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Navigating the Academic Conference with Social Anxiety

Tips for a stress-free conference experience.

March 8, 2015

Katherine Shives is a PhD candidate in Microbiology at the University of Colorado. During her free time she writes about microbiology-related topics at microbematters.org, kdshives.com, and on Twitter @KDShives.

Academic conferences can be one of the most enjoyable experiences that you can have during graduate school. A paid-for trip, usually somewhere at least semi-exotic, to allow you to talk about the kind of work that you are personally interested in—what’s not to like about that?

Well, for those of us who deal with anxiety in unfamiliar situations, attending an academic conference alone in a strange place without knowing anyone can be a difficult and demanding experience.

Thankfully, I’ve managed to attend and present my work at a few different research conferences despite my own anxiety and I’ve learned how to make it through these multi-day academic marathons relatively intact. In fact, these have been some of the best professional experiences I’ve had once I got past my initial anxiety and learned to enjoy the event (even though I’m the kind of person who starts to worry about just flying a week in advance).

Here are my 5 favorite personal strategies for going to conferences and managing anxiety:

1. Know the Schedule

I print a paper copy (although many prefer electronic copies) and always keep it with me during a conference for multiple reasons. Most importantly, it allows you to know where you need to be and when you need to be there for each talk or poster session. This can be extremely important at larger conferences that take over a whole university campus and use multiple seminar spaces at the same time. Print copies of the campus map if you know you are going to a big conference like this so you can see how far you have to go between talks. All of this goes a long way towards minimizing the anxiety of missing key talks or getting lost on an unfamiliar campus and will allow you to focus on the conference content. I also usually write a 2-3 sentence synopsis of every interesting talk I see so that I remember the presenters if I meet them later and have an easy conversation starter.

2. You Don’t Have to See Everything             

Are there certain talks that just don’t fit with your area of study? Skip them. It’s okay to not see everything as long as you attend the presentations that are most relevant for you. Plus, it gives you more options to take a short break for yourself (see #3) or to look up information on upcoming speakers.

3. Take Breaks for Yourself!

I think this is the most important step to saving your sanity at a conference if you have issues with anxiety. These breaks can be during talks you’re not interested in, during the coffee breaks, or during the longer spans of unstructured time.

Poster sessions can be particularly exhausting if you experience anxiety, as you are always interacting with unfamiliar people and discussing the finer details of your work. It can be stressful. I’ve taken 5 minutes after a 2-hour poster session to just stand in a locked bathroom stall and breathe until I feel ready to interact with people again. Even short breaks like this really help, so don’t hesitate to take care of yourself (which will make it easier to last the duration of the conference if it goes over multiple days).

4. Learn to Talk to New People

For someone experiencing anxiety in a new situation with unfamiliar people, this can be really difficult—almost like that feeling of being the new kid at school (especially if it’s your first time attending a conference in a tight-knit field). Don’t be afraid to ask the person next to you what they thought of the last talk, what they work on, or if there are any upcoming talks that they are looking forward to. It’s a simple and professional conversation starter that allows you to break the ice and move the conversation on from there.

If you want to talk to a seminar speaker, then by all means go ahead! If you are not sure how to start a conversation, a simple “I really enjoyed your talk on X today. Could you tell me more about your work on X with regards to Y?” can start a productive conversation. Academics love to talk about their research and feel flattered when you show interest, so it makes for a great conversation starter.

Also, the format of meetings provides a couple of microenvironments that are great for casual introductions and conversations that lead to productive networking experiences. I have found that group meals are one of the best low pressure environments to meet new people and talk to other researchers. Coffee breaks are also a great chance to talk to unfamiliar people in a low-risk setting—academics crowd around coffee pots like hummingbirds at a feeder.

5. Dress for Comfort (But Still Professionally)

Sometimes just knowing the general expectations of professional dress for a conference can be extremely helpful so you don’t find yourself awkwardly and obviously over- or under-dressed, which can lead to unnecessary anxiety. Thankfully, academics tend to be a rather casual bunch so you’re probably not going to have to wear a suit or fancy dress (unless that’s just how you roll, in which case by all means wear what you want). This does vary hugely by field though, so if you are really unsure of the expectations either ask someone who has attended the conference before or look on the conference website for photos of past events, both of which can give you a clear idea about how people dress for different conferences.

For very casual conferences you still need to resist the urge to go too casual (no Friday night wine-and-Netflix clothes unless you have Olivia Pope’s wine wardrobe). Pick comfortable, professional clothes like a button-down top and darker-wash jeans (not too tight or low cut) and throw a blazer over top of it. Shoes are a pretty mixed bag—just try not to wear flip-flops or ratty sneakers and you’ll probably be alright. Add some basic jewelry or a good watch and you’re set. Academic professional casual is pretty easy and very comfortable. After all, the focus should be on your work and not your wardrobe or how constricted you feel in your clothes.

These are some of the techniques that I’ve personally used to help manage my own (albeit mild to moderate) anxiety during an academic conference. If you suffer from severe anxiety you may want to speak with a medical provider for additional assistance, either in the form of behavioral therapy or medication. Whatever you do, don’t start a new medication immediately prior to a conference—unexpected side effects won’t make the event any easier for you and may make your overall anxiety worse.

Has anyone else dealt with anxiety issues during professional conferences? If you have, please share your own methods of managing your anxiety in the comments.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user jessicatam and used under a Creative Commons license.]



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