On going to a conference alone

On twitter, @Dr24hours asked the following question:

When I think about going to a conference by myself, I think mostly about my fear not being able to find people to hang out with. I think about how a conference can feel a bit like starting in a new school or going to college first: I'm afraid of being the only person who has nobody to eat lunch with. It really depends on the conference you go to whether this becomes reality. And actually, most of the times other people are by themselves too and I end up meeting really nice and interesting people. However, it is much easier at conferences that are set up to stimulate interaction, for example by automatically sharing meals together. At other conferences it can be much more difficult, for example if all other people seem to already know each other and hang out in seemingly difficult to break into groups.

When going to a conference with your PI (but without other peers), it really depends how willing your PI is to introduce you to other people, either their peers or your peers. If you PI is doing that, it is really helpful to go with them, but if they run off to hang with their friends, it might be even more awkward than if you just go by yourself.

Even though I've become much more confident going to meetings by myself, now that I am in a new job going to different conferences than the ones where I started to know many other people, the feeling is still a bit the same. And actually, one of the conferences I went to last year, with many non-scientists attending, was almost worse in terms of not being able to find people to hang out with than when I was an undergrad. Other people attending this conference seemed to all come in groups that were seemingly not that interested in networking, so I ended up talking mostly to the other people from my company.

To come back to @Dr24hours' question: he also seemed concerned that his student would be more vulnerable going to a conference alone because she is a woman. I had not even considered this option, perhaps because I have been lucky enough not to experience harassment at a conference. Or should I say: not to experience harassment other than I experience in daily life? Which is why the same rules apply that my mom taught me, like: don't go somewhere if nobody knows where you are, don't hang out with people that don't feel right, don't make yourself extra vulnerable by drinking too much for example and leave when you feel uncomfortable.

What are your biggest concerns when going to a conference alone?

5 responses so far

  • Dr24 says:

    I guess the nearly endless stories of conference assault and harassment have me concerned for my student's safety. I'm not sorry about that. But I can totally accept it that my response to that concern is to look at myself and not take any action around her attendance. Just send her.

    • babyattachmode says:

      I think it's very kind that you're concerned, but I don't think the harassment she might experience on her way into work for example is different from that at a conference. At least for me the amount of harassment outside conferences is more than at conferences. And - at least to me - it's not my biggest worry when I go somewhere by myself, whether it's a conference or other travel.

  • Eva says:

    As a grad student, I went to my first conference by myself, because I was the only person in the lab doing that particular bit of research. It was a Keystone conference, so it was small, and with good opportunities to socialize (both with other grad students and with senior professors). The conference also facilitated sharing rooms with other participants, and I ended up sharing with another young female researcher who was there alone. Finally, I went prepared: I went over the program with my supervisor, and she told me more about who the speakers were, and suggested things I could ask them about.

    Result: I got a not-yet-published manuscript of an upcoming methods paper from one of the senior researchers in attendance, which helped me set up a new experiment in our lab.

    I'd never considered it scary or challenging, and other students in my lab also regularly went by themselves to meetings. My supervisor had about ten trainees, and she would be spending her whole life at conferences if she went with us everywhere.

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    We don't think about this enough. A scientific meeting is both thrilling (so much new to learn and experience) and daunting (I don't know anyone and they all seem to know each other). There must be a significant proportion of people attending meetings who, in essence, are singlets who do not engage because they are intimidated, feel unwelcome or simply don't know what to do. Some get enough out of the science, but you can lock yourself in a library and achieve much of the same thing. There's so much more to hearing about real science from the people (or representatives of the people) who actually did the work.

    Mentorship extends well beyond helping people learn how to navigate their experimental work!

    As to the original question, the answer is to prepare the student, to have them chat with peers who've been to similar meetings, to set expectations and to remind them this is meant to be for their benefit but if they feel uncomfortable, there is absolutely no pressure. They'll get other opportunities.

  • Zen Faulkes says:

    Whether I am comfortable with sending a student to a conference on his or her own depends a lot on my assessment of the maturity level of the student. Some, I've had no problem with them going without me. Others, I would have thought I was neglecting my duties as a supervisor if they went alone.

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