Category Archives: Transportation Research Board

The TRB Annual Meeting for Young Attendees, in a (large) Nutshell

This blog post is intended to summarize my observations from my second foray at the TRB annual meeting (#TRBAM).  This post will circulate after the fanfare of the 2012 AM is over, but it will hopefully be timely for those decompressing after the meeting.  To frame my discussion, I’ll inform the audience that I’m a 31-year-old doctoral student with seven years of industry experience who returned to grad school seeking refuge from the consulting world.  There are a couple of different demographics I expect may read this, so I’ll address them directly.

The 21-27 demographic is made up of students and young professionals, many of whom are attending TRB for the first time, and many of whom will not attend TRB again once they finish their stint in grad school.  Very few of these people will be reading this post, as they would have to go looking for it before next year’s TRB, and the initiative involved in reading other people’s opinions on the event is not a quality that runs strong in this group.  While there are exceptions to every rule, this demographic represents the people coming down to breakfast in their pajamas at 9:00, who then wander aimlessly around the conference from 10:00 until 3:00 with their faces bunched in consternation while they attempt to translate the program into information they can understand.  If you are in this demographic by age, but I have described behavior which you feel is insulting toward you, then by all means please consider yourself as an honorary member of the 28-35 group.

The 28-35 demographic is made up of young professionals and students who have invested some time in the industry and have a better understanding of the value of time spent at a conference like this.  They are the target demographic of the events planned for young professionals by the TAC.  Some of these people are coming to TRB for the first time, after arriving at a job position involving research, while many others have attended regularly as they’ve tracked their own careers through TRB.  Some of these people will continue to attend, will seek out committees and committee membership, and will someday enter leadership positions at TRB.

The over-35 demographic who are taking the time to read this post fall into a category that I’ll define as social-media anthropologists/sociologists, which is another way of saying curious onlookers.  This demographic has many years of experience with TRB, and may be taking an interest in encouraging participation from a younger demographic.

First Timers / 21-27 Demographic

Since I’ve either already lost the 21-27 crowd, or I am about to lose them, I’ll give them my short list of things to do for their first TRB.  By far the most important advice I have to give is to generate a schedule for yourself BEFORE you arrive at TRB.  Use the interactive online annual meeting schedule.  Don’t waste your time trying to enter in key-words that match your interest area, just break it down by day and sort by time, then scroll through and make a list.  The only thing you can accomplish by not having a plan in advance is to fit in with the stereotype of your demographic and wander aimlessly.  As a secondary recommendation for the schedule, don’t upload it to your digital calendar on your smart phone, make it hard-copy, and make it a single page that you can fold up and keep in your pocket.  See exhibit A.

Exhibit A: Preliminary Schedule
This brings me to the question on everyone’s mind their first time at TRB, ‘What the heck should I be going to see?!?”  The general categories of events at TRB are exhibits, posters, sessions (most descriptive title yet), workshops, committee meetings, subcommittee meetings, and receptions.  Your goals (by the way, you should be entering TRB with one or more goals in mind) will determine which types of activities you should attend.  Sample goals include increasing general knowledge, seeking a new dissertation topic, networking with a short-term aim of getting a job, networking with long-term career goals, and some other goals I wouldn’t recommend, like seeking out free food and alcohol.

Exhibits are a great place to go if you’re hungry, if you want trinkets, if you want someone to talk to, and if you want to try and get your resume into someone’s hands.  The exhibit hall seems to be a better fit for the older professionals who actively work with vendors to touch base in person once a year and catch up with the latest advances with a given product.  As with many places at TRB, the main feature of the exhibit hall appears to be older members running into each other and catching up on who they’re now working for and how they might collaborate in the future.  Along this line of thought, if you do happen to be in the market for a job, ask one of your mentors attending the annual meeting to tour the exhibit hall with you.

Posters are a great opportunity to talk one-on-one with researchers about their papers.  This isn’t such a great venue for wandering aimlessly, because information overload will quickly drive you from the room.  Stop by the posters if there’s a particular professor you’re interested in working with for your doctorate and want to meet them in person, or if you’re in a job hunt and there’s a company presenting that you’re specifically interested in.  There are some very good projects you can learn about if you walk around, but for the most part you’ll have to search through the paper database later for your research anyway.  If you’re presenting at one of these and find yourself confused at the lack of interest from passers-by, you should remember that poster sessions are treated by senior members as another chance to socialize and catch up with old friends, and they might still read your paper at a later date for their research.

The session format is a good outlet for the 21-27 year-old who may be interested in learning more about a topic, but who isn’t already heavily involved in the area.  The session format provides a hand-full of presentations by subject-area experts on a given topic, followed by a question and answer period at the end of the event.  There aren’t many networking opportunities at sessions, unless you happen to need to talk to one of the speakers, and you manage to catch them before/after the event.

The workshop format is generally set up as a long (often full day) session on Sunday or Thursday.  If there’s a specific topic that you’re very focused on with an applicable workshop then you should attend it, but otherwise you may want to devote your time elsewhere.  Some workshops involve small-group discussion and problem-solving, but the majority seem to be run as extended sessions with presentations and brief periods of question/answer.

Committee meetings are hit and miss for new attendees, and I should warn you that as often as not you’ll be the only young member in the room, unless there are some students tagging along with their adviser.  I highly recommend you attend at least the first hour of any committee meeting associated with your research field, because it’s important to understand the atmosphere at different committees.  Some committees are happy to have visitors and try to include them, while others are disenchanted with young member participation (or committee friends in general) and won’t be happy to see you return.  Committee meetings are the place where the business of TRB happens, and committees will be largely focused on how the workshops and sessions they’re supporting are going in the current year, and on what workshops and sessions they should provide for the following year.  Many committee meetings will also include a couple of brief presentations by members of the committee on related material, but for the most part these are planning meetings.  At many committees, there is no potential for interaction with the audience, and members are on task to get through a busy agenda within the four hours of the meeting.  There may be some opportunities for volunteering and getting involved, but these would have to happen at the end by listening to the needs of the committee and cornering the appropriate member after the meeting.  DO NOT expect to attend a meeting for the first time and get an invitation to join them as a young member – instead expect that your first time no-one will acknowledge your presence.  This isn’t a rule, just an observation of the majority case.  The statistics are that around 1/3 of every attendee is a first-time person at a given annual meeting, so these committees have gotten used to seeing people once and never seeing them again, and it’s not a reflection on you personally.  If you’re serious about joining a committee I’d recommend the following timeline: attend your first meeting with them, after which you should express your interest in volunteering; follow up with them by email once a month until they respond; find out when their midyear meeting is and make sure you call in to be present, if not participate; attend the committee at the following year’s annual meeting and THEN ask them about membership, if they haven’t already brought it up with you.

I’ve been trying to avoid references to “more prominent people” a.k.a. “egos that barely fit into a room together” in describing the difference between emotionally closed committees and those that are open to involvement from others, but now I’ve gone and said it and failed in my attempt.  If you happen to find a committee whose work interests you and they’re receptive to involvement from the younger crowd, JUMP ON IT.  These are the people who can be mentors to you both as you get to know TRB, and as you grow in your career.  Committee membership as a young member serves to separate you from your colleagues; the ones you see wandering aimlessly around the conference with their faces buried in the program.  There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make TRB run, and there are good opportunities to get involved.  If you have a lot of time on your hands your committee will be happy to use it, but if you’re in grad school (and have a family like me) there are still plenty of activities you can participate in that are helpful without draining your precious time.

In my limited experience, smaller committees who do not have formal subcommittee meetings are far more open to participation from younger members, but those large committees who treat membership as an elite qualification will have plenty of subcommittee meetings, many of which will include opportunities for open discussion that you can get involved with.  If you wish to get involved in a committee that’s not as open to participation as you’d like, show up to their subcommittee meetings, and behave professionally while showing interest.  It won’t take long before someone asks you to volunteer for something, which is your best option for gaining entry to the group.  If you’re in a career path involving research, I highly recommend attending any “research subcommittee” meetings in your field of interest, as this provides incredible insight into the current leading edge of research, the next thing coming, and the difficulties in getting projects funded.  Starting with my very first trip to TRB, I’ve been included in discussion on the prioritization of research topics, and I’ve been genuinely appreciated for my contributions to the discussion.

Receptions have something for everyone in the 21-27 demographic.  If you’re spending your day wandering aimlessly, make sure you inquire with anyone you happen to accidently run into about their organization’s evening reception space, and by the end of each day you’ll have discovered both free food and free alcohol.  On a more serious note, these informal environments are good places to talk up potential employers if you’re in the market for a job, or simply expand your network of contacts.

I haven’t given you anything broken down into 140 character bytes of information, but hopefully I’ve provided you with some nuggets of helpful information buried in the prose.  There’s no “right” way to do TRB, because everyone has different goals for their week.  Repeating my previous advice, develop your own plan before you arrive at the conference, and spend your time and energy onsite learning everything you can about your area of interest, about how TRB operates, and about how you can get involved.  Once you’ve done that, then you’re effectively part of the 28-35 demographic, and you can read on.

Repeat Attendees / 28-35 Demographic

Going on the assumption that you’ve encountered the kinds of situations I’ve described in the previous section, whether you agree with my assessment or not, this demographic needs advice on how to get MORE involved with TRB.  To this end, the TAC has created the Young Members Council which I’ll get around to in a couple of paragraphs.

I feel like the elephant in the room for this demographic is the issue of funding repeat trips to the conference.  Budgets in all sectors of our industry have been contracting, and support for conference attendance seems high on the list for the cutting block.  My personal situation as a doctoral student is that my attendance fees are reimbursed only if I’m presenting in a poster or a session, and my hotel accommodation is reimbursed up to a maximum of around $150 for the week.  Being involved as a young member means that I pay for my own affiliate member registration with TRB, and my desire to attend Sunday workshops and subcommittee meetings means that my transportation and accommodation bills quickly climb above the allotted amount, no matter how many people I share a room with.  One possible boon to attract more involvement from the young attendees is to remove the registration cost for those classified as a young member of a committee.  This financial benefit would drive more young people to committee meetings without a major financial burden to TRB.

Okay, so you’ve attended TRB a number of times, you’ve presented some posters, and you’re starting to settle in and get involved.  What should you do next?  You tell me; because that’s exactly the position I’m in.

I break down the young attendees at TRB into two categories, graduate students, and young professionals.  I think it seems to most committees, and to some degree I agree with them, that the graduate students in attendance are here to present their current poster, find some free food, and enjoy being in DC.  This group as a whole is a bad source for committee involvement.  Young professionals by contrast have the opposite problem, with little reason and even less funding to attend the annual meeting.  Even if they’re involved in research, there will always be a more senior member on staff to attend in their stead, and involving this population would mean finding a way to get them here.  On the fringes of these groups are the graduate students who have spent time in “the real world” and have returned to academia, and the young professionals who by luck or by design are in a position which allows them to attend regularly.  Both the returning students group and the young professionals (in attendance) group make excellent additions to committees, because they recognize the potential benefits of volunteering at this point in their careers, and they’re driven to maximize any opportunities they can get.  Once we’re brought into the mix as volunteers, we start to form professional friendships within our committees, and then we’re hooked for life.

I’ve joined a committee as an official young member because it’s a topic of great interest to me, because this committee is very friendly and welcoming to visitors, and most importantly because they appreciate volunteers for their work.  The committee is not tied to my area of research, but is instead focused on service to the rest of TRB, in this case covering the Conduct of Research (ABG10).  Ideally in the future I’ll become involved with a subject area committee as well, but this seems like a difficult proposition given my existing commitments.  It’s counterproductive to network and volunteer if you spread yourself so thin that you’re not producing good work for the groups you’re supporting, so I’m sticking with one for now.

The Young Members Council (YMC) created by TAC in the last year seems like a good idea, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired.  Each group area held the responsibility for appointing two of their young members to the council, and at this time the only way to gain membership is by appointment.  In the future, I’d appreciate some sort of formal announcement/application process within the groups to choose the members of the council.  The council has created subcommittees by subject area, but some of these have not begun to meet in any capacity, and others have been having closed-door meetings.  The group has a website, which they’re now pushing out to the public as of this annual meeting.

I was very pleased when attending the meeting of the YMC as a friend of the committee to see the level of enthusiasm within the group to move forward.  A number of good ideas were proffered for increasing activity of young members, but I did raise the issue of targeting the 21-27 year olds compared to the 28-35 year olds.  The group was receptive to the concern, and we’ll see what comes out of it.  Beginning a mentorship “buddy” type program and endeavoring to assist young member placement efforts on TRB research panels are both good ideas, but I feel that it would help the kind of TRB participants who are already attending the YMC meeting, without providing benefit to the throngs of grad students wandering aimlessly.  Having the group is a good first step, but I couldn’t shake the feeling when sitting in the room that I was participating in a mock government; try imagining the last serious committee meeting you attended at the annual meeting, and then imagine what it would have looked like if every person in the room was 30 years old.

The Voice of Experience / 35+ Demographic

Be honest, did you read everything before this, or just scroll down to your section?  The fact that you’re interested in the opinions of the young attendees earns you a hand of applause, but I’m curious to know what your motives are.  Are you trying to get more involvement in committees by young attendees, are you trying to get more involvement from the large crowd of aimless graduate students, or are you trying to change the one-time grad student participants into repeat offenders?

So much of the activity at the conference seems to be centered on older professionals reconnecting with their circle of committee and research area colleagues/friends.  The discussion that takes place before and after meetings includes pockets of friends chatting, with a number of solitary people trying not to look uncomfortable with the fact that they don’t know anyone to talk with.  A good example of this problem would be a committee meeting I attended where they lamented that none of their four young member positions had been filled; meanwhile not a single person introduced themselves to me before, during, or after the meeting.  I recognize that the majority of graduate students are here and gone in a flash, but there’s not much risk to a committee in approaching a young person and inviting them to participate, and some of us are quite excellent!  Perhaps it would help generate involvement from young members if the YMC worked with their respective groups to identify candidate committee tasks which would be appropriate for young member volunteers to participate in?  I’ll grant that a young member who expresses an interest in the group shouldn’t be placed in charge of developing a list of workshops for the following year, but perhaps they could serve as a secondary secretary for the committee, or help to organize and manage the paper review process in the fall.  If committees knew of specific tasks to pass off to young members, they might see more benefit from engaging them and the relationship could grow to a more complete union.  Once a young member is proven to be reliable, they’ll be a valued member of the team.

And with that I think I’ve said enough on the subject, at least for now.

By all means please feel free to comment on this post.  I love a great discussion, and while I’d like to avoid a flame war, a heated discussion would just tell me that I’d struck a nerve and we should explore it further.  Tell me which of my assumptions you feel are wrong, and about the things that I entirely missed discussing that are actually essential components of the puzzle.  Also tell me if I’ve made observations that are on the mark, and I’ll see what I can do about spreading the word to a wider audience.  Lastly, please let me know if you actually read all of this and if it was useful; working in a vacuum means there’s less distraction, but it also means there’s no air to breathe.

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Posted in conference, Grad School, transportation, Transportation Research Board

The TRB Annual Meeting for Young Attendees, in a (large) Nutshell

This blog post is intended to summarize my observations from my second foray at the TRB annual meeting (#TRBAM).  This post will circulate after the fanfare of the 2012 AM is over, but it will hopefully be timely for those decompressing after the meeting.  To frame my discussion, I’ll inform the audience that I’m a 31-year-old doctoral student with seven years of industry experience who returned to grad school seeking refuge from the consulting world.  There are a couple of different demographics I expect may read this, so I’ll address them directly.

The 21-27 demographic is made up of students and young professionals, many of whom are attending TRB for the first time, and many of whom will not attend TRB again once they finish their stint in grad school.  Very few of these people will be reading this post, as they would have to go looking for it before next year’s TRB, and the initiative involved in reading other people’s opinions on the event is not a quality that runs strong in this group.  While there are exceptions to every rule, this demographic represents the people coming down to breakfast in their pajamas at 9:00, who then wander aimlessly around the conference from 10:00 until 3:00 with their faces bunched in consternation while they attempt to translate the program into information they can understand.  If you are in this demographic by age, but I have described behavior which you feel is insulting toward you, then by all means please consider yourself as an honorary member of the 28-35 group.

The 28-35 demographic is made up of young professionals and students who have invested some time in the industry and have a better understanding of the value of time spent at a conference like this.  They are the target demographic of the events planned for young professionals by the TAC.  Some of these people are coming to TRB for the first time, after arriving at a job position involving research, while many others have attended regularly as they’ve tracked their own careers through TRB.  Some of these people will continue to attend, will seek out committees and committee membership, and will someday enter leadership positions at TRB.

The over-35 demographic who are taking the time to read this post fall into a category that I’ll define as social-media anthropologists/sociologists, which is another way of saying curious onlookers.  This demographic has many years of experience with TRB, and may be taking an interest in encouraging participation from a younger demographic.

First Timers / 21-27 Demographic

Since I’ve either already lost the 21-27 crowd, or I am about to lose them, I’ll give them my short list of things to do for their first TRB.  By far the most important advice I have to give is to generate a schedule for yourself BEFORE you arrive at TRB.  Use the interactive online annual meeting schedule.  Don’t waste your time trying to enter in key-words that match your interest area, just break it down by day and sort by time, then scroll through and make a list.  The only thing you can accomplish by not having a plan in advance is to fit in with the stereotype of your demographic and wander aimlessly.  As a secondary recommendation for the schedule, don’t upload it to your digital calendar on your smart phone, make it hard-copy, and make it a single page that you can fold up and keep in your pocket.  See exhibit A.

Exhibit A: Preliminary Schedule
This brings me to the question on everyone’s mind their first time at TRB, ‘What the heck should I be going to see?!?”  The general categories of events at TRB are exhibits, posters, sessions (most descriptive title yet), workshops, committee meetings, subcommittee meetings, and receptions.  Your goals (by the way, you should be entering TRB with one or more goals in mind) will determine which types of activities you should attend.  Sample goals include increasing general knowledge, seeking a new dissertation topic, networking with a short-term aim of getting a job, networking with long-term career goals, and some other goals I wouldn’t recommend, like seeking out free food and alcohol.

Exhibits are a great place to go if you’re hungry, if you want trinkets, if you want someone to talk to, and if you want to try and get your resume into someone’s hands.  The exhibit hall seems to be a better fit for the older professionals who actively work with vendors to touch base in person once a year and catch up with the latest advances with a given product.  As with many places at TRB, the main feature of the exhibit hall appears to be older members running into each other and catching up on who they’re now working for and how they might collaborate in the future.  Along this line of thought, if you do happen to be in the market for a job, ask one of your mentors attending the annual meeting to tour the exhibit hall with you.

Posters are a great opportunity to talk one-on-one with researchers about their papers.  This isn’t such a great venue for wandering aimlessly, because information overload will quickly drive you from the room.  Stop by the posters if there’s a particular professor you’re interested in working with for your doctorate and want to meet them in person, or if you’re in a job hunt and there’s a company presenting that you’re specifically interested in.  There are some very good projects you can learn about if you walk around, but for the most part you’ll have to search through the paper database later for your research anyway.  If you’re presenting at one of these and find yourself confused at the lack of interest from passers-by, you should remember that poster sessions are treated by senior members as another chance to socialize and catch up with old friends, and they might still read your paper at a later date for their research.

The session format is a good outlet for the 21-27 year-old who may be interested in learning more about a topic, but who isn’t already heavily involved in the area.  The session format provides a hand-full of presentations by subject-area experts on a given topic, followed by a question and answer period at the end of the event.  There aren’t many networking opportunities at sessions, unless you happen to need to talk to one of the speakers, and you manage to catch them before/after the event.

The workshop format is generally set up as a long (often full day) session on Sunday or Thursday.  If there’s a specific topic that you’re very focused on with an applicable workshop then you should attend it, but otherwise you may want to devote your time elsewhere.  Some workshops involve small-group discussion and problem-solving, but the majority seem to be run as extended sessions with presentations and brief periods of question/answer.

Committee meetings are hit and miss for new attendees, and I should warn you that as often as not you’ll be the only young member in the room, unless there are some students tagging along with their adviser.  I highly recommend you attend at least the first hour of any committee meeting associated with your research field, because it’s important to understand the atmosphere at different committees.  Some committees are happy to have visitors and try to include them, while others are disenchanted with young member participation (or committee friends in general) and won’t be happy to see you return.  Committee meetings are the place where the business of TRB happens, and committees will be largely focused on how the workshops and sessions they’re supporting are going in the current year, and on what workshops and sessions they should provide for the following year.  Many committee meetings will also include a couple of brief presentations by members of the committee on related material, but for the most part these are planning meetings.  At many committees, there is no potential for interaction with the audience, and members are on task to get through a busy agenda within the four hours of the meeting.  There may be some opportunities for volunteering and getting involved, but these would have to happen at the end by listening to the needs of the committee and cornering the appropriate member after the meeting.  DO NOT expect to attend a meeting for the first time and get an invitation to join them as a young member – instead expect that your first time no-one will acknowledge your presence.  This isn’t a rule, just an observation of the majority case.  The statistics are that around 1/3 of every attendee is a first-time person at a given annual meeting, so these committees have gotten used to seeing people once and never seeing them again, and it’s not a reflection on you personally.  If you’re serious about joining a committee I’d recommend the following timeline: attend your first meeting with them, after which you should express your interest in volunteering; follow up with them by email once a month until they respond; find out when their midyear meeting is and make sure you call in to be present, if not participate; attend the committee at the following year’s annual meeting and THEN ask them about membership, if they haven’t already brought it up with you.

I’ve been trying to avoid references to “more prominent people” a.k.a. “egos that barely fit into a room together” in describing the difference between emotionally closed committees and those that are open to involvement from others, but now I’ve gone and said it and failed in my attempt.  If you happen to find a committee whose work interests you and they’re receptive to involvement from the younger crowd, JUMP ON IT.  These are the people who can be mentors to you both as you get to know TRB, and as you grow in your career.  Committee membership as a young member serves to separate you from your colleagues; the ones you see wandering aimlessly around the conference with their faces buried in the program.  There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make TRB run, and there are good opportunities to get involved.  If you have a lot of time on your hands your committee will be happy to use it, but if you’re in grad school (and have a family like me) there are still plenty of activities you can participate in that are helpful without draining your precious time.

In my limited experience, smaller committees who do not have formal subcommittee meetings are far more open to participation from younger members, but those large committees who treat membership as an elite qualification will have plenty of subcommittee meetings, many of which will include opportunities for open discussion that you can get involved with.  If you wish to get involved in a committee that’s not as open to participation as you’d like, show up to their subcommittee meetings, and behave professionally while showing interest.  It won’t take long before someone asks you to volunteer for something, which is your best option for gaining entry to the group.  If you’re in a career path involving research, I highly recommend attending any “research subcommittee” meetings in your field of interest, as this provides incredible insight into the current leading edge of research, the next thing coming, and the difficulties in getting projects funded.  Starting with my very first trip to TRB, I’ve been included in discussion on the prioritization of research topics, and I’ve been genuinely appreciated for my contributions to the discussion.

Receptions have something for everyone in the 21-27 demographic.  If you’re spending your day wandering aimlessly, make sure you inquire with anyone you happen to accidently run into about their organization’s evening reception space, and by the end of each day you’ll have discovered both free food and free alcohol.  On a more serious note, these informal environments are good places to talk up potential employers if you’re in the market for a job, or simply expand your network of contacts.

I haven’t given you anything broken down into 140 character bytes of information, but hopefully I’ve provided you with some nuggets of helpful information buried in the prose.  There’s no “right” way to do TRB, because everyone has different goals for their week.  Repeating my previous advice, develop your own plan before you arrive at the conference, and spend your time and energy onsite learning everything you can about your area of interest, about how TRB operates, and about how you can get involved.  Once you’ve done that, then you’re effectively part of the 28-35 demographic, and you can read on.

Repeat Attendees / 28-35 Demographic

Going on the assumption that you’ve encountered the kinds of situations I’ve described in the previous section, whether you agree with my assessment or not, this demographic needs advice on how to get MORE involved with TRB.  To this end, the TAC has created the Young Members Council which I’ll get around to in a couple of paragraphs.

I feel like the elephant in the room for this demographic is the issue of funding repeat trips to the conference.  Budgets in all sectors of our industry have been contracting, and support for conference attendance seems high on the list for the cutting block.  My personal situation as a doctoral student is that my attendance fees are reimbursed only if I’m presenting in a poster or a session, and my hotel accommodation is reimbursed up to a maximum of around $150 for the week.  Being involved as a young member means that I pay for my own affiliate member registration with TRB, and my desire to attend Sunday workshops and subcommittee meetings means that my transportation and accommodation bills quickly climb above the allotted amount, no matter how many people I share a room with.  One possible boon to attract more involvement from the young attendees is to remove the registration cost for those classified as a young member of a committee.  This financial benefit would drive more young people to committee meetings without a major financial burden to TRB.

Okay, so you’ve attended TRB a number of times, you’ve presented some posters, and you’re starting to settle in and get involved.  What should you do next?  You tell me; because that’s exactly the position I’m in.

I break down the young attendees at TRB into two categories, graduate students, and young professionals.  I think it seems to most committees, and to some degree I agree with them, that the graduate students in attendance are here to present their current poster, find some free food, and enjoy being in DC.  This group as a whole is a bad source for committee involvement.  Young professionals by contrast have the opposite problem, with little reason and even less funding to attend the annual meeting.  Even if they’re involved in research, there will always be a more senior member on staff to attend in their stead, and involving this population would mean finding a way to get them here.  On the fringes of these groups are the graduate students who have spent time in “the real world” and have returned to academia, and the young professionals who by luck or by design are in a position which allows them to attend regularly.  Both the returning students group and the young professionals (in attendance) group make excellent additions to committees, because they recognize the potential benefits of volunteering at this point in their careers, and they’re driven to maximize any opportunities they can get.  Once we’re brought into the mix as volunteers, we start to form professional friendships within our committees, and then we’re hooked for life.

I’ve joined a committee as an official young member because it’s a topic of great interest to me, because this committee is very friendly and welcoming to visitors, and most importantly because they appreciate volunteers for their work.  The committee is not tied to my area of research, but is instead focused on service to the rest of TRB, in this case covering the Conduct of Research (ABG10).  Ideally in the future I’ll become involved with a subject area committee as well, but this seems like a difficult proposition given my existing commitments.  It’s counterproductive to network and volunteer if you spread yourself so thin that you’re not producing good work for the groups you’re supporting, so I’m sticking with one for now.

The Young Members Council (YMC) created by TAC in the last year seems like a good idea, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired.  Each group area held the responsibility for appointing two of their young members to the council, and at this time the only way to gain membership is by appointment.  In the future, I’d appreciate some sort of formal announcement/application process within the groups to choose the members of the council.  The council has created subcommittees by subject area, but some of these have not begun to meet in any capacity, and others have been having closed-door meetings.  The group has a website, which they’re now pushing out to the public as of this annual meeting.

I was very pleased when attending the meeting of the YMC as a friend of the committee to see the level of enthusiasm within the group to move forward.  A number of good ideas were proffered for increasing activity of young members, but I did raise the issue of targeting the 21-27 year olds compared to the 28-35 year olds.  The group was receptive to the concern, and we’ll see what comes out of it.  Beginning a mentorship “buddy” type program and endeavoring to assist young member placement efforts on TRB research panels are both good ideas, but I feel that it would help the kind of TRB participants who are already attending the YMC meeting, without providing benefit to the throngs of grad students wandering aimlessly.  Having the group is a good first step, but I couldn’t shake the feeling when sitting in the room that I was participating in a mock government; try imagining the last serious committee meeting you attended at the annual meeting, and then imagine what it would have looked like if every person in the room was 30 years old.

The Voice of Experience / 35+ Demographic

Be honest, did you read everything before this, or just scroll down to your section?  The fact that you’re interested in the opinions of the young attendees earns you a hand of applause, but I’m curious to know what your motives are.  Are you trying to get more involvement in committees by young attendees, are you trying to get more involvement from the large crowd of aimless graduate students, or are you trying to change the one-time grad student participants into repeat offenders?

So much of the activity at the conference seems to be centered on older professionals reconnecting with their circle of committee and research area colleagues/friends.  The discussion that takes place before and after meetings includes pockets of friends chatting, with a number of solitary people trying not to look uncomfortable with the fact that they don’t know anyone to talk with.  A good example of this problem would be a committee meeting I attended where they lamented that none of their four young member positions had been filled; meanwhile not a single person introduced themselves to me before, during, or after the meeting.  I recognize that the majority of graduate students are here and gone in a flash, but there’s not much risk to a committee in approaching a young person and inviting them to participate, and some of us are quite excellent!  Perhaps it would help generate involvement from young members if the YMC worked with their respective groups to identify candidate committee tasks which would be appropriate for young member volunteers to participate in?  I’ll grant that a young member who expresses an interest in the group shouldn’t be placed in charge of developing a list of workshops for the following year, but perhaps they could serve as a secondary secretary for the committee, or help to organize and manage the paper review process in the fall.  If committees knew of specific tasks to pass off to young members, they might see more benefit from engaging them and the relationship could grow to a more complete union.  Once a young member is proven to be reliable, they’ll be a valued member of the team.

And with that I think I’ve said enough on the subject, at least for now.

By all means please feel free to comment on this post.  I love a great discussion, and while I’d like to avoid a flame war, a heated discussion would just tell me that I’d struck a nerve and we should explore it further.  Tell me which of my assumptions you feel are wrong, and about the things that I entirely missed discussing that are actually essential components of the puzzle.  Also tell me if I’ve made observations that are on the mark, and I’ll see what I can do about spreading the word to a wider audience.  Lastly, please let me know if you actually read all of this and if it was useful; working in a vacuum means there’s less distraction, but it also means there’s no air to breathe.

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