Matthew Olckers Economist by day; graffiti nerd by night.

Some things never change

At the end of spring this year I had the privilege of attending an international conference at my university, the Paris School of Economics. The organizers used their connections (and the diaspora of French economists) to put together a diverse and accomplished panel of professors. I felt privileged because there is little chance that this quality of conference would be held in my home country, South Africa.

I did not take the opportunity for granted. A week before the conference started, I emailed visiting professors to arrange meetings. Knowing that my peers would do the same, I suggested we meet for breakfast away from the conference venue. Unfortunately, no luck with that tactic. The professors suggested we meet during the conference breaks.

Photos from the internet don’t help much when you are nervously trying to locate one particular professor in a sea of pale faces and grey hair. After a near miss, I finally located my target. Let’s call him Mr E. To my dismay, Mr E did not look welcoming as in his photos. He looked hot and bothered.

I made my move at the break. I introduced myself and referred to an earlier email. Just as I felt a tingling of confidence, a brown-haired woman swooped in and caught his attention. I did not stand a chance. The woman and Mr E knew each other. Even their families knew each other. I loitered around, trying to catch his attention and continue the conversation. No luck. He shrugged me off without a second glance. It felt like a carefully honed skill that such esteemed professors learn over time—shaking off PhD students like flies.

I tried to play it cool and grabbed some snacks from the buffet table. I lurked in the corner and watched the brown-haired woman and Mr E chatting happily. Two more circles round the room and still no luck. I finally realized that meeting Mr E was a non-event. I would have to wait until the next conference.

This experience may be familiar to you. It was sure familiar to my teenage self. Except, the conference was a house party and the professors were pretty girls. I thought I had left the embarrassing and awkward days of courtship behind me. Unfortunately not. Some things never change.