Science is in fact a social profession.
Our fellow scientists are our collaborators, our competitors, our supervisors and our reviewers, and the scientific conference is arguably the most important means we have to meet and interact with each other.
Such conferences can also be a source of dread for shy and introverted people. Many scientists prefer small groups, or just being alone. Face it – in general, scientists do not have the reputation of being party animals.
There’s no shortage of articles and blogs about attending conferences, yet many of these overlook the psychological aspect: the stress some scientists feel about attending them. This doesn’t mean that existing advice about making the most of conferences is necessarily wrong – far from it; some of it is superb.
The purpose of this article is to offer some alternative suggestions for how you can reduce the pressure and the expectations typically associated with big conferences – especially if big crowds and unknown faces aren’t your thing.
A Little Background
Interaction through conferences is a tradition that dates back to the 17th century, when the wealthy, educated gentlemen of the time would meet to discuss new ideas and theories. Thankfully, modern scientific gatherings are much more inclusive than in those early days, but they are still a nerve-wracking experience for many early-career researchers.
Conferences can be scary. As such, there’s plenty of advice out there that aims to guide you through the dos and don’ts of attending them. Yes, you should think about what you want to get out of a conference before you go. Yes, it can be a good idea to make a note of certain researchers that you’d like to talk to…
But be aware that your conference experience might be nothing like you expect!
Conferences, especially big international ones with upwards of 1,000 delegates, can be a hodgepodge of excitement and chaos. Did you make arrangements to meet with that distinguished professor after she gives her presentation? Don’t be surprised if she’s been ambushed by old colleagues and dragged off to the coffee room, the pub, or the hotel lounge. It’s not anyone’s fault; it’s just the nature of conferences.
This may sound like a very negative description of what are arguably the most important networking events in the scientific calendar, but that’s not the aim here.
The aim is to get you to rethink the way in which you choose to approach your conference experience. There is an alternative approach:
The No-Pressure, No-Expectations Approach
Sometimes, by throwing your existing conference plans out the nearest window and embracing the unpredictability of conferences, the whole experience becomes much, much more rewarding. And going to a conference, especially if you’re presenting a talk or a poster, can be stressful enough. Give yourself a break. Don’t add the needless pressure of making yourself a set of possibly unattainable goals or ideal outcomes for your time there.
The pressure we may feel during scientific meetings usually goes up at large conferences. The combination of crowds and high expectations—those you put on yourself, as well as those that might be coming from your supervisor or other colleagues—can make you want to crawl back into your hotel bed.
Some scientists naturally excel in the social components of our job, just as some people are naturally more social. But many of us have to work at it.
So if you tend to be a bit shy and introverted, or even if you’d prefer to avoid large gatherings of people altogether, this doesn’t mean you can’t attend, and even enjoy, conferences. But you might have to look at them differently and accept that the one-size-fits-all guidelines we commonly hear might not be right for you.
Below, you’ll find four commonly heard conference plans, and four alternatives approaches that you might want to consider approaches. As always, it’s about striking a balance that feels right for you.
So here’s to making scientific gatherings a more fun, positive experience!
Conference Plan 1: Plan out which talk sessions you would like to attend.
Typically, these are the sessions that cover topics closest to your own field of expertise. After all, what better way to meet the people that work in your research area?
The no-pressure, no-expectations alternative: go where your feet take you.
Too often, we scientists become stuck in the way of thinking that is “normal” for our field, or for our type of study system. However, research repeatedly shows that interdisciplinary work is crucial to the continual progression of science.
So at your next conference, try going to at least one session that covers topics different to your own specialism. You might be surprised at how many new ideas emerge from listening to researchers from other fields!
Conference Plan 2: Go to as many talks as possible so you can maximize your time there.
The conference is only a week long at most. There’s no point in paying all that money if you’re not going to make the most of it, right?
The no-pressure, no-expectations alternative: Skip a few talk sessions.
Yes, we go to conferences to listen and learn, but you can’t talk to other scientists if you’re seated in a lecture hall the whole time. Most conferences have coffee breaks and other moments dedicated to facilitating productive discussion, but they’re often crowded and noisy.
Want some quality one-on-one time with your fellow scientists? Go and wander around the poster hall while there are talks going on in the other room. You probably won’t be the only one doing so, and this is a perfect opportunity to strike up a meaningful conversation with a fellow talk-skipper. Unplanned meetings such as these can often be far more rewarding than those planned in advance – perhaps because neither party feels any pressure to achieve any particular goal from the meeting.
There’s another benefit to the no-pressure, no-expectations alternative in planning your time at conferences. This one is a bit more personal: it’s OK to take some time for yourself. Attending a conference can be very mentally taxing – there are lots of new faces, new names to memorize, and new people to impress. There’s a great deal of psychological pressure on young scientists, and conferences are one of the components of the job that come with lots of different, and conflicting, emotions. While the rest of the delegates are occupied in talks, take some time to go for a short walk outside, or simply to sit with a quiet cup of coffee or tea in peace. Of course, you’re there to connect with other researchers and you should make the most of that opportunity; however, if skipping a few talks allows you to get your head back on track, then it’s well worth it.
Conference Plan 3: Research the speakers and other delegates and make a list of whom you would like to talk to.
Contacting certain people beforehand to set up a meeting will put you ahead of the crowd once the conference is underway. It’s great to reach out to people before the conference, and many scientists will be delighted if you do so.
The no-pressure, no-expectations alternative: Be more open to opportunistic, spur-of-the-moment meetings.
The problem with wanting to meet with prominent researchers in your field is that everyone else wants to meet them too.
Don’t forget, their conference experience is entirely different to yours. For them, conferences are a bit like school reunions; they get to meet up with old friends and colleagues, and perhaps a chance to show off their latest grant. As much as they’re probably willing to meet new researchers, a lot of their time is likely spent reconnecting with old ones. If the chance arrives, don’t be afraid to approach someone on your “wanted” list. But don’t be too disappointed if that chance doesn’t come.
If you’re really set on the idea of making a list of people to connect with, take a second to consider who’s on that list. If you have 10 professors written down, you may be missing out on the bigger picture.
Most of the people at a conference are not internationally renowned professors. They’re early-career scientists just like you! It’s these people that will, as the years pass, climb the career ladder with you, will review your papers and compete with you for grants and jobs.
It might seem important to make contact with the professors at the top of their field, but don’t forget that those people are not (over the long term) the future of your field. That honor goes to your fellow early-career scientists. After all, who do you think that prominent professor is talking to over a cup of coffee? The contacts they made when they were in your position.
Conference Plan 4: Limited grant money is best spent by going to a big, international conference. Registration fees, not to mention the travel and accommodation that come with them, are usually so high that the majority of early-career researchers can’t afford to go to many conferences. To get the best value for money, common sense says the best bet is to save up your research money and register for the biggest conference in your field. But is that really the case?
The no-pressure, no-expectations alternative: Spend your money going to several smaller conferences and workshops rather than one big one.
Small-scale and regional meetings have the obvious benefit of being cheaper than international ones, but that’s just the beginning. Think about how many people you would reasonably expect to connect with at a conference with 1,000 delegates. Perhaps 40? The nice thing about smaller conferences and workshops is being able to connect with just as many researchers, without the heavy pressure of having to speak in front of a large audience. The atmosphere at smaller conferences is also completely different – if you’re nervous about speaking in front of others, or simply find networking difficult in general, the more personal and relaxed feeling that comes with smaller meetings gives you far more opportunity to shine through as a promising new researcher.
Scientific conferences are one of the highlights of the job.
Traveling around the world, getting to talk non-stop about the things that excite you as a researcher, endless free coffee, and an almost festival-like atmosphere. For some people, this is something of a dream come true. But every scientist knows that these meetings take a huge amount of energy.
You’re not alone in feeling nervous about, or even dreading, attending a conference. But a lot of the pressure associated with these meetings often comes from ourselves. Before you pack your bags for your next conference, take a bit of time to think about what you really want out of the experience, and remember that the no-pressure, no-expectation approach can help to bring a bit of joy to what, after all, is one of the great adventures of the profession.
Take it easy, and start connecting.