Posted in Education Help and Advice, Life as a Research Student, PhD Journey

Overcoming Anxiety at Conferences

During my youth I was an incredibly shy person. I would rarely make conversation, never volunteer an answer in classes and the idea of small talk absolutely terrified me. So, when I went to my first conference as a PhD student, I felt incredibly overwhelmed. I would often just wander around by myself, attend talks alone where I would speak to no one and then just go home wondering how anyone considered it an opportunity to network.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I had managed to overcome my fear of speaking in front of people but social interaction is a completely different kettle of fish! I have been to a few conferences now, going into the final year of my PhD, and I wanted to share some tips that I have picked up.

Sit next to a stranger in talks – and make conversation!

It’s hard to turn off the mentality that people do not want to speak to someone new and they only want to speak to those they know. But trust me when I say, people are happy to network! Make a point to sit next to someone or at least close enough that you could make conversation, especially if the person appears to be on their own. Some good conversation starters include “where are you from?” (In a conference context this means the institution) or mention something about the talk itself e.g. if the talk is about student learning which your research is in, you could say “really looking forward to this talk, it’s close to my work” and this can lead onto a conversation on what the other persons interests are and you may find you have something in common!

Talk to speakers who have caught your interest.

I always thought that those who stay behind and talk to speakers are usually asking a question – but that’s not always the case. As someone who has been a speaker themselves, trust me when I say just staying behind and letting them know you thought the talk was interesting, will make their day! Some other questions you could ask is “what else are you working on right now?” Or even ask them if they are planning on going to some other talks!

Don’t be scared of the keynote.

Recently I went to a conference where I was very familiar with the keynotes work and I even had his book which I had finished recently and was filled with sticky tabs. I was absolutely terrified to go up to him, but I did, and I was so glad! He was really lovely, signed my book and we even sat together for the entirety of the lunch that day. I simply walked up to him and said “excuse me are you …” and when he said he was I asked if he would sign my book. This then opened up for me to ask about his background I.e. what he did his undergrad on, masters etc. And also to ask what he was working on, we even ended up just having a very general chat!

Find a familiar face.

If you are at a well known conference or one that is within your institution – it is always good to find a familiar face. Even if this person is stood talking to someone you don’t know, this can be the perfect starting point to get yourself used to talking to strangers as the familiar face will normally introduce you which means they will have done the difficult part of approaching! You can then ask about how they know each other and this opens up into getting to know the new person better; their background, their research. This of course, doesn’t work if you are at a conference where you know no one but always worth noting.

If lunch is included – sit with strangers!

This is something I find incredibly difficult, especially at conferences where I don’t know anyone. At lunch, chances are you are going to have to sit with strangers. Just find a table which looks appealing, maybe one that contains a speaker you have attended so you have a topic of conversation, and ask if you can sit with them. At the end of this post I have suggested some questions you could ask and they would easily work at this point in time. Just remember – people like to talk about their interests!

Questions you might want to ask.

Just to finish up here are some questions you might want to ask someone at a conference:

  • Where are you from?
  • What is your research on?
  • Are you working on anything at the moment?
  • Are you giving a talk or have a poster?
  • Have you been to any interesting talks?
  • What talks are you planning on attending?

2 thoughts on “Overcoming Anxiety at Conferences

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