Surviving Academic Conferences as an Introvert

I’m writing this blog post on a train back from St Andrews, where I have just spent a wonderful few days at the Gender and Transgression conference. (more on which can be found by searching Twitter for the hashtag #gendertrans16) It was a fantastic conference, full of interesting papers in a beautiful location. Aside from providing much intellectual food for thought, it’s also raised the question for me of how one navigates an academic conference as an introvert. I tweeted this question and received some interesting responses from a variety of people, for which I am very grateful!

Two things to note before I go any further:
1) This is in no way motivated by a negative experience at St Andrews. It was a brilliantly organised conference and I am very grateful to have been a part of it. The friendly and supportive environment really shone through and these are far more general thoughts (many of my concerns are prompted more by discussions about the upcoming Leeds IMC!)
2) I am an introvert who also has social anxiety. Not all introverts have social anxiety and not all people with social anxiety are introverts, and many of the ideas I discuss here may not resonate with everyone – that’s the nature of personal experience!

Academic conferences are strange places! When applying to my institution for funding to cover the costs of this conference (and the one I’m going to in Cambridge next week) I had to justify why they should give me the money. My reasons revolved around the opportunity to develop presentation skills, to hear papers on related topics and thus enhance my own research and, that most dreaded of phrases, the chance to ‘network’ with others in my field. Doing all this can be incredibly physically and emotionally draining, especially as an introvert. (I’m sure it’s difficult for extroverts too, but I believe it poses particular challenges for those of us who need time to recharge after social interactions!) When I received the programme for July’s IMC  (for non-medievalists, this is essentially when the great and good of medieval scholarship descend upon Leeds for four days at the beginning of July. This year will be my first experience of it, and I’ve been warned that it is an experience like none other,  and even features a rather terrifying sounding disco!) even looking at how thick it is made me feel exhausted! A good friend joked that the way to deal with academic conferences as an introvert is to spend all your energy, utterly exhaust yourself and then play catchup for the next week. This hit far too close to home and is, I suspect, how most of us deal.

The pressure to be constantly ‘on’ is one of the major issues. Coffee breaks are not really breaks at all, but opportunities for networking. These are really invaluable – whether it’s finding an opportunity to collaborate with a fellow PhD student, or chatting to a senior academic about your research and being recommended reading and sources (which if you’re anything like me, you promptly forget, a problem compounded at wine receptions!) or hearing suggestions of other conferences to go to or journals to publish in. Because they’re so invaluable, though, the temptation to make the most of them can make an already tiring event even more difficult.

So, how do or can we cope with this, if trying to avoid the ‘burn out completely and then sleep for a month’ approach? Here are a number of thoughts and suggestions, and a huge thank you to those who contributed ideas on Twitter!

1) It’s okay to take time out.
This is easier at bigger conferences, as your absence is more likely to go unnoticed and slipping away may feel easier. Whether time out means returning to your room for a nap or going for a walk, or sitting in the corner with knitting, it’s okay and maybe even desirable. Finding space for yourself is sometimes difficult but can be done – my biggest mistake at St Andrews was booking a bed in a shared room at a hostel rather than a hotel. This meant that I couldn’t properly relax, didn’t get as much sleep as I’d like and didn’t have my own space to return to. Financial considerations play a huge part here – not everyone can afford a room to themselves, but I hadn’t realised the difference not having it would make until I arrived.

2) Make the most of Twitter
I regularly rave about what a wonderful resource Twitter is as an academic, and conferences bring out its best side. Not only does it mean you can follow what’s happening at a conference you’ve missed, but there’s also scope for being able to use it while you’re there – either to catch up on panels you find interesting but clash with something else, at conferences which run parallel sessions, or while you take time out. In my experience (and I’m fairly sure I’m not just projecting my own feelings here!) academia tends to attract people who don’t like missing out on interesting things and so push themselves beyond their limits because of that. The motivating drive can be a fantastic thing,  but it can also be incredibly unhealthy, and using resources like Twitter could potentially go some way to combat this.

3) Go with someone you know
This may apply more to my issues with social anxiety than my introversion, but one of the pieces of advice that came up when I asked this question on Twitter was to go to conferences with someone you know. I use energy a lot faster when in a room of strangers, but with a friend or colleague it might be slightly easier. This also provides you with someone who can fill you in on bits you miss while you’re taking time out!

4) Eat well, sleep well
This may be the most hypocritical advice I’ve ever given. It’s also probably fairly obvious, but worth saying, even if only so that I remember it myself!

5) Networking can happen outside of the conference
There’s nothing wrong with meeting someone at a conference and emailing them later to ask more questions, to propose collaboration, to talk about research. The coffee breaks or conference dinners are not your only opportunity to speak to people! Granted, having only just left the conference I haven’t yet done this, but as someone who finds it much easier to communicate in the written word than in the spoken, this feels like a good and much less draining way of following up on connections made.

Despite all this, even as someone who finds spending excessive amounts of time around people very difficult, I’ve really enjoyed all of the conferences I’ve been to as a postgraduate student. I’ve had great conversations with people and have really valued the social opportunities as well as the academic. They’re a lot less scary than I thought beforehand (though we’ll have to see if I’m still saying that after Leeds!) and I’m very glad I went to both of the conference dinners in St Andrews.

As a concluding thought, introverts and people with social anxiety are not exactly rare in the academic world, and yet the job we do often demands that we spend a lot of time with people, talking about ourselves and our ideas (even if we then return to our offices and libraries and hide for a while!) Mental health is a huge issue in academia – I haven’t quite worked out whether it’s that the system forces people to overwork or whether it attracts people whose natural impulse is to overwork (my suspicion is that it’s a combination of both). Perhaps there are ways that the system can be more accommodating of difference in the way that people interact, in a way that allows us to benefit from all the wonderful things that conferences have to offer in terms of encountering new ideas and new people, without encouraging mental and physical burnout?

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