In the not too distant past, I hated conferences. To me they were awkward and would entail me feeling anxious and stressed for days beforehand. I understood why I had to go to them and that they existed for a good reason, but I really, really, really didn’t want to go and talk to a whole bunch of scary strangers.

Anxiety is responsible for most of that. Firstly, the sense of not having even the slightest clue what to expect. From clothing (covered in an earlier post) even to when to arrive and where I should stay. Conferences are often booked months in advance which gave me lots of time to obsessively overthink it.

Obsessively over thinking is great at stressing yourself out and not so great at giving you a calm outlook on something. I mean, how could I not be stressed if I hadn’t got an adequate plan for ‘what if the conference was actually being held, partially as a nudist conference and all the speakers had to give their talks in the nip’. It could happen!

Then there’s the people… Conferences are attended by hundreds of people I don’t know and either don’t speak the same language as or have nothing in common with. Add to that, one of them might be a future boss or someone I have to apply to for something.

What if they ask me what the boiling point of my material is and I don’t know it? Should I know it?? Maybe they wrote a paper on it and I haven’t read it and they’ll be really offended. What if I make a joke about liking cats and they are a dog person and then reject my paper because they don’t like me…

An anxious brain is not a sensible one. It’s mostly a brain that wants to stand in the corner staring intently at my small plate of sandwiches and hoping that I’ll be left alone.

Attendance at confreneces

These days, things are different – I really like conferences. They are interesting and an excuse to nerd out about something that normally I can’t find a single person willing to talk to me about. What changed? Did overnight I become some all-knowing font of knowledge and suddenly feel less anxious about meeting other clever people?

No. I know about as little about most subjects now as I did then. In fact, at the moment I’m going to conferences not really in my area of research (looking to find application cases for our technology) so I kind of know even less than I did before. And I’m over 30 which (to most people in their 20’s) is the age at which your brain starts giving up and becoming grumpy and forgetful. Joke’s on them – I was already grumpy and also the second thing I said.

I’m less anxious about conferences now because I have the experience to realise two things:

1 – No one at the conference is going to beat me up and steal my lunch money.

For a start, most of the conferences have catered lunches but also because a vast majority of people at conferences are not dicks.

I’ve heard many people confess to being worried about getting tough questions and embarrassing themselves in front of vicious scary academics who can smell weakness in a paper at 1,000 yards. There’s a few things wrong with this. Firstly, you are one of many, many researchers attending – I can almost guarantee that no matter what stupid mistake you may or may not have made, it won’t be the most idiotic one at the conference – I once saw two separate people present data with a linear trend line through just 2 points, and another claim that acupuncture is “a proven science”. Secondly, horrible people are rare and when they act like jerks and ask horrible questions the whole room is normally thinking “wow, what a jerk” not “haha, yeah – go for the kill, ask him why there’s a typo on slide 3”.

2 – Everyone is as clueless as me.

The thing about science is that it is mind-bogglingly big. As much as some people pretend to know it all, they don’t. What they know is a small subsection of ‘all’ – such a small subsection in fact, that in terms of ‘all’ they probably know about 2 pixels at the bottom of the first L.

Sometimes those two pixels might cross over with your area but in all likelihood the person who knows your work and area better than anyone else is you. Every project is a mishmash of science and the only way to be an expert in it is to be the one working on that project.

I’m a biochemist who works in physics. I go to chemistry conferences and I suspect every one of the attendees could run rings around me about reaction chemistry, but I doubt they could explain why the evanescent wave propagates out of an in fiber hologram. I go to physics conferences and my descriptions of mode fields and turning points would make them snigger but they probably don’t have a clue how transmembrane proteins can be coupled to glass to test for antagonists.

Every conference I go to I know less than everyone about almost everything. But I know much, much, much more than them about my project area, my work and more importantly, how I can use it to help their work.

There’s no magic solution to feeling confident at conferences but the above two points are the two biggest things that I have come to realise. Hopefully, any other anxious people reading this might find some solace in it. Trust me, you are not alone – there are plenty more anxious and worried people all around you at a conference, no matter how smart their suit!

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Steve Heard · 27 July 2016 at 17:10

Great piece! Conferences are exciting but can be exhausting as well, and anxiety can’t help. Some complementary/tangentially related bits on introversion in an old post here:

Axel · 27 July 2016 at 19:29

I would add: Conferences are not exams.*** People aren’t asking questions because they are trying to trip you up or test your knowledge, but because you are talking about something they don’t know as well as you and would like to learn. Think of them as questions like those you would like students to ask in class.

***Personally, even in oral exams, I don’ t like to ask questions I know the answer to just to find out if students do as well, unless discussion has sent us that way.

Angelina · 27 July 2016 at 20:21

Great piece, Matthew, really!
Conferences can be very stressful, I guess they give you this sense of stage fright performers have. I think the fear/anxiety never disappears it just fades, and sometimes, this stress can be productive as it can help you locate gaps in your research.

Apart from this, however, let me just add this post-conference feeling of questioning your impact as a researcher -why was I asked just two questions? surely, it wasn’t that great a presentation! Did I bore them to silence, even death? Ah, maybe I should just stick to teaching, this PhD is neverending..-


    Matthew (@MCeeP) · 27 July 2016 at 20:28

    Your right the aftermath does involve a lot of self doubt and worry. I think it’s the almost total lack of any quick feedback

      Angelina · 28 July 2016 at 09:41

      True 🙂

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