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I went to a conference I my field for the first time in the last month. I have severe social anxiety but can usually hide it. I was there for learning and didn’t have a paper.

I expected some difficulties but there were more than I thought. I had my anxiety flare up when asking a question in a crowded Q&A and froze up, tried to finish anyway, probably ended up looking like I was clueless and trying to sound smart. The audience looked more concerned than disapproving, but I'm pretty sure that they would remember me if we met again, and that would reflect badly on me.

Many people at poster sessions didn't seem interested in discussing or answering questions, some acted like they did their presentation out of politeness only. I usually left and looked for something else when I realised that, but I wonder what made them react that way.

Overall, I'm questioning whether it's worth going to more conferences without having a paper to present. I did have interesting conversations with some people, some of them even suggested collaboration, but the experience as someone at non-PhD student level was overall just stressful. I didn't feel like I belonged there.

From a career point of view, would it be advisable to wait until I actually have a reason to go? Should I just seek advice for social anxiety and go anyway? I'm interested in networking and collaboration but this didn't seem like the right approach.

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    "Overall, I'm questioning whether it's worth going to more conferences without having a paper to present." Maybe, maybe not. What's certain is that letting your social anxiety make decisions for you is going to impact your career negatively in the long term. Oct 8, 2023 at 17:31
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    "I'm pretty sure that they would remember me if we met again, and that would reflect badly on me". I really, really doubt anyone would recognize you, most probably won't even remember the incident. I also really doubt the people in poster sessions who were disinterested, would've been interested talking to any other grad student (besides people they know). You're overestimating how much others scrutinize you; I know it's hard (from someone else with social anxiety), but these awkward moments in regular interactions with randoms, are simply forgotten by everyone else.
    – tarzh
    Oct 8, 2023 at 18:58
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    50% of them will literally have forgotten your face the moment they stopped looking in your direction, the other 50% the next day. For good and bad, people don't care about random strangers a lot. You'd have to dance naked on the table and they probably still wouldn't recognize you a year later. Don't worry about such things, I cannot remember a single person ever in my life who did something I considered silly, ridiculous or the like (unless I knew then before).
    – DonQuiKong
    Oct 9, 2023 at 7:49
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    I don't know if you are familiar with the "illusion of transparency", it seems to me that it could explain (and help you deal with) your experience at the first conference en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Vorbis
    Oct 9, 2023 at 13:01

5 Answers 5

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If you "lock up" in public situations you should probably talk to a mental health professional or counsellor about it. It once helped me greatly.

And, one of the best ways to overcome such feelings of dread and such is to intentionally put yourself in such situations and practice being more open and self-confident. Extreme introversion and even being "on the spectrum" can be a serious detriment to a career. Much worse than feelings of "looking bad" in a particular situation.

But it is safer to practice in smaller, less intense, situations until you begin to get the confidence to speak publicly in general.

One person I know, who is a superstar in CS, overcame such things by joining an acting group and learning to "play a part" and separate his own internal aversion from the need to speak. He is considered a great conference speaker.

So, yes, by all means, go to such conferences and speak with people. Small groups, perhaps, at first, working up to bigger things.

You might also consider writing a few notes on a note card before you speak up at a large gathering, noting the main points you wish to make so that you have a "crutch" if you start to freeze up.

But, talk to someone who is trained to give personal advice about such things. Many universities will have an office that can provide help.

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    Yes, "learning to play a part/role"... Oct 8, 2023 at 21:44
  • I like to think of the secret as becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable and making public mistakes. @OP, it will take time and patience, but if you dedicate yourself to following this path, I think you'll be surprised at how much progress you've made one day.
    – jdods
    Oct 10, 2023 at 12:55
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I don't think freezing up like that will reflect badly on you.

It sounds like some people were interested in talking to you and some were not. I would say that is fine and normal - don't waste time wondering about the people who were not interested in talking, and perhaps they don't have good social skills. Some people even suggesting collaboration is a positively good result.

It would be natural to feel slightly out of place if you are a non-PhD student. But don't worry about it. Plenty of people feel out of place at conferences, especially conferences where lots of people all seem to have known each other for years.

On the other hand, perhaps it would be advisable to wait till you actually have a reason. Are you planning to apply for a PhD course? If so, your advisor will give you advice on when and where to go.

Seeking advice for social anxiety sounds like a good idea. If you only have it mildly, no harm will have been done.

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After 30 years of going to several conferences per year, the handful of askers I remember were all people I knew previously. People I have shared afternoons with don't seem to remember me years later. No one will remember you for tripping while asking a question.

The benefits of going to conferences are to get awareness of who is who, and what people are working on. Eventually (so, not necessarily after a single conference) people will start to know you. As a graduate student, you will hang out with other graduate students. Twenty years from now those graduate students will be leading committees that decide on positions and grants. And they will be more willing to share research idea with "a pal from the graduate student days" than with someone they have just met.

Eventually you will have to show your value research-wise if you really want to belong to the community, but the steps from the previous paragraph can start way before.

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It is perfectly normal to be anxious in a place with lots of strangers.

Here's what helps: understand that they are all there because of a common interest, in this case, a scientific field. You are all in for a particular common cause.

Secondly, one tip that works surprisingly well: identify people that look like they are also lonely and strike up a conversation, about the field, their work etc. Not only will this warm you up and give you people to talk to, you also will have done your good deed of the day. Plus, in a way, you become to some degree "the host" to those people. Sometimes you may be able to introduce such people to each other.

As for the freezing - many people have been in challenging social situations, they are probably more compassionate than judgemental. Be more compassionate to yourself, and cut yourself slack.

The idea mentioned elsewhere comes to the fore: when speaking to a large audience (whether as presenter, or as question-asker), always prepare. It can be just a sheet of notes or a rehearsed talk, but prepare. If necessary, rehearse the question, in your room, a bathroom stall (silently) or elsewhere. This will give you more confidence in asking it.

Finally: remember why you are there - you are there to see the latest trends, to see what is going on, to listen to people. If you are to anxious to speak, listening is always possible, and is a great way to learn.

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Can you go to a conference with a more senior person like a post-doc, your advisor, or some professor?

They might show you around, introduce you to some people, and most important, you can just walk along with him/her. Whenever they speak to someone, discuss a poster, or are approached for their last paper, you stand next to him/her. The advantages are, that nobody expects anything from you, you can speak up if you want, the senior person can involve you in the conversion ("my PhD student here is actually working on a similar problem"), and can help you out, if you are blocked.

This needs some trust to the senior person and some willingness to help you out ("babysit" might be a negative term from someone not willing to do so).

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