Tuesday, 24 April 2012

The art of conferencing

Posted by Peter Tennant

This week, I'm off to a conference. And I'm rather excited. Partly because it looks like an interesting programme. Partly because it means two cooked breakfasts, three days away from my ethics application, and the promise of at least one authentic Birmingham curry.

After publishing papers and getting grants, 'conferencing' (to coin an evil new verb) is probably third on the list of core research duties. But so far I've found it one of the trickiest and emotionally exposing. For three days, I'm representing myself and my University. Whether I'm giving a talk, chatting to a fellow researcher, or scoffing a pile of biscuits alone in a dark corner, I'm aware I'm on display and potentially being judged. Which is particularly stressful if, like me, you suffer from Foot-in-Mouth Disease.

Of course, this (rather optimistically) assumes anyone is interested. More often than not, my main struggle with conferencing has been the feeling that no-one cares. At my first conference, I remember diligently standing next to my poster, nervously anticipating an inundation from hordes of eager researchers. Instead, after a few hours and only a short chat with a gentleman who couldn't find the toilet, I eventually trudged off to a dark corner with a pile of biscuits.

Conference posters, by Marco Delmastro
At it's worst, attending a conference as a junior researcher can be quite deflating and isolating. Especially given the senior staff seem to live in a different world, dominated by something called 'networking'. Or gossiping (as far as I can work out).

Thankfully, things are getting easier. The best conferences (including the one I'm going to this week) run special events for junior researchers, so they can escape the world of networking to share their mutual confusion, make a few friends, and hopefully have some fun.

Meanwhile, I've discovered that at least some of my conferencing problems were down to unrealistic expectations. I once had a conference ruined by orders to 'return with at least one new contact per day'. It was the most self-defeating instruction I've ever received. Not only did it make me nervous every time someone initated conversation (Potential contact! Potential contact!), but it also removed my permission to relax. It didn't matter how well the rest of the conference went, if I didn't make my quota of new contacts, I had failed.
So this week I'm just going to relax and take it all in. If I end up making some new friends, great. If I deliver my talks without making the audience vomit, even better! And if none of these things happen, there's always the biscuits...

1 comment:

  1. Great blog post! Ahh yes the art of "conferencing" I am still trying to figure out how to act in academia...more civilised than private sector though foot-in-mouth disease seems to run rampant in both as well as hoarding biscuits (of course.) Hope this round went well for you!