, drink, and talk at the same time at receptions. The trick is to hold your wine glass in your non-dominant hand, balance your plate on top, and eat with your other hand. When someone comes by to shake your hand, you lay aside your eating utensil and shake with your dominant hand. If I'm eating finger foods, I've also politely excused myself from handshakes by waving at my food - I'm not sure if that's in the manual, but transferring food residue during a handshake seems kind of awful. Anyway, the point is that training and consideration of others will get you lots of food.
When free food is *GASP* not worth your time
To many people, it looks like I'm always at a seminar eating the food. That's not exactly true. I don't go to seminars that don't interest me, and you shouldn't either. I did it once accidentally. It really isn't worth it. I probably do go to more seminars than the average grad student I know and that's because
- At this point, I have time for it.
- I prefer attending seminars over reading papers to find out what is going on around me. I get a lot more general results in the same amount of time, and I can choose to read the interesting papers after that.
- Nobody feeds me for reading papers.
The point is, you have to decide what's right for you. Teapotting (eating all the free food) is only enjoyable when you wouldn't enjoy other activities possible at that time more.
But I'm not a student, teapot!
That is actually okay. Part of the reason for publishing this guide at this time of year is that these principles can be applied in real job scenarios, particularly at office holiday parties. Don't forget your Tupperware!
Feel free to discuss/criticize/extend below.
* This is has been dubbed "teapotting", after my Kinja name. The other Kinja is Backtalk. I am not being very subtle here.
With thanks to LaC and Flerby for help with gifs, all of which were found somewhere on the internet.