How (Not) to Make a Fool Out of Yourself in Academics

 

As a second-year PhD student, I now have to attend as many conferences as I can and really get my research out there. I’m meeting a lot of fellow academics, from fresh phd-ers like me to the older heroes in the field. And every time again, I feel hilariously out of place. So if you are a fresh academic as well, or if you are new to a job and get the opportunity to go represent your work or company at an (inter)national workshop or conference: here are some tips of what NOT to do. Believe me, I speak from experience.

  • If you’re a nervous talker and people are talking shop, stay out of it. Before you know it, you have compared someone’s work on primate vocalisation to the Monkey News on British comedy stars Ricky Gervais, Steve Merchant and Karl Pilkington’s Xfm radio show. Don’t forget: you are not there to have fun. You are there to make people think you are smart. And stories about monkeys stealing cars or getting married are probably not ideal for that particular purpose.
  • Know what to talk about during the coffee breaks and dinner for at least one or two intelligent conversations. After all, it would be a shame if no one noticed you and your genius ideas because you were too good at blending in with the furniture. And no, your last holiday is not a good conversation starter. Especially not when you are talking to an established and highly prized researcher. Where other people manage to discus their own research with these very interesting people or ask intelligent questions about Mrs. Professor’s latest paper, I managed to steer the conversation to Mrs. Professor’s cat and knitting work.
  • Make sure you know who’s who. As in, it’s slightly to very embarrassing when that one time you are actually talking about your research, you try to make a point by quoting research actually done by the person you’re talking to. Do not say something like “In this paper of Smart Person 2015, he claims that …” to have that same Mr Smart Person give you a vague smile and look just as confused as you do by the time you start realising your mistake.
  • Make sure you know who’s important. Don’t go round asking “and what do you do” to the people who have been invited to represent the whole field and give the main talks on your workshop. They sort of expect you to know who they are, turns out.

I think a lot of problems can be solved by a good amount of pre-conference stalking. Look up who’s coming to the conference with you. Actually read the abstracts for the talks. I don’t know, rate them on a scale of importantness and also of relevance to your field? Oh, maybe go full on detective style, maps with pins and yarn connections or something. After all, don’t we all want to pretend we are not just boring academics? Or maybe, that’s just me and that’s where my ridiculous conference encounters stem from…