International conferences – perks and pitfalls

So, let’s talk about conferences; more specifically, let’s talk about solo travel and networking. I recently had the pleasure of attending the 16th Euroseminar on Microscopy Applied to Building Materials (EMABM) in the delightfully picturesque village of Les Diablerets, Switzerland. It looked like I had been transported into the Sound of Music, but with less singing and more cement science happening.

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Conference venue in beneath a Swiss alpine visage? Check.

This was my first international conference, and my first conference presentation, so I think it was legitimate to be moderately anxious [read: terrified] about the whole situation. Throw into the mix that the organisers and attendees make up about 80% of authors in my mendeley catalogue and a totally new terrifying dimension emerges. Imagine presenting rubbish to this crowd! What an awful impression that would make, and surely they would ban me from attending any other conferences and regale stories of my failure forever more…. In summary, on the flight over, I may have worked myself up slightly.

As you may have deduced from my opener, I was the only person attending this conference from my research group. There’s a couple of points relating to this that I thought I’d explore a bit further, instead of focussing on the conference itself.

Whilst I don’t find solo travelling daunting, and this conference was close to home, I did spend a bit of time contemplating how even just travelling to distant locations could be overwhelming even without the added work related anxieties. I think it can sometimes be easy to romanticise work based travel, but in truth, even if it’s to the most delightful of places and for the most interesting of things, it can sometimes be a bit of a slog.

You’ll probably have already seen from our previous blogs that networking is the aim of the game at basically everything that we attend. I don’t think you can overstate how important this is, and yet (for me, anyway) it is probably one of the most difficult and intimidating things I can imagine. I find it uncomfortable to approach strangers and enter into conversation with them, and would be generally happier hanging back and watching things unfold. When you are attending events with people you know it can be easy to slip into this sort of behaviour, just staying in the safety of the familiar. When you’re on your own you have the dubious advantage of not having this, forcing you to be bold and enter the fray – invariably you are left wondering what you were so worried about to start with.

I was surprised by the reaction I received from a couple of people when they found I was there alone – the prospect that someone else would basically chaperone me was quite baffling! That sort of response also initially threw me, I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to say… “Oh, yeah, now you mention it this is terrifying, I’ll just run off…”

Whilst these issues aren’t earth shattering, I thought no harm could be done by pointing out that they are part and parcel of the PhD experience – and hasten to add that although this post may seem negative they are really rewarding and mostly enjoyable! In terms of my experience from this outing, I learnt that my reluctant networking isn’t as bad as I think it is, and, like any skill, will improve with practice. Don’t be afraid to talk shop and try not to doubt yourself too much – nobody knows your work as well as you do, stick up for it! In moments of self-doubt, reminding myself that my work was accepted on its merits for the conference worked well – they haven’t let you on the bill as a merry joke, so calm down.

In the end, my presentation wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. After some minor microphone issues (wearing a microphone didn’t go well for me…) I didn’t miss out any salient points, kept to time and (sort of) handled the questions. Overall, the whole conference was great, and even though it was quite tiring I really enjoyed myself. I mean, it’s hard not to when you are in such a fab place with about 80 interesting people to chat to!

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Our hosts showed us the delightful surroundings.

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We sampled some delicious local cheeses.

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We were treated to some more local produce in the form of lovely wine from Chateau d’Aigle.

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