This is a slightly delayed post, that I had been meaning to write since last year, when I spent most of a month travelling around for talks and conferences. At the end of last year I was away for another conference. All the conferences got me thinking about how I’ve had to adapt to deal with them; they are very helpful (almost essential) for communicating your work and getting new ideas, they can be busy and intense and exhausting.
During my PhD, and over the last few years of my post-doc, I’ve had to adapt a little to conference-going, to accommodate the bouts of depression and anxiety I have. I wanted to write about these adaptations. I can’t say that this will help everyone (or anyone) but these are things I try to do while I’m at a conference or workshop.
You Don’t Need to Attend Everything
At the first few conferences/workshops I attended I felt a lot of pressure to attend everything, every session and every talk in that session. I knew it had cost a lot of money for the travel and registration, so I felt like I would be wasting money if I skipped things. I also felt the pressure of time; I only had a finite time for my PhD and I was taking roughly a week out, so I felt like I was wasting time if I skipped things.
The problem with this is that focussing for that length of time is not easy and is exhausting. The pressure to go to each session and be there for each talk makes it even more difficult to focus. Also, you see more senior people dipping in and out of sessions all the time (so it must be fine).
Pick the sessions and talks that you think are interesting or useful to your work and go. If you need to leave during a session, try to pick an easy seat to leave from and don’t make too much noise when you do leave. This can be easier if you have a conference friend with you, but even without leaving to go to another talk you want to see (or to take a break, see my next point) is OK.
It’s OK to Take Breaks
Even if the conference/workshop is only a day long, breaks are important. I’ve been to one-day workshops, week-long conferences, and even a 19 day multi-conference event (which thankfully only happens every four years). Often the scheduled breaks aren’t long enough to rehydrate yourself, go to the toilet, get some fresh air, and rest your brain. Taking an entire session off if you want a break and the session isn’t of interest is absolutely fine.
As I mentioned above, it’s very easy to feel pressure to attend everything and to not waste your time, but ensuring that you can focus on the things that you want to focus on really should come first.
Often, scheduled breaks can become extensions of the Question and Answer part of the session that’s just finished, or you’re told to network and socialise in the breaks. I’m usually tired out pretty quickly, so I’ll sometimes use the break to take a wander or build myself an extra break out of a session I’m not so interested in. That’s not to say that networking isn’t useful (see my next point) and that questions can’t be informative, but I know that if I don’t take enough of a rest, then I’ll pay for it later.
Prepare a stock answer to the question “and what do you do?”
Something I wasn’t prepared for when I started going to conferences was how many times I’d be asked what I do. Especially early on in my PhD, I wasn’t even sure what I was doing so how as I going to explain it to anyone else!? People will ask this, either to fill a gap in the conversation, or because they’re interested in what other people are studying.
Another problem I had was finding the right words to describe it. I was OK with people within my group, because they already knew the language and tools I was using; and I was OK with a general public or general computer science explanation, because I could put it in more abstract terms. But when people within my field asked I found it really hard to know what they would and wouldn’t understand, so I stumbled over the words.
Eventually I found roughly what I wanted to say in these situations and remembered it, it became a stock reply to questions about what I did. I found this super helpful, it became something to default to instead of floundering around for what I wanted to say. It doesn’t have to be exactly the same each time; think of it like a presentation, you have the bullet points for the order you want to say some things and then you explain from there.
Obviously, I’ve had to develop a new stock answer for the project I’m attached to now (since it’s different to my PhD) but I still might need the rough description of my PhD (for if the person asking is very interested or the conversation is very slow!) so it’s useful to have figured out my reply.
Now that I’m not ‘only’ a PhD student, I often feel confident enough to ask the question first. This is a cunning little trick to buy myself more time to rearrange my thoughts so I don’t fumble over my description of what I do – or just for while I’m trying to gather some tea and a slice of cake during a break!
Travel and Accommodation
I find booking travel and accommodation to be really stressful, to me it’s a cluster of mini-decisions and each of them could make things worse later on. It feels like a lot of pressure. Obviously price comes high on the list of concerns, but also distance from the conference venue can have an impact.
For academic travel, options might be limited. So far, I’ve always had the opportunity to check out the options myself and then ask for things to be booked. But I’ve heard of places that have a more restricted workflow.
Generally, on the price of travel and accommodation, I’ve had to revise my ideas slightly to avoid some anxiety. Before my PhD and this post-doc job I was not used to flights or hotels – I’d flown and stayed in hotels, but nowhere near as often or as many as since starting my PhD. There is a nice balance to be found in the middle of the price range. Clearly you shouldn’t spend money just for the sake of it, but you also shouldn’t need to feel like you have to pick the cheapest option. Conference travel costs money, and that should be have been budgeted for by someone higher up the chain.
For me, the accommodation’s distance to the venue is tricky. I usually want to be able to get to the conference venue fairly quickly and on foot – especially when I’m in a foreign country, because my terrible lack of foreign language skills does not pair well with anxiety. Depending on where the conference is being held, being close to the venue can make things loud and busy (and expensive and cramped). I often spend a lot of time weighing up some options with these things in mind, but I know it can make a lot of difference to my conference trip.
It took me a few conference trips to realise how much they stress me. Usually I sleep very badly (including a few days before travelling) and often get a sore throat or flu-like symptoms, regardless of how I’ve travelled. I’ve come to accept that this is just how I react to these sorts of big events and try to adapt (in some of the ways I’ve mentioned above). But having a comfortable enough hotel room to retreat to, that isn’t too far from the conference (for the inevitable late mornings), is very helpful. Forethought on getting that balance right is well used time, in my book.
Take Some Time to Stand and Stare
Often a conference is in another country, in a new city or town. As I mentioned, I hadn’t had much opportunity to travel abroad when I was younger, so I now take some time to do a little sightseeing along with my conference travel. Do I still feel guilty about that? Yes. In the back of my head it feels selfish, a waste of time, and a waste of the money it took to get me there.
The way I have to frame it, is that taking a break (see above) to go sightseeing is a little reward for the long slog it took me to get to this point. It can also be a nice celebration if you’re attending a conference to present a paper of yours, celebrate that achievement.
Like the conference itself is a good place to expand your network of contacts, sightseeing while you’re there is good for expanding your horizons more generally. Often a big conference will a social event or trip, but if not (or even if they do) it can be very relaxing to decide to go for a wander around the city or to go and see something local while you have the chance to.
This is a huge privilege, of course. But with so many other stressful things about an academic career, especially during the post-doc/Early Career Researcher phase!) I think it’s important to find some of the perks and build them in to a conference trip.