A Guide to Conferences. Part 1: Getting over Yourself.

One of the ways through which I procrastinated like nobody’s business this year was presenting at conferences, both international and in the UK itself. Conferencing is of course a very important part of academic life, and attending conferences (especially to present your research at them) is something any PhD supervisor should encourage. Why are conferences that important, though?

  1. Conferences are an opportunity to engage with new(ish) research, which should definitely be more up-to-date than those monographs and even articles you keep drawing from. Not that citing a conference proceeding is the answer to life, the universe, and everything, but you will be able to see where the field (which you are now a part of) is currently and may be heading.
  2. Conferencing also provides you an opportunity to present your research to people other than your supervisor who are knowledgable in the same field, and can thus give you feedback and advice from a different angle than you are used to.
  3. It is one of the few chances you will get to meet most of the academics you cite for your research. It is such a strange sensation to see scholar after scholar that you have before only visualised as (potentially frustrating) names on paper in the flesh. And yes, no matter how intimidated you are by it all, you really should talk to them.

This is of course not all the reasons why conferences are important, but I’d consider them the top 3. For this guide I will, strangely, focus on point 3. This is because although I do think it is perhaps not the main reason conferences are class (it may be though, and also they aren’t all necessarily, in part also because of 3), I personally found it the single most intimidating aspect of conferencing. Presenting work is nerve wrecking, yes, but I consider myself good at it and once it’s over, it’s over. Worst case scenario, nobody cares (this is terrible and will be disussed in part 2 of this guide). Talking to people though? It’s terrifying.

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There’s no denying it: talking to people is scary. Especially when those people are notable scholars in your field, and they seem to be enjoying themselves not talking to you. I am very uncomfortable with the term and concept of “networking”. Although I realise that networking is absolutely crucial, I hate giving people the feeling that I am only talking to them because I can potentially get something from them. Generally speaking, people are not means to an end for me; they are the ends in themselves. As you can imagine, this doesn’t make networking at conferences particularly easy for me.

Let’s set the scene: you are at a major, multiple day, international conference (say, IRSCL), and scholars x, y, and z, whose work you admire greatly, are attending as well.

The Approach.

DON’T: awkwardly stand next to the person while they are talking to someone else, waiting for your turn to come, not engaging in any conversation and borderline mouth-breathing on everyone while you try to calm your nerves and find a way in (I am very guilty of doing this on occasion).

DO: if they are talking to someone else either join the conversation, or if you have nothing to contribute, talk to someone else. You do not want to be the mouth-breather. Your day will come.


DON’T: be aggressive. Think along the lines of “Oh hi [scholar X]! I can’t believe you’re here too! I work in [field] as well, let me give you my card”. Maybe this works for some people, but please avoid it. You come across as ruthlessly insincere and completely uninterested in scholar x.

DO: be genuinely interested. The above conversation could easily be fixed to “Hi, my name is [name]. I draw a lot from your [research X] for my PhD. What are you working on at the moment?” and then take it from there! Although we may think that top scholars are basically celebrities who get recognised on the street and can hardly go outside without being accosted by groupies, this is simply not true. Anyone taking a genuine interest in what scholar X is working on is apparently quite rare, and people love talking to others who are into the same things as they are!

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Recognizing a renowned scholar at a reception, the grad student is sucked into a black hole of panic and worthlessness. – Lego Gradstudent

Moving on to…


The Conversation.

DON’T: force the conversation in any direction, but especially do not keep talking about yourself and what you are doing, or how amazing you are. If you truly are amazing and scholar X should be aware of your work, trust that they probably are or will be in the very near future. Otherwise it is just painful.

DO: just let the conversation flow. It’s absolutely okay to not talk about work beyond your introductions. Conferences are work, so your scholar X may not want to talk about it anymore. Getting to know scholar X for who they are beyond their work is not only a nice break from talking about the same things over and over, it is also a way to possibly make actual friends and it is incredibly interesting to find out who this name on the page really is!

What comes after the conversation?


The Retreat.

DON’T: stick to people. When the conversation is over, it’s over. Even if it is just a few sentences, that’s fine. You have met your person, introduced yourself (RIGHT??), and had a pleasant conversation. Don’t poison the moment by overstaying your welcome. Conferences are both intellectually and emotionally draining, so your scholar X is probably tired. Pick up on the social cues your conversation partner is giving you, or regardless of how lovely and wonderful you were during your conversation, they may not like you.

DO: act normal. Basically, it’s important to remember that no matter how eminent this scholar is, they are first and foremost a person just like yourself. And trust me, the strangest part of this whole thing is that

they will remember you.

As someone who considers themself quite dull and unmemberable, it is still shocking to me when I encounter someone I’d met a year ago at a conference, and they actually remember my name and meeting me (sometimes even what I work on). This may be children’s literature specific, because it is quite a small field, but I have found that treating people like fellow human beings no matter how eminent they are leads them to appreciating and remembering you as a fellow person in the world who works in the same field. I guess my main DO is to remember that people are people.

I have had the privilige of meeting a couple of very important academics over the past two years, and every time I was taken aback by how absolutely wonderful, lovely, and welcoming they are. After amping myself up to approach them and talk to them, they turned out to be just really cool people!
This has helped me personally in getting over my anxiety regarding meeting new people (a little bit), but also with how I view networking. Although it is true that scholars x, y, and z may prove to be important contacts to have for you later, they are also strangers who, through getting to know them and chatting with them (i.e. networking), may become friends.

Next up in this short series I will talk about what to do when you are at a conference to present a paper and nobody comes to your talk.
Yes, this really happens.
Yes, it is awful.
No, it is not the end!

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