Friday, August 26, 2011


A colleague of mine was recently asked to help organize part of the program of a conference, and was asked to recruit someone to work with him on this. This colleague was specifically asked to find their "opposite".


It intrigued me for several reasons, not the least of which were the opportunities for making jokes like "So you're supposed to find someone who is very organized and answers their e-mail but is not very smart?". And so on.

Let's consider what the relevant variables are in finding one's opposite. In this case, owing to the specialized nature of the conference, field of expertise is not a major variable, although there is room for considering different researchers who use different primary research methods.

Gender? Should one program organizer be male and the other female? I know this is not actually as simple as it may seem, but for a start, should there be one of each?

Age? The colleague in question is middle-aged, so this leads to the options of finding someone who is very young or very old. Or is your opposite definitely a much younger person because, after a certain career stage (tenure), we are all old?

Geography? Is your opposite someone from a different continent (or at the very least, a different country)? This raises the question of whether one's home institution's location is the relevant variable or one's country of origin, or both.

Primary Research Method/Subfield? If you are a theoretician, should you get a lab person as your opposite co-organizer? And so on?

What else? If you were asked to find your "opposite" (in a professional context, but within your general research field), what would you consider?

Responses need not be entirely serious.

But, if you do consider only serious variables and come up with a list of people who fit the description of your opposite, how many possibilities are there? Many? A few? None?


David Stern said...

I'm pretty middle of road on most things as far as the science/scholarship goes but I guess I would come up with a not very smart climate skeptic :)

Anthea said...

My first thought is the reply that you gave ""So you're supposed to find someone who is very organized and answers their e-mail but is not very smart?". And so on."

But to return to your original do you find your opposite? Hard question to answer really but it’s a good question. A great of thought I think. I don’t think that it will be easy.

Realistically I’d say that it would mean that they’re looking for someone’s research interests are complimentary. I’d ignore things such as age (as you say we’re all getting older), gender (most of my colleagues are male anyway), ...but I’d ask do you mean geography as in region that one considers (you can tell that I’m not a scientist now)..or geography as in the physical location of your institution...or if the person is also works on theory that they take a dramatically philosophical stance.

Tobias said...

If the first guy is really unorganized, it might even be what was meant, and a good idea, to get someone organized as the opposite.

Having a woman and a young person in the group is also often a good idea.

But of course optimally you need your good ( or evil ) counterpart. Like Richard Reed to your Dr. Doom.

Eilat said...

How about a theorist vs. an experimentalist?

Anonymous said...

I really like the phrasing of 'find your opposite' in the request to your colleague. I read this to mean (roughly): 'We think you're great, and would love for you to organize this part of our conference program. But we've also noticed that you don't do certain things very well (like, perhaps, answering email) so we'll leave it up to you to find someone who will balance out these weaknesses'.

In a work context, this is how I would think about my own opposite - someone who has strengths where I have weaknesses, and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

When I was a graduate student, my advisor (the department chair) asked me to form an advisory committee of four students (with me as one of them) including: two men and two women, one from each of the first year through fourth year classes, one in each of the four major divisions in our department, and two with undergraduate degrees from small schools and two from large schools. And also to aim for racial and geographical diversity. There was one fourth year female Asian biochemistry grad student from Berkeley who would actually have made this possible...and she refused to be on the committee.

Anonymous said...

I'll leave the jokes to others, but I team taught a class with a person who I would consider my "opposite" for several years. Different tenure stage, different gender, but the main thing that made us polar opposites was that we had completely different ideas about what was important for the class. We'd meet to discuss something and I would come with my priorities for discussion and he would be totally uninterested in my points but have several different points of his own. Initially, it was incredibly frustrating, but ultimately I learned a lot from working with him. It was great because we were able to improve many facets of the course, many more than if I had been working with someone "just like me". It seemed that, for each obstacle we encountered (this was a large general education course), one of us had thought about the situation and had a solution. Our diversity of experience and opinion was extremely valuable. From this experience, I have learned to actively seek out people with different priorities and interests than I have when I need a collaborator for something.

Anna said...

I just read an interesting post (here) that makes the very insightful point that the opposite of a man is a boy, not a woman.

There are lots of positive things associated with masculinity, or "being a man." Power, respect, authority. When manly actions are defined as things that women cannot do, women who perform these actions are threatening.

In science, this could be one reason why some people react (subconsciously, often) in a hostile way to female success. Another reason could be that if success in science is power, respect and authority, then for those people who (subconsciously, often) define masculinity in this way and in opposition to femininity, then they will not be able to recognize success in a woman.

Anyway, this is a serious comment, not a funny one, but I thought framing things this way was very interesting. The author of the post conveniently solves the problem by pointing out that we can instead define masculinity (or "success") as something that boys (or others) lack the will or maturity to do. And leave gender out of it.

Anonymous said...

Gender - no. Why should you care about if the other person is male, female, or a mix of the two?

Age - no. Don't be ageist! Perhaps stage of career matters, but don't go by age.

Geography? You probably want people who are able to easily communicate. Don't pick an American and Australian. You probably also want someone local to where the conference is going to be to help organize.

Primary Research Method/Subfield? Depends on the conference. Picking a sociologist for a biology conference is probably a bad idea.

Alex said...

This either calls for an anti-particle joke, or a boson/fermion joke.

Miss MSE said...

As I am a young female theorist in a field that is mostly old male experimentalists, there are many, many people who are my research "opposite". For the sake of conference planning, my true opposite is someone who delegates effectively.

I see this as more of a suggestion to make sure it's a "good cop, bad cop" team, instead of two good cops, or two bad cops. If you tend to be lenient and forgiving, someone who's more of a hard-ass might be helpful.

inBetween said...

someone who wears tweed and someone who wears a wind-breaker?

EliRabett said...

Commenting on the propostion

Gender - no. Why should you care about if the other person is male, female, or a mix of the two?

Age - no. Don't be ageist! Perhaps stage of career matters, but don't go by age.

Yes to both. One of the most important things about organizing a conference is picking speakers. Different aged and gendered folk will have different networks to select from, and having speakers representing the broadest range of the field will attract attendees

Anonymous said...

Someone old, someone new, someone borrowed (visiting prof?), and some blue (bitter postdoc?).

EliRabett said...

Postdocs taste sweet

Kea said...

None of your criteria seem relevant to me. Surely they refer to personality and skill set only. And it's a good idea. I am a great organiser on paper, but let me greet people at the airport and I'm likely to put a complete stranger on the institute bus by mistake (seriously, I did this once).

Anonymous said...

I think that some of you who say that gender doesn't matter are being a bit hypocritical (I use that word based on previous comments from some names I recognize). If all the organizers were men, you would say "Where are the women?" So, this seems like a proactive effort to make sure the organizers are diverse. And you say that is not relevant?

Kea said...

Anon, it would be great if this move included more women. But in theory it should not matter what someone's gender is. Besides, in my field, there are no women to choose from.

Anonymous said...

"We'll leave it up to you to find someone who will balance out these weaknesses."

Yes! I'm actually intrigued by the phrase "Find your opposite." I might steal it! It sounds jokey at first, but on reflection, it's a tactful way of saying the above, or a tactful way of telling someone, "Don't go choosing one of your golf buddies again--stretch a little!"

Optixmom said...

I have chosen individuals (men or women) who have not had the exposure in my field that I have had. I like to give an individual who might be on the cusp of obscurity or someone who is not necessarily a good self-promoter but does great research in another area of my field a chance to be a leader. That is what I consider my opposite.

Let's be honest here, if you have been on a committee before for a professional society (especially one that is a lot of hard work organizing conference sessions, invited speakers, etc.) shouldn't you get more names put on the society's short list?

Anonymous said...

I would imagine they were talking about opposite in terms of theoretical positions (e.g., empiricist vs. rationalist) or research methods. I can think of "opposites" to me in that way.

Confounding said...

So many choices for this. Somewhat not seriously, as I have a beard, I would clearly have to find my clean-shaven, not-evil twin.

I'd probably go for someone with a field/empirical bent to their research over theory in my case, or someone with wildly different disease interests (HIV vs. whatever it is I'm interested in this week), etc.

On a random draw of my department, that'd also probably be a woman.