Disclaimer: Whenever I get asked a question more than twice I write up the answer on this blog. I’m not writing this because I have any superior knowledge on this topic; I’m just sharing my experience.
Conferences are important to share your knowledge, get to know what others are working on, and, yes, networking. It is an important part of the academic job.
It’s too bad that for many of us, the thought of conferences triggers old primal fears of high-school bullying.
But conferences are not popularity contests, and we are out of high school now.
Here are 3 steps to overcome your fears and have a productive conference.
Step 1: Set objectives and expectations
Balance your emotions with the analytical side of your brain. Look at the program and make a plan.
Which papers do you absolutely want to see?
Which people do you absolutely want to talk to, and about what (“friends” as well as the eminence in your field)? Have you thought about their goals or only yours? What is a good time and place to catch them? If needed, email them beforehand and arrange a meeting.
How much time do you need to prepare for your talk, and when can you arrange for that?
How much time do you need to relax and be alone, and when can you arrange for that?
Step 2: Identify potential problems
What are the things you are afraid of? Now make contingency plans for each and commit to following them if that problem arises. Making sure that the worst case scenario is kind of pleasant takes the edge off the fears.
Example: You are afraid that no one talks to you in the break.
- Think about what you would like to hear when someone approaches you in the break
- Say that to someone you would like to talk to
- That person is speaking to someone else? Join, introduce yourself, and listen in
- The conversation seems private? Excuse yourself and talk to someone standing alone (and help them achieving their networking goals)
- Worst case scenario: take notes instead of speaking to anyone.
Example: You are afraid that you say something stupid in public.
- Don’t say anything in public
- Use your attention instead to transfer knowledge into your notes
- If you are not sure at all any more what is stupid and what not, go for a nap
- Once you are sure that your question is not so stupid ask the speaker in person
- Worst case scenario: If you are sure that you said something stupid apologize sincerely and have a good laugh about yourself.
Example: You don’t know where to sit at the dinner.
- Look for a table where you know someone and start talking to them
- Look for a table where you don’t know anyone (and that doesn’t seem to consist of a group of old friends engaged in deep conversation), introduce yourself and ask the others what they do
- Look for someone you know who is standing and suggest to start a new table together
- Start a new table, look at the menu, and introduce yourself when someone sits down
- Worst case scenario: If you feel too awful to make conversation go back to the hotel, order room service and sleep
Step 3: Prepare
Still worried about conversations? Read the papers beforehand and prepare things to say to the speakers (=things that the authors will appreciate hearing). Identify people that you have met before and like, read their current working papers, prepare nice and useful things to say to them, and tell them that you are looking forward to seeing them.
The social aspects are not your sort of problem? Instead, afraid of presenting your paper, not finishing your discussion, or that no one likes it? Go back and revise your presentation/discussion.
Already spent too much time on it? I have spent weeks (and hired RAs) on single discussions. That’s ok: remember how much time the author spent on the paper! Next time think twice before accepting a discussion.
It will never be good enough? Check if your unconscious is using “conference-fear” to mask shame and guilt about the state of your paper. Remember that no conference paper or presentation will ever represent the full truth. Your paper contributes to a scientific debate: whether it is any good depends on how useful it is. Obviously the conference committee thought it will be useful enough by the time of the conference, or it would not have accepted it. Now go back and revise your slides to make sure it is.