Why I’m worried about attending conferences?
In a previous post, I wrote about the reasons why I find attending conferences so beneficial. For most people, I do not think they need to be convinced of why attending conferences is important. However, the thought of attending a far-away event with hundreds or thousands of people probably sounds very daunting to most. Here are some of the thoughts that come up in my mind when I’m attending conferences and what I’ve personally found to be the most helpful.
I’d be attending the conference by myself.
For me personally, this was one of my top worries for the longest time. These meetings seem so large and it feels like everyone already knows everyone. At a past meeting, not only did I feel lonely because I barely knew anyone, but I also felt sad because it seemed like everyone else was enjoying themselves more than I did. A fellow researcher who I really look up to and had the pleasure of meeting in person at this same meeting, told me that one of the most important thing is to acknowledge that it’s okay if you’re not enjoying the meeting when you first get there and that this is normal. Just recognizing that it’ll take a day or two to get the hang of things was quite comforting. When you’re with people you know, this buffers having to take everything new in at once—new people, new place, new research. But when you’re by yourself, that’s all on you and that really can be hard at first.
Additionally, most people attending are friendly and are looking to chat as much as you are! There is a happy ending to this past meeting though. There was an organized happy hour (nothing feels lonelier than walking to a happy hour by yourself…into a room where you know no one). I saw bunch of people chatting and laughing in groups over drinks while I shuffled inside. While just waiting in line for a drink, I asked the person in front of me where the line started, and one thing led to another and her, myself, and some of her colleagues ended up hanging out the rest of the night (there’s a picture of this occasion lurking somewhere on Twitter…) In particular, this previous experience gave me the confidence to attend any meeting whether or not I know anyone or not.
Sidenote: Traveling by yourself
Some people really like traveling by themselves, but for many of us, it can be quite daunting—especially if you did not the opportunity to travel a lot before graduate school. For me personally, I’d never traveled internationally before graduate school, so flying to a different country and then even getting from the airport to the venue was quite the experience. I find it very useful to map out every transportation detail beforehand such as looking up subway tables, shuttles to/from airport, etc. as well as having phone numbers of who I can contact in case I get lost along the way (i.e. friends in the area, hotel information, taxis, point of contact for the conference).
Additionally, I’d be ignorant to not acknowledge that traveling alone as a woman can come with additional worries. When traveling to the East Coast (from the West Coast), I usually take red-eye flights so that I don’t have to arrive at night because navigating a new city at night does worry me. Additionally, I’m hesitant to take Ubers alone at night in new cities where I’m unfamiliar with the routes, so hotel shuttles or SuperShuttles are very useful for this reason. I don’t believe I’m alone in these worries.
Conferences can sound very overwhelming just due to the number of people and the interactions at coffee breaks, social events, or just passing through the hallways. For many people, this can stir up feelings of social anxiety, be it mild or severe. It’s important to realize that you’re not alone in feeling this way. I think we tend to beat ourselves up or get frustrated when these feelings arise because we feel like it’s our fault for feeling this way.
There’s a tendency to go full speed at conferences and attend all sessions, but feel free to sit out a few sessions to take some time to yourself. These social settings can take a lot of energy, so it’s important to also take the time to re-energize however you feel is needed. In particular, I like to stay in the weekend before a conference so that I can ‘charge’ up my social capacity, and I found that it actually helps a lot.
Additionally, especially for the more social events at meetings, a rule that I make for myself is that I at least have to show up—then I can leave if I want. I find that this eliminates all of the back-and-forth decision making about whether or not I will go to something, which in turn reduces a lot of stress and wasted energy. Making this bargain with myself has gotten me pretty far though. Most of the time, once I’m there and settled in, I end up staying for the event. Woody Allen once said that “Eighty percent of life is showing up.”
Worried about presenting
Conferences are a great opportunity to present your research. However, presenting your work, especially in front of a large audience, can be nerve-wracking. I find that practice, practice, practice helps quell some of the nerves. In particular, practicing in front of a variety of groups (i.e. not only your lab) is useful because it allows for questions from various audience perspectives.
For 10-15 minute talks, I’ve found the most practical approach is to memorize all of the words to the talk. I personally get very nervous when giving talks, and these shorter talks don’t permit time for lots of ‘ums’ or nervous pauses. Additionally, I put all of the words I want to say in the speaker notes section of the presentation because in the worst case, I can stand up there and read. Although I don’t plan for a scripted monologue, just knowing that there’s that plan as a backup is calming. I have heard that the more talks you give, the less you have to focus on memorization, but alas we’re not there yet.
And if you have any lab mates or colleagues attending, I find it useful to locate them in the audience in the beginning of the talk. Throughout the talk, sometimes I would glance their way and it was very comforting knowing that the room was not all strangers. Sometimes they would even nod when I looked their way; although very small, I really felt supported and it didn’t seem like I was on stage alone anymore.
Imposter Syndrome is a term for when you feel like you don’t belong somewhere because you don’t think you’re qualified enough. We might be hesitant to attend a conference because we don’t feel qualified enough to participate in the discussion, but this is likely not the case. No one knows everything, and especially in research where the topics can be very niche. I asked a professor how they deal with these kinds of feelings, and they told me to remember that in research it’s easy to feel like you don’t know very much because you won’t understand someone’s research as much as they do. But then flip it, and ask yourself if they would know as much about your research area? The answer is likely that they would not—knowledge in one particular sub-field does not necessarily make anyone overall more intelligent.
I also think it’s important to be mindful of the messages you tell yourself. A great quote by Lisa Hayes is particularly relevant, “Be careful how you are talking to yourself because you are listening.” If you perpetually tell yourself that you don’t belong somewhere, then you might actually believe it even if it’s not true. You have great power in just being able to change the narrative that you tell yourself every day.
And finally, before the start of a big conference, I like to have a little pump up jam, similar to what athletes do. It’s a similar sentiment as above where having the power to change what you tell yourself and believe about yourself is so important. Usually I play a good pop song and tell myself, “You’re going to go out there and meet people! And learn all the research! And you belong there like everyone else!”. These small personal motivational sessions are really effective for starting the day off on the right foot.
In addition to these topics above, it’s also important to address the fact that there are many reasons that make it difficult if not impossible for trainees and professors to attend conferences. Most of the ones listed above have to do with the inner challenges one might face with themselves, but there is also the difficulty of securing funding to attend, traveling with children or finding childcare, travel visa challenges, taking care of loved ones, and many more. It is a challenge we face that research conferences blur the line of one’s professional goals and personal circumstances, but I hope that these points above will at least be useful to many who might garner similar thoughts.