This is a joint post by Dani Rabaiotti and Jeff Clements. You can find the sister version of this post over at Dani’s website.
Ah! Conferences. A time take in the cool work that others are doing, and share the cool work that you’ve been doing – and a time to relax and network. Well, maybe for some. But a concerning number of researchers (particularly students and early career researchers, or ECRs) are unable to relax and network at conferences because of negative experiences. While there are a number of factors that can influence one’s experience at a conference, the theme of negative associations with colleagues has emerged as an ongoing issue (see twitter discussion HERE and tweets below). Given this seemingly common issue, I teamed up with Dani Rabaiotti (@DaniRabaiotti) to share experiences and put together the following guide.
What’s the issue?
In a largely unscientific Twitter poll of 488 fellow academic tweeters, only 28% had never had a negative experience with conference criticism, whilst 40% had had a negative experience with criticism that was done respectfully (generally part of conference experience but can be tough!). However, nearly 1/3 of people polled had had negative experiences where others had been disrespectful, or had engaged in an ‘all-out war’ with an audience member.
Sadly, for us as authors, this was unsurprising. For example, Dani has been told she was wrong about her own study species because the questioner ‘had seen them hunting’ (anecdote vs data, anyone?), while Jeff has been publicly told that his work will do nothing for his career and may even hinder his progression. In addition, we have both witnessed some incredibly aggressive questioning styles at conferences. A wide variety of respondents to the Twitter poll also shared their experiences, many of which were, we think you’d agree, pretty awful:
This brings us onto a second issue – one that nearly all of us have experienced – the ‘this isn’t a question but a comment’ during conference QUESTION sessions. Of 387 people polled nearly 1/3 had experienced comment-not-questions lasting more than 5 minutes!
During the question period, if you need to preface your ‘question’ with, “This is more of a comment than a question, but…” and subsequently go on to add your thoughts about the work, save it for after! Likewise, if you know that your question is a lengthy one that will take up most of the question period, save it! Not only does this approach allow others to ask questions (providing the speaker with a broader degree of feedback), but it provides an opportunity for networking and discussion after the talk. This is a much better use of time and is a more productive way of providing commentary feedback to presenters (not to mention that it can facilitate collaborations and potentially enhance a field of research!).
Top tips for conference etiquette:
It appears that negative experiences with peers at conferences are quite common. These experiences can have lasting effects on the people involved, particularly for students and early career researchers. Such instances can be easily avoided by following some simple rules and avoiding conflict. Yet, while a quick google search of “behaviour/etiquette at academic conferences” provides a laundry list of tips for grad students and ECRs, little information is provided for senior researchers on how to engage appropriately with grad students and ECRs, nor on how to conduct oneself during question periods, etc. To facilitate this, we have compiled a few tips for ‘conference etiquette’, which can be found below (you can also find other tips here, here, and here, among others). We suggest that if a predominance of conference goers follow these guidelines the frequency negative conference experiences can be reduced and research efforts and quality can be enhanced.