Surviving a conference!

I am currently in London at my first conference of the year, speaking at the Experimental Psychology Society (EPS) conference at University College London. The EPS meets three times per year, but the London meeting is often the best-attended. (This might be in no small part due to people in early January being fed up of being at home stuffing their faces with turkey & trimmings.) Conferences are an essential part of an academic’s life, but I have not always found conferences so easy. In fact, I still find them difficult on many levels.

This post is not really for anyone other than myself; it’s a post to my old-self, as if I have travelled back in time and have passed-on wisdom I have gleaned from my five years of conferencing. You see, I am sure I could have got much more out of these five years of being surrounded by fellow researchers that I feel I have missed out. Were I to go back in time and try all over again, I would probably try to follow this advice.

For those new to conferencing, I hope you might find something of interest here, too.

Speak to People

I start off being guilty of hypocrisy here. “Do as I say, not as I do!” You see, I find it very difficult to talk to people at conferences. I am told I am not as socially-awkward as I fear I am in my own head, but I just am never comfortable talking to new people. But, this is (or so I am told) one of the main benefits of going to conferences. You are surrounded by fellow researchers, some of whom may be working on similar questions, but all of whom are interested in research. Your next successful research collaboration could be born over coffee.

The difficulty is (for me) that speaking to people is very difficult. Indeed, this was one of the main attractions of academia: being locked away in your office in isolation thinking about what interests you, and only communicating via papers.

How wrong I was.

So, when speaking to my old-self, I would say “Speak to people!”. This doesn’t make it easier, so maybe we need a trick. If you attended a talk you found interesting, try to formulate an interesting question. Then, instead of approaching the speaker at coffee time with mundane small-talk, tell them you found their talk interesting and ask them the question you had.

Attend the Talks

I think a lot of people do this anyway, but I often when I speak to people about their last conference visit overseas I tend to hear more of the local sight-seeing opportunities rather than the science presented. I am in danger of sounding like an incredible bore now, but attend the talks! By all means see the sights, but you are here for the science, so do science.

Ask a Question

Linked to how to make sensible conversations with conference delegates, I always like to ask a question during talks I attend. Now, there is a fine line here, because there is nothing worse than the person who always asks irritating questions just to make themselves look clever. I have been guilty of this in the past, so I am not one to cast stones, but it is not the reason to ask a question.

Listening to a talk with the intention of asking a question forces you to pay more attention to the talk. It forces you to think critically about the science being presented. How easy is it to switch off during the talks and think about your talk (or where you will go for dinner)? If you know you are going to ask a question, you will get more out of the talk. (As a side note, pay attention to the session chair during the talk; they will likely be making notes of questions because it is their job to ask a question if no one in the audience does, to avoid embarrassing silences.)

I tend to start off my question by introducing myself. This helps the speaker track you down later if they wanted to follow up your question, but I tend to do it just out of politeness: I like to know who I am speaking to, so I make sure people know who they are speaking to. I tend to say “Hi, I am Jim Grange from Keele University. Thank you for an interesting talk. I was wondering…[insert question]”.

Sometimes your formulated question should only be an exercise, and shouldn’t be asked. (This reminds me of a delightful quip by Christopher Hitchens: “It’s true that everyone has a book in them. In most cases, that is where it should stay.”) There are times when asking your question is not recommended. Want a nice guide as to whether you should ask the question you have formulated? See this (note that this is not my graph; I don’t know the original source, so if you do know it please let me know so I can reference accordingly!):


Think Actively During Talks

I guess this is related to the advice above, but there is one thing I always do during talks. For every experimental talk I attend, I like to think of one experiment I would like to do to extend the work presented. I think of how I would design it, what I would expect to find, etc. This is just good practice for thinking about how to design experiments.

I find this very useful because I get so used to thinking about experimental design in task switching contexts because this is the research I do. There is the danger, then, that when I have a real reseach question outside of task switching, my design ends up looking rather like a task switching experiment. (“If all you have is a hammer, everything you look at will look like a nail.”)

Want some bonus points? Collect these hypothetical experiments and actually run one! Side-projects are fun.

Look for New Research Programmes

The past two years I have been attending talks hoping to listen to a talk that introduces me to a new area of research that excites me that I can then go back to my lab and start work in. You see, I am getting a bit bored with my research area. I have done task switching research almost continuously since my undergraduate thesis (about 8 years, now!). I am looking for something new to excite me for the next 10 years as much as task switching has. I always live in hope that my eyes will be opened during a talk about a new research programme that I can get my teeth stuck in to. This is one major motivator for attending conferences at the moment.

Attend the Poster Sessions

The poster sessions at most conferences I attend are populated by PhD students presenting their work, so this is an excellent opportunity to speak to “up-and-coming” scientists. Be kind to them; for many, this will be their first step into academic presentations, and will probably be nervous. Compliment them on their work (but don’t bullshit).

Give a Talk!

This may seem obvious, but don’t be a fly on the wall at conferences. Get stuck in. Giving a talk is the best way. People will be exposed to your research, you will (likely) get critical feedback on your ideas (which is great), and people get to know you (linked with some of the topics above). Talks also allow you to present “work-in-progress”, which will allow you to test your ideas before your project has fully developed. This is important.

Publish your Slides

Many people are now publishing their research papers online so anyone can access them. Why aren’t people (generally) doing the same with their presentation slides? Likely the answer is related to the fact that conferences tend to present unpublished research, so people don’t wish to be scooped. I can sympathise with this, but I think it is short-sighted. You have already “released” your ideas when you gave the talk. So, publish your slides, too.

From 2016, I will be publishing all of my slides online. For those interested, here are my slides for the talk I am giving this Friday:


In sum, enjoy the conference. It’s a time to listen to great ideas and share yours. After all, isn’t this what science is all about? Just don’t be as shy as me. Try and speak to people; they (probably) won’t bite!


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