PhDiary #3: “The Most Embarrassing Moment of My Life” - Conferencing Heaven and Conferencing Hell
Conferencing is a big part of academia. It can be a great way for postgraduate students to get their name out there, make connections and receive feedback on their ideas.
The thing is, there’s actually there’s no set time when you should start going to conferences. I actually started in my Masters year, jumping on the conference train to present my dissertation research. While the stories I’m about to tell didn’t happen during my PhD, I decided it would still make a great addition to this diary series so that you can learn from my mistakes.
I attended two conferences in total, presenting at a postgraduate conference and an organisation’s annual meeting. One went really well and the other. . . you can probably tell from the title.
Let’s start with the good one
This was the first conference I ever attended. It was a day long postgraduate event, organised by students for other students. Often at these kinds of forum, most of the speakers will come from the host university, with a handful coming from other institutions. Postgraduate conferences also tend to have more Masters students than any other type of conference.
Still, I felt pretty nervous about the whole thing. As I was one of the few speakers travelling in, I was highly aware that I knew nobody. Public speaking has also never been my thing, but I knew I would have to do it one day. At least I was going to talk about my passion.
Luckily, I was up in the first session. This allowed to relax and enjoy the rest of the day. The talk I gave went down really well and the audience asked some insightful questions. Even better, during the break a few people came up to further talk to me about my work.
It turned into a great day and a lovely introduction to conferencing. My public speaking confidence was at an all-time high.
Little did I know, I was about to walk into the most embarrassing moment of my life.
The week before I started my PhD I attended a 3-day annual meeting where I had been accepted to give a similar talk. With the last conference going so well, I felt fairly relaxed and excited to meet new people. Until everything went wrong. . .
My first mistake was not staying in the offered accommodation. In order to save a few pennies, I decided to find my own hotel. Unfortunately, this meant I was staying a lot further out then many of the other guests. To avoid travelling on my own through a strange city at night I had to leave the evening social events early.
Looking back, I wish I had stayed on site as social events are often the best time to get to know people. Usually cheap accommodation rates are offered to students at multi-day conferences as organisers don’t want you to break the bank. If you can, I would recommend taking this option instead of shopping around to save a few pounds. This will allow you to enjoy the full experience.
Next stop, Cringe Central Station
My second, and worst, mistake was in my research itself. I still stand by my conclusions but somehow my brain convinced me of a geographical fact that simply wasn’t true. This error was then pointed out by one of the guests during my Q&A session on stage. Not only that, but my corrector was the same person who had conducted one of my unsuccessful PhD interviews. I was mortified. In my attempt to scramble out of the mistake I then made up some stupid excuse that I knew wouldn't fly.
All I wanted in that moment was the earth to swallow me up and put an end to my embarrassment. Yet, it only got worse when I realised I’d presented this false information only a few months earlier. Hopefully nobody noticed.
Even writing this blog, I still cringe. But at least I can laugh at it now.
Really, the better etiquette would have been for the academic to inform me of my error later, away from the crowd of people. However, I’m not the first person to make a mistake. Nor will I be the last. It’s human nature! While I still die a little inside thinking about it, I also remember other attendees who told me they enjoyed my presentation. They too had probably made embarrassing mistakes in their early career research and so were sympathetic rather than judgemental. The best thing you can do is correct your mistake and move on.
I never wanted to attend a conference again after that, but I’m presenting at one in a couple of months. Hopefully, after reading about my first conference season, you’ll check your work a little bit more carefully. But, if you do trip up, know that one mistake doesn’t mark the end of your research career (though it might feel like it at the time).
Our postgrad newsletter shares courses, funding news, stories and advice
Finding the fun in a PhD
PhDs have a reputation for being challenging but there's no reason they can't be enjoyable. Here are a few ways to find the fun in your PhD.