Working in academia we’re often told that conferences are one of the most enjoyable and essential parts of research life: not only do they provide vital networking opportunities, presenting experience, and the chance to engage in a dialogue about one’s work, conferences also establish a sense of community in the world of research. However, as a PG conferences can be a fraught, anxiety-inducing experience of nerves, butterflies, and excess sweating. From the initial worry over the abstract, to the tight-chested-feeling of invariably last-minute paper editing, to fears over technology problems, plus those moments during the presentation when you’re faced with the worry over whether or not the presentation is saying anything(!), only to finish and prepare yourself for the afeared regime-style interrogation of your work, its pitfalls and omissions, theories and ideas…. sharing research can be terrifying. The questions reverberate inside: ‘How can I do justice to my research – my whole life – in 20 minutes? Are my ideas even worth sharing? What if they’re nothing?’ And before you know it, that old familiar imposter alarm is blaring. Fortunately, I’ve never been bombarded with horrible questions, nor had my ideas slated – my papers have always been well-received, with interesting, useful, and, on the whole, mostly answerable questions, and supportive comments. Despite this, the combination of lacking self-confidence, raging imposter syndrome, and conference horror stories, always brings about the inevitable fear of outrageous failure.
And it’s not just sharing ideas that is the cause of clammy hands and a Rennies addiction. There’s the problem of conference fees; the cost of transport; scrutinising maps, bus timetables, and directions to find the venue; worrying over cancellations and delays; and the inevitable clothing panic over what to wear. And all that is before you arrive, when a whole new series of issues emerges: will there be a vegetarian option?, will the food be ok?, where’s the toilet?, who do I talk to?, what can I talk about?. All in all, conferences can be terrifying.
I’ve had my share of dilemmas recently. At one conference, I got stuck on a train amidst chaotic flooding, without enough money to get a last minute hotel in an unknown town, and with no 3G on my phone. I ended up spending 11 hours on trains, only to miss the conference – for which I still feel bad. The next conference I was faced with heavy snow-fall and arrived 4 hours late, just in time for my paper, only to have to leave early to endure a 5 hour journey for a train ride that normally takes 2. As for my next conference, well, I would love to attend it all, but I just don’t have enough money to pay the full fee. With all this in mind, last week, with some trepidation and, unfortunately no rescue remedy, I set off for my latest conference. My paper was sorted, along with my presentation, I had maps, trains booked, had confirmed I’d only be attending for the one day, had decided what to wear, and had my bag packed. At 6am I left my flat, armed with Game of Thrones for the journey. And, despite getting confused at the bus station, arriving slightly late and very flustered, it was fine. Moreover, when I got there, it was enjoyable. I became convinced by my paper, supported by the presentation (in spite of the inevitable mac-PC hiccup in formatting!!), and enjoyed reading it. OK, there was a bit in the middle, as there always is, where I started to panic and worried I wasn’t saying anything, my ideas were rubbish, and I was just repeating myself again and again. But, actually, I liked it. I liked the questions, I liked showing my ideas, I liked the discussion. And afterwards, I got to meet more people, listen to other great papers, and talk about research, projects, conferences, everything. I enjoyed myself! I became a conference convert and left buzzing, convinced of the reward, value, and enjoyment of the conference experience. And this is what I’m going to remember for next time.
What are your experiences of conferences? Do you get ‘the fear’? How do you deal with ‘conference terror’?