My strategies for attending academic conferences as an ECR

Ten years ago I attended my first ever international scientific conference. It was in my hometown and my supervisors had encouraged me to go – I arrived not really knowing what to expect. I spent the week feeling overwhelmed and slightly out of place, especially at the poster session where I presented my work. This year I went back to that same conference… for the 5th time! I spent the week catching catching up with colleagues, listening to talks about their research, and running a lunchtime workshop on “How to be an Effective Peer Reviewer” (based on a paper which can be found here). So, what happened in the intervening years to get me to this point? What can other Early Career Researchers do to feel more confident at conferences?

 

- Wait for time to pass

Since that first meeting a decade has passed. Things have changed – I completed a PhD, two Post Doc appointments, and recently started as an Assistant Professor. I have also attended, and presented at, many more conferences. Simply put, I have a lot more experience, a better idea of what to expect, and a clearer understanding of what strategies help me enjoy and get the most out of conferences. So, I’d say a big part of it is just persisting. I’d encourage ECRs who are attending their first conferences to remember that it takes time to figure out how they work and what their etiquette is, and to be kind to yourself while you learn and find your feet.

 

Build a network

At that first conference, the only people I knew were my supervisors and a few students from the University where I studied. Over time I have been able to build up a network of people I regularly see at meetings, and now look forward to catching up with. This network formed because as an ECR I talked to a wide range of people. These conversations weren’t necessarily particularly “academic” – easy topics include how good (or bad) the coffee/food is, asking if and when the person is presenting (often best early in the conference), or talking about travel to and from the meeting. Building, maintaining, and extending my network has taken an investment of energy, the rewards of which I am now able to enjoy.

 

Use your presentation as an opportunity to learn

I never enjoyed public speaking. As a child, I wanted nothing more than to get out of giving presentations at school. But, so much of being a scientist is about communication. Given that, I’ve slowly but surely built up my experience and confidence speaking in front of audiences; and this includes giving conference presentations. Every time I’ve presented there has been something I’ve been unhappy with, even if it’s so small that the audience doesn’t notice. But I have noticed and, rather than being too hard on myself about it, I make a mental note not to do the same thing again. Despite the mistakes, I’ve survived every talk I’ve given, learnt a little more, and become more confident. I’ve now gotten to the point where I was actually looking forward to leading the workshop at this most recent conference – I was excited to share with ECRs how they could be better at Peer Review.

 

- Approach conferences in a way that suits you

At the first conference I went to, I was so impressed by my supervisor. I watched him move around the room, greet people exuberantly, and entertain groups with stories. Early on, I tried to fit into the same mould. I found it really hard – that style of conference-ing doesn’t suit my personality. It was when I gave myself permission to approach the events in my own style that I really began to enjoy conferences, and make meaningful connections. I now know that I don’t have to be the centre of attention. Rather, it is just as effective for me to quietly have conversations with a handful of people off to the side. Now, that may not be your style either – but, whatever your style is, I’d encourage you to find and stay true to it.

 

Those are a few things I’ve done that have helped me grow from where I was ten years ago to where I am now. Hopefully these tips will give other ECRs somewhere to start.

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