But careful preparation and bold approaches of strangers were not, by a long shot, how I learned to enjoy conferences. And enjoyment was, for me, a crucial step to being good at them. I don't want to say you have to enjoy conferences in order to be good at them, but, since they are primarily social & emotional labor, sincerely enjoying yourself will make the job easier.
Personally, when I first received advice like Jean et al.'s as a new grad student, I had very bad experiences. I went in believing that I was all but disallowed from talking to people I already knew, and that the path to success was to go up to strangers I wanted to meet and try my hardest to impress them with my research. Here's the problem: I've struggled with social anxiety my entire life, and only started treating it several years in to grad school. So... the first several times I mentally prepared myself to approach someone and introduce myself at a conference, I had panic attacks -- shaking uncontrollably, difficulty breathing, nausea, &c. I stopped being functional at all and had to retreat to my hotel room to recover. Not the best way to make friends at a conference!
The few times I happened into conversations with new folks, as soon as my research came up, I felt so much pressure to impress that I did a terrible job of explaining it, and utterly failed to communicate excitement or interest in my work (or theirs), because there were so many negative feelings behind the activity I felt like I was trying to take part in. I came away from my first few conferences thinking, "Networking is just one of those necessary evils of academia, where everyone has to be fake to get ahead, and I'm never going to like it or be good at it."
Reflecting on the difference between this attitude and my current one wherein I look forward to conferences and find them energizing and inspiring, I can list a few things that seem like they played key roles. Of course, combating social anxiety should definitely include professional therapy if at all possible, which I've discussed in a prior post. But allow me to stick to the conference-specific points for this post.
- Acknowledging that conference anxiety is common was important for me -- hearing from my peers that they, too, find conferences exhausting and socially draining, helped me feel less alone. Realize that most folks who have a great deal of facility in a given conference environment have probably built up relationships with that community over several years, and don't expect yourself to have the same facility immediately. It's okay to be a newcomer, and it's okay not to be neurotypical.
- Going in with a cohort and/or a buddy that I could treat as "home base." Counter to the "don't talk to people you know" advice, I'd say it can actually be really important and helpful to do so -- not constantly, but simply as an anchor point. Have someone you can check in with to say "Hey, I just met [really famous researcher] and she was super nice to me! Do you want an introduction?" or "Wow, that person was kind of rude in Q&A, huh?" or whatever. Help each other out!
As a personal concrete example: when I was first getting to know the games research crowd at FDG last year, being in a cohort of UCSC folks, who are well known as a group, and being able to introduce myself in relationship to them, was really enormously helpful in getting a foothold with strangers.
- Not being afraid to sacrifice breadth for depth. Sometimes it feels like you're not winning the conference game unless you're meeting as many people as possible, and during a great in-depth research discussion, it might be tempting to say "let's continue later, I need to circulate around the room." I've actually found it useful not to do this. As someone who tends to get more mileage out of few close connections than loads of shallow ones, allowing myself to really spend time with one or two new people has had a lot better future payoff.
- Posting to social media (in my case Twitter) has been a surprisingly effective way to make friends at conferences. Use the conference hashtag; post your notes or thoughts about a talk; check the hashtag yourself and reply to other people conversing. Often what happens is someone will ask to say hi to you in person if they'd like to talk in more depth about a comment you've made. I'm a lot more comfortable speaking my mind online, so this has been a great way to take advantage of my current comfort zone in order to expand it.
- On the hallway track: a common adage about conferences is that they're "mostly about the hallway track" and "the talks are less important than the people." I agree, but it took me a long time to get there, and when I first started out, I wasn't really sure how to apply this advice, because I'd often waste the hallway tracks standing around awkwardly with no one to talk to. Then, at lunchtime or whatever, someone would ask a question about that one great talk and I'd have nothing to say because I had skipped it. As a newer member of a community, I've found splitting talk/hallway track more like 70/30 (rather than my typical 30/70 these days) to be beneficial. And be sure to ask any senior members of the community you know which talks are not to be missed. (As a general rule, don't skip keynotes).
- Finding my people in sometimes-arbitrary ways can be helpful. For example, if the catered lunch isn't vegetarian friendly, asking a group (online or otherwise) who wants to go visit the nearest Indian restaurant/Chipotle/fancy local vegan place can be a great way to carve a subset of people with whom you immediately have a common discussion topic. Doing this by research interest -- e.g. at FDG, my roommate and I organized a "computational narrative" informal birds-of-a-feather meetup -- can be even better. (See point 2: having a "partner in crime" to help you spearhead things like this can be super useful!)
- Giving myself room to acknowledge and care for my needs has probably been the most critical change in behavior for being happy at conferences. At literally every conference, even now, I pick 1 or more sessions to skip just to do whatever feels most comforting to myself: lying in my hotel room with a book, sitting in a park, working out, grabbing tea with a close local friend, even just camping somewhere inconspicuously adjacent to the conference with my laptop and working on some research code or reading Twitter. It's really, really okay to disengage to whatever extent you need to, and it's been crucial for helping me conserve energy to keep being socially involved throughout longer conferences.
On the conference organization side, here are some things your committee can do to help guests with (my particular flavor of) social anxiety feel more comfortable and welcomed:
- Host the conference either in, or very close to, the hotel(s) where folks are staying so that it's easy to get back to your room.
- Host the conference somewhere in an environment where it's easy to get away for short durations: an urban environment, a campus with public spaces, or somewhere close to good transit options.
- Have a quiet room.
- To the extend that budget allows, do catered or otherwise on-site lunches (taking care to accommodate a wide range of diets!). It avoids awkward "will the team captain pick me last" situations where people have to self-organize into meal groups.
- Do some (optional) group off-site activities like hikes or board game nights, which allows folks to interact in a more casual, low-stakes environment if they wish.
- Hold post-talk discussions in their own room rather than doing Q&As, so that even those who are nervous about talking in front of large groups of people can have their thoughts about a talk heard. (Bonus: this saves time in the talk schedule!)
- Have a mentoring workshop or doctoral consortium to help acclimate junior researchers to the conference environment and provide a space for asking "beginner questions."
- Especially for the mentoring activities noted in (7), but also just in general, do all the usual things for ensuring you have a diverse line-up of conference speakers and leadership. There's nothing like being not only a brand-new member of a community with few connections but also feeling like a total outsider in terms of your core identity.