Ridiculously large conferences as an early career introvert  

American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting is coming up in a couple weeks, and prepping for it has been on my mind. Terry McGlynn over at Smallpond Science had a recent post about going to a truly huge conference for the first time, and how easily it could be isolating for junior scientists. AGU is “my” meeting, but with 25,000+ people it can definitely be overwhelming! Stephen Heard also has a good post on how to deal with conferences as an introvert, but I thought I’d expand, with a focus on the triple threat of introversion + giant conference + early career.

Just to give my bona fides a bit – AGU was the first conference I ever attended, as an undergraduate. I was visiting family in San Francisco anyway, and just applied to graduate school, so it made since to attend for a day to meet potential advisors. Since then, I’ve attended six more times, presenting a poster or talk five of those years. I am also very, very introverted. It drives me up the wall to be around people all the time. I’m not shy anymore, but it took effort to overcome my tendency to be a wallflower with strangers who I respected.

So, here are some things that I do to make sure I can cope with AGU as an introvert still in my early career, and strategies that I worked on to become more outgoing. It ended up being a long list, but I hope folks find it helpful!

  • Well, first – I don’t go every year any more. If you only have funding for one conference per year (often the case for students/postdocs), I think it’s a good strategy to switch between a big, interdisciplinary meeting and a smaller, more focused one from year to year. There are benefits to both types of conference, so take a longer-term view and figure out which one will be better for you that year. On the job market? A big meeting might be better. Still developing your thesis? The chance to think in-depth for a whole week about your topic will probably be super helpful!

  • Housing – finding housing while introverted and on limited funding is tricky! A few things to think about:

    • Do you have to have a roommate? What has worked best for me is to find something a little farther away from the conference center, and have a commute rather than share a hotel room with 1-3 other people. There are usually reasonably priced hotels and AirBnBs, with a 30 min bus ride from the conference center.

    • If you do have a housing mate, can you get separate rooms? My roommate and I this year have separate bedrooms in an AirBnB, 20 min from the conference center. A closed door makes a world of difference. If a big group of you rents a whole house, though, this works less well.

    • What’s your roommate like? Extroverted roommates can actually be the best, if you need quiet time alone! They are way more likely to be out socializing, while you take a break from people.

  • Plan ahead: You will absolutely not want to spend time on Wed night figuring out what you’re doing the next day. You will not be able to pin down a prospective advisor for impromptu coffee. You and your field-buddy will be super busy, and have a hard time finding a common free moment to catch up. These are the things that I (try to) plan before leaving home:

    • What conference events, plenary talks, and workshops am I interested in? How high of priority are these?

    • What sessions look the most interesting? As much as possible, I tend to stay in one session for an entire time block. My first couple AGUs I switched between multiple concurrent sessions and the poster hall constantly. It was exhausting. You won’t be able to see all the great science, so try to minimize the energy/stress spent running between things.

    • Relatedly – do I have the right notebook for the conference? I ran out of space in my moleskine one year, and deeply regretted it. Make sure you have plenty of blank pages left, write down reminders about key things you’re interested in, and be sure to note any questions you come up with during the conference.

    • Who do I want to meet with? This includes colleagues and friends, and potential collaborators. Reach out ahead of time, if possible. I also like combining these with other conference events – the Earth Science Women’s Network Reception, for instance, is always a good time to meet with folks, and introduce yourself to some new people too.

    • Are there any chunks of time that I can miss?

    • Are there any cool sessions/talks at the conference that are wildly outside my field but sound awesome? Sometimes it’s energizing to listen to someone talk about Mars or earthquakes, without having to think too critically about it. Just to appreciate all the neat things that are going on within the scope of this massive meeting.

  • Taking breaks: I need time away from the conference, and crowds. I get overloaded, and there’s diminishing returns, anyway. How many talks do you remember by the last day? I start to lose my ability to focus on conversations after 3-4 uninterrupted days of a meeting, too. Breaks are restorative.

    • I usually take a chunk of one morning and one afternoon off at a meeting like AGU. Having a late morning, where I don’t feel rushed, helps a ton. And taking an afternoon to visit a museum or arboretum is also a much appreciated break. The first conference I presented at, a group of students took a trip to the beach one afternoon, and ran into all our advisors. Don’t feel guilty about missing out for a bit.

    • Don’t plan on going out every evening, or choose to call it early at least a couple nights. Maybe schedule a breakfast meeting instead of dinner one day. It will be less crowded (and probably cheaper), and can help get the day off to a good start. You might be yawning, but you might also be a little more focused if you haven’t just spent the past 8 hours surrounded by people and science.

    • Find a couple quiet corners in the conference center that you can retreat to for a 15 min recharge. There’s often quite a few people in these spaces, but none of them are looking to interact. They just need to breathe (or work frantically on their presentation) for a moment, too.

    • If you’re meeting friends for lunch, just stop by a grocery then head to a park. Getting away from the crowds and ambient noise is a break, all on its own.

  • Networking: There are a ton of people, way better at networking than I am, who have written all sorts of helpful advice. But, below are a few things that I try to do, specifically at AGU.

    • AGU Poster Sessions are great! People actually attend them, and some of the best discussions at the conference are often at a poster. Dedicate good chunks of time to posters, not just attending talks all day long.

    • Do you see someone whose poster is neglected, or standing awkwardly alone during a reception? Go talk to them! Good practice for you to be outgoing, and maybe it will end up being productive.

    • At a poster, it’s ok to not have a ton of follow-up questions. Get the presenter to walk you through, see if you can come up with a few things. But it’s also ok to say, “That’s cool! I need to think about it more, but I’ll be interested to hear what you find next.” Then feel free to swap contact info, or move on.

    • If you can, find a conference buddy. Maybe it’s your roommate, maybe it’s an old friend from the field, maybe it’s someone from your department. Plan on attending events together, as moral support. Push each other (a little) to speak to a bigwig at her poster. Get together for a low-key evening to catch up and go over how the conference has been.

    • Was there a talk you really enjoyed? Say so! Go up to the speaker after the break. Very few scientists will be rude if you compliment them, then ask a question. Remember the notebook from earlier? Write down a question or issue from their talk that caught your attention. And, if they do brush you off – well, they honestly are unlikely to remember you very well. Just move on.

    • Explicitly ask your advisor to introduce you to people. Mine was very good about this, without needing a reminder – the 2nd year I presented at AGU, he dragged three senior people in quick succession to my poster, and I felt a little starstruck before getting distracted by the science. But not everyone will think about this without prompting.

    • If your advisor is not attending, ask them to put you in touch with a few people ahead of time, preferably other early career folks. Other people can be good about this too – committee members, other PIs on your project, postdocs in your lab.

    • If there’s no one like this that you can ask to help introduce you around – well, I know I mention ESWN a lot, but look into the website and FB group. I’d guess that there are other issues with grad school that you might be struggling with, and we’re super supportive!

    • Go to the networking events, like the ESWN one mentioned above. They are hard. But a lot of other people there feel the same way, and they are there to meet people too.

  •  Asking questions at talks: I had an epiphany at a conference in about 2014. Someone stood up after a talk and asked one of those questions – long-winded, unclear, and kinda missing the point of the talk. And I thought, “Oh! It doesn’t matter if you ask a dumb question.” It’s really hard to ask a question so outlandish that it will stand out, that people will remember you and think, “Dang, she’s just not up to par.” The stakes just aren’t that high. If there’s something that confused you, you probably aren’t the only one. If you think of an interesting implication of their research, following up adds value.

    • Again, write it down! You will not remember.

    • Practice beforehand. Speaking in front a bunch of people, off the cuff, is hard. Ask questions during your departmental seminar on a regular basis, or at smaller regional meetings. Building confidence takes time. Formulating a good question on short notice also just takes practice.

    • Make an effort to ask questions of student presenters. They might be nervous, and starting the Q&A from someone not as intimidating helps. There’s also research showing that if a junior person or under-represented minority asks the first question, other junior and under-represented scientists are more likely to participate, too.

    • If it seems like no one is going to ask a question, come up with something. The moderators will thank you, since otherwise they would try to ask something, and they might have been focused on other things. I had one talk with no questions after, I think at ASLO in 2013, and I felt mortified. Try not to leave the speaker hanging! Any question (as long as it’s not hostile), is better than no question. 

That’s a long list, but I hope folks will find it useful! And if you’re going to AGU, let me know! As much effort as it takes to be outgoing during these giant conferences, I really do love meeting new people at them.