In academia today much is made of the importance of conferences for advancing a research career. But it is also important to acknowledge that conferences can be daunting occasions – not only for those starting off, but just as much for those whose natural inclinations might be more towards introversion and solitary research (and the academic field is full of such people!). So in this post I offer five points to remember that may help you keep the academic conference in perspective, and make the most of the opportunities it presents.
1. You’re not alone
Even if it doesn’t seem that way to you, many of the people attending conferences have felt nervous, uncertain, and alone at some point in the past. Bear this in mind, particularly if you are just beginning to speak on the conference circuit. Remember too that there will be many more opportunities to attend conferences, and that, as you get to know people in your wider academic community, the experience should become more pleasurable. Also bear in mind that you do not have to attend all academic conferences going in your field: sometimes it pays to be selective, and by limiting yourself to one or two a year, you can focus your energies on making the best possible impression and getting the most out of those you do attend.
2. Your paper isn’t everything
Of course you will have worked for hours on your paper, ensuring that it is the best you can possibly present to this important audience of your peers and colleagues in the larger community. Remember the golden rules, viz.: your audience (like your students) has a limited attention span; no one enjoys being read to from a paper for a long period of time; and it is best to say make some key points that open up a discussion, rather than to try and cram everything in all at once. Once all that is in place, remember that your paper may be just one of many for those attending, and that for you, one of the benefits from attending a conference is likely to be the opportunities it will give you to learn from others in your field.
3. Feedback isn’t criticism
It can be very hard to deliver your paper and then receive what may appear to be critical or even hostile responses. In some fields the cut-and-thrust of academic debate can be challenging, but try to bear in mind that most people are well-intentioned in their comments, and that if this is not (or does not appear to be) the case, that there may be another issue at stake – most probably not to do with you or your paper directly. For instance, an audience member who launches into a long speech off the back of your paper may not, in fact, wish to speak about your paper at all, but rather to draw attention to his or her own research. In all cases, stay calm and polite, make notes on the question if you need to, and do not be afraid to ask the questioner to rephrase the question if you have not understood.
Take feedback positively, and remember to thank your audience for their valuable and expert input.
4. The most useful conversations happen outside the lecture room.
The conference usually offers excellent opportunities to meet people in your field and beyond, and these should not be overlooked. Even if you are not of an outgoing disposition, it sometimes pays to attend a social occasion (a dinner or coffee meeting, for instance) and to mingle with your peers. This can often be an excellent way of discovering what people are working on and what plans they have: often, it can also be a great way of getting to know life-long colleagues or even friends, and can lead to hitherto unforeseen collaborations.
5. Do your research beforehand
Perhaps the best way to prepare yourself for a conference is to do some research beforehand on your fellow conference attendees, using the conference programme as your point of reference. You may be able to spot points of shared interest between your own research and that of other conference speakers, and this will enable you to approach them with ease. This is also a good way to identify people you might want to collaborate with or even, invite to the conference you yourself are hosting in future!