A Guide to International Conferences
by Jessica Day
Public speaking at any event, big or small, is a daunting experience for most academics. Regardless of whether you are presenting a paper to an audience of four or forty, knowing that you will be the centre of attention for a WHOLE twenty minutes is more than enough to encourage drinking … of rescue remedy (of course!). Well, it is in my case anyway. And, despite the fact that over the first twelve months of my PhD I presented at five events, I found the last two as unnerving as the first, if not more so. This was because they were both international and interdisciplinary conferences and the scale and duration was much larger and longer than anything I had faced previously. So, in addition to my normal pre-paper stage fright, I knew that I would have to be calm, composed and confident, especially when discussing my research, for a further five days. So, although I am by no means an expert, here is what I have learnt about navigating international conferences, reducing the extra worries that may occur from attending them, and staying healthy and happy:
Getting There and Feeling Overwhelmed
The second international conference I attended as a PhD student was in Lisbon, and, as fantastic as it was to be travelling abroad, this did add to my stress levels slightly. So, I planned to arrive a day early. As simple and obvious as this sounds, having an extra day to get lost (as I did), to familiarise myself with the local area, and to find the venue was really helpful. More than anything, it was great way to scout out different places to eat that would keep me on budget and meant that for the rest of the week I felt confident of my route back to the hotel. Even if getting around doesn’t phase you, it’s important to recognise what else might trigger additional stress at an international event, so that by the time you deliver your paper or come to networking you are both happy and healthy. The last thing you want is a “bad day” or a hotel problem, for example, to mean you’re short with the keynote accidentally or unwell by the time you come to present.
Imposter Syndrome: “They Know I’m New”
As both conferences were either annual or biennial run events, it soon became apparent that a lot of the delegates knew each other from having attended one if not more of the events before. Once I realised this, I instantly felt like a banner appeared over my head saying “I’m new here, I’m the imposter!!!” Of course, this feeling that I was the only newbie was nonsense. And, as soon as I began to talk to other delegates, I realised that I was in the right place. Having confidence in yourself, the validity of your research, and in asking others about their own work are essential if you want to make the most of an international conference. Even if it means falsifying your confidence at first, make sure you don’t let nerves put you off from approaching others, especially the bigger names in the field whose expertise will always prove extremely fruitful. Plus, knowing some of the faces in the audience by the time you present your work will help with the stage fright.
Taking Time Out
I began both conferences with the perspective that I would attend EVERYTHING, and that’s just not possible. Although I’m sure some conference goers can, I soon learnt that it’s very difficult to listen to over eight hours of papers with the same level of concentration. So, as much as you may feel guilty about doing so, plan to take a paper or a panel out here and there. That doesn’t necessarily mean to go sight-seeing for the day, but stepping away from the conference environment, even for just half an hour, can help to re-calm and energise you. I struggled with this at first, especially because my supervisor was attending both events. Not that this was an issue, as she is very lovely and encouraged me to be strategic with how I structured my days. Yet, I still felt an obligation to show my willingness. To lessen the guilt, therefore, I tried to make my time out “semi-productive” and socialised with other delegates who would often be doing the same. This way the extra coffee break outside felt like I hadn’t totally abandoned the event, as I was still networking and discussing research – just far less formally.
Of course, this is only a small taster of what I have learnt so far, but the biggest and most important factors are to enjoy yourself and your paper, and to use the longer conferences for wat they are: an opportunity to socialise with other researchers.