I need a survival guide for conferences. Anyone got one?

October 11, 2018 8 By Duncan Green

I go to quite a few academic conferences and to be honest, they sometimes make me fear for my sanity. Mood swings; weird rages against people (OK, men) who insist on stating the blindingly obvious at great length, in obscure academic jargon; a twitchy need to check emails and twitter feed every few minutes; sudden enthusiasms and exhaustions. I seem to be especially prone to erratic behaviour on the 1st day, then calm down a bit after that.

Anyone recognize this? Hope so, for purely selfish reasons. Assuming that I am not the only one who experiences conferences as an ordeal, what would be some useful advice for how to attend and get the most out of them? Here are some questions I need answered:

Socializing v working: if the conference runs over several days, the evenings are good times to unwind, get to know people socially etc. But should you drink and stay up late even if it means you have a brainfade by 2pm the next day?

Self care: How do you make sure you get enough sleep in overheated hotel rooms? Should you go running in the mornings, even if it means you’ll feel knackered later on. And how do you avoid mindlessly scoffing the conference pastries?

Annoying people: Should you force yourself to listen to people who really irritate you, as they often have useful things to say (at least I assume they do – I haven’t cracked this yet)? And if you can’t stand it any more, are people wise to the trick of clamping your lifeless phone to your ear and talking into it as you leave the room, pretending that it was on vibrate and someone has called?

Boring speakers/presentations: Do you give up on them and go into standby mode to save energy, or gamely try to find something useful in every contribution?

Pacing Yourself: If you’re not an extrovert, and so find the constant interaction of conferences deeply draining, how do you recharge your batteries/find personal time? Is it OK to chill with mates at lunch/coffee, or should you diligently network with strangers at every break?

Going to sleep: Is it technically possible to nod off, but look convincingly like you are just listening with your eyes closed?

Listening v Talking: I know we should be listening deeply to each other, and there’s nothing more annoying than watching people preparing their own remarks instead of paying attention to the speaker, but my male brain struggles with multi-tasking: if I genuinely listen to what is being said, I find it hard to shift gear and then speak. How do you get the balance right?

Laptop etiquette: Is it rude and unacceptable to answer your emails and tweets in the meeting, or a perfectly reasonable response to presentations that are either bad or just not relevant to you? After all, as you sit there, the work is piling up in your inbox. If it is uncool, how quickly can you reasonably nip into the conference room while everyone else is registering/having coffee, and bag a seat next to the wall (preferably with a power socket) where no-one can see your screen?

Hidden Power: If it’s a decision-making conference, eg on a future research agenda, how do you work out where decisions are actually being made on the next phase of a research programme? If you’re not in the room for that, but you still want to influence the decisions, is it better to suggest a dozen things and hope that one sticks, or go into advocacy mode and just keep banging on about the same issue to try and browbeat them into submission?

I’d welcome your answers and additions, as always.

And here are some previous conference rants on international conferences, a particularly bad EU conference and why we need a war on panels. Which suggests that another survival strategy is writing snarky blogs about the conference you are currently sitting through…..