My advisor suggested that I should sign up for a conference, which I did - I now have to give a 15 minute talk.

However, the conference is taking place very far from me (+20 hour flight), and I am having second thoughts on whether I should go or not. Here are my thoughts:


  • Meet new people/socialize
  • Present my work at a talk, instead of merely a poster session


  • Conference is only 4 days, two ~20 hours flights are very exhausting
  • The audience are not completely aligned with my field, so I have to make my presentation simpler than what the work actually is
  • Will not learn things that I directly need for my research because of the audience (they are in geology and engineering, I'm in math)

Honestly, I don't feel like going because of the above list. But I am worried that

  • My advisor will think I'm being annoying by "backing" out
  • I can't say no now, since I have been given a talk

I would be very happy to hear your opinions on this matter. Maybe I am putting too much thought into this.

  • 28
    Pro: You spend 4 days for free in a faraway place that you will probably never visit otherwise and do tourism for only 15 minutes of work
    – Alexandros
    May 17, 2014 at 8:23
  • 17
    All of your cons can easily be formulated as pros (pro: you learn something outside your comfort zone ... Pro: you learn how to communicate your work to people not intimately aware with your field ... Pro: you get to visit a far-away place all expenses paid for very little work). I urge you to go.
    – xLeitix
    May 17, 2014 at 11:16
  • 6
    Depending on the expense, maybe you could consider making the trip a bit longer and spending a few extra days just as a vacation. I always find that this makes trips involving very long flights a bit less exhausting and stressful, and it seems like less of a waste to have spent so many hours in the air for so little time in the place you're visiting.
    – Matt Reece
    May 17, 2014 at 20:00
  • 1
    Another pro: you might learn things that can make your research applicable to other fields.
    – Rex Kerr
    May 17, 2014 at 23:42
  • 3
    If you haven't locked in your plane tickets yet, you have the option of going earlier/returning later at the cost of additional hotel nights. That can be used either (or both) to let you recover from the travel a bit better before doing the conference, or to give you more time to play tourist.
    – keshlam
    May 18, 2014 at 13:39

6 Answers 6


I'd like to add several items to your list of pros:

  • Dissemination. You will make your work known to a whole new field of possibly interested people. If you're going there, I presume there is an interesting application in sight. Possible follow-ups. Lots of opportunities. Interdisciplinary collaboration. To be avid and down-to-earth, lots of citations might await. :)

  • Presenting experience. The best way to improve your presentation skills is giving talks. This is a good opportunity.

  • Connections It's always good to get to know people in academia. You might need to send them a quick e-mail with a question on their area of expertise. You might one day be looking for a post-doc job and they might be offering one (even if it's a position for an applied mathematician in a geology department). You might find a good idea for an interdisciplinary research project and apply for a grant.

  • Learning new things Yes, you will learn new things listening to the other talks, even if it's a different field. You might find a new related problem that you can solve. You might learn more about the applicative background of the problem that you are studying. You might find an example that looks great in the introduction of your next paper.

  • Tourism. When will you be able to visit again that far-away country? True, you won't see much if you are stuck in a university or a conference center, but that's still a great life experience in my view. One of the parts I enjoy the most of the academic career is being able to travel and see the world.

  • Money availability. Your advisor says that there is money for the trip, this time. My advice is go for it. More troubled times might come in future.

  • Trust your advisor. (S)he suggested you to sign up, so he thinks it's a good idea for you to go. You should trust him, it's the person who best knows the conference, your work and your situation.

I've been doing some interdisciplinary research lately. It's hard at first, but fascinating and productive once you enter it. There is a big entry barrier in getting to know each other's field and learning to use the same language, but there are lots of interesting results to gather just by putting together the ideas and methods of two different fields.

EDIT: added "trust your advisor"

  • My advisor will think I'm being annoying by "backing" out
  • I can't say no now, since I have been given a talk

This. You should have stated your objections before. Now, it is probably too late. Perhaps your airline tickets, conference registration, hotel reservation are already paid and usually these costs are not refundable. It is not right for your institution to lose money, because you simply changed your mind. If you back out now, it will be very hard for your advisor to provide money for another trip later, when you will WANT or need to go. It also makes you look bad if you back out from a conference and (possibly) your supervisor as well.

On the other hand, look at the bright side. Although I understand your thoughts about the 20-hour flights and possibly jet-lag, understand that similar trips are some times necessary for conferences. Minimize the ugly effects by taking yourself with you (on the trip) your favourite headache medication (Tylenol, paracetamol), some pillow for the shoulder during flight etc.. Also, keep in mind that AFTER the trip you will not have to go your work directly (this is normal after such long trips), so the effects of the flight back home will be easier to handle.

Also, think that it is hard to pay those airline tickets yourself. So, you will get to see a new place (you would not see otherwise) for only 15 minutes of work (and 40 hours of flight). It is a wonderful experience and you should probably not miss it. For additional benefits see Federico's answer

Bottom Line: You should probably do the trip now. You might actually enjoy it. And next time, be extra careful on what you sign up for.

  • There are also medications available specifically to help reducing jet lag issues. I'm the wrong kind of doctor to give you good advice on this subject, though. :) May 17, 2014 at 10:49
  • I forgot to add: Tickets and hotel reservations etc.. have not been made yet. But I agree, next time I need to think before saying 'yes'.
    – BillyJean
    May 17, 2014 at 14:59
  • @BillyJean: But you wrote in your question that you already signed up for the conference. Doesn't that mean that the conference fees have already been paid, which are usually non refundable (at least not without a considerable "administrative fee"), as well? May 17, 2014 at 20:28

I speak at conferences a lot and sometimes, after I say yes, I have a little "buyers remorse" and I feel nervous about it and I just want to back out of the whole thing. I never have backed out though, and I have rarely regretted going.

In addition to the pros listed in other answers, being able to list a conference where you gave a talk has value on your CV even if you gained nothing from the conference itself. And your con (my supervisor will be upset if I cancel) is also a pro: I will please my supervisor by going. That said, you can and will get a LOT from a conference, any conference, if you decide to.

Grasp firmly onto a positive attitude. You have three weeks. In that time, don't just prepare your 15 minute talk, prepare your plan for the conference. This includes your plan for the travel and minimizing your jetlag. (You might be interested in a sister site for tips on sleeping on the plane and avoiding jetlag.) This also includes a list of goals. Say I was going to a conference of geologists in Paris and speaking on how the name of your cat affects your income. I might make a list like:

  • go up the Eiffel Tower
  • meet a geologist who lives and works near me
  • visit the Louvre
  • find 3 other cat-related or income-related sessions at the conference, attend them, and introduce myself to the speaker
  • achieve an attendance of at least 50 people at my session
  • record my "speaker rating" and ranking and report it back to my sponsors
  • buy two bottles of wine to bring home
  • discover at least one aspect of geology that is relevant to my cat-naming research and learn enough about it to summarize it to my colleagues when I return
  • eat warm croissants in a park
  • write up a one page summary of who I met, what I learned, who now knows about us and our research, and some opportunities I will pursue when I get back, and give this summary to my sponsors within a week of my return

Then I would keep this list of goals handy and push myself to make the necessary plans in advance and take the necessary actions during the week to meet the goals. This includes looking over the session lists as soon as they're available, planning what talks to attend (and when you are likely to have a free morning or afternoon for sightseeing and croissant eating), emailing other people who are attending to arrange to meet them there, and so on.

Making the best of a conference trip is a lot of work, but the rewards can be substantial. So many people have to beg and plead to even attend, and here you're being flown 20 hours away in exchange for only 15 minutes of talking! You must be doing something darn interesting.

  • As someone who occasionally has to travel to mandatory project meetings and conferences that I'm not interested in, I really like this advice!
    – ff524
    May 18, 2014 at 2:17

Two things haven't been addressed in your question, and I think both of them would influence how I might advise you to proceed.

1) Why this conference? Surely there are other venues closer to home. If your advisor selected this conference because it is a prestigious international conference well-attended by the top names in your field, then I would urge you to go. However, if it's a relatively unrecognized conference that your advisor selected mostly because of its exotic location, then you might want to listen to your second thoughts, and pick somewhere more practical to share your research.

2) How far along into this are you? If the conference is next month, and the conference organizers are already under the impression that you are attending and presenting, then you should probably bite the bullet and go. It's not fair to them if you drop out simply because of a last-minute change of heart, and you won't come out of it looking good. 11th-hour cancellations should be reserved for true emergencies, not cold feet.

In short, if it's not a prestigious conference, and you just got an acceptance notification, then I'd recommend a heart-to-heart with your advisor, asking if there isn't a conference in your hemisphere that might accomplish the same research objectives. If either of those conditions aren't the case, though, then remember to pack a good book for the long flight.

  • Thanks. The conference is in 3 weeks and I have merely gotten an acceptance letter, nothing more.
    – BillyJean
    May 17, 2014 at 15:01

I tend to agree with your concerns. Conferences take time. Not only the journey, as you have noted, but also the preparation for the talk itself. It is nice to visit new places, but this should only be a bonus. If you intend to pursue an academic career, there will surely be plenty of opportunities to visit these places in the future. Visiting new places should not be the primary motivation to attend conferences.

So the question is whether the conference suits you. From my personal experience, conferences that benefit me most are those that are within my subject area and are small in scope and attendance, especially those attended by well-known experts in the field. Then the chances are higher that the audience is interested in what you present, as they are familiar with it. They also tend to ask relevant and useful questions, whereas in the bigger conferences or those that are not closely related to your subject area, people tend to ask questions which are not helpful to your study because they are not familiar with what you are presenting.

Unless the tickets have been booked, the conference registration fee has been paid, and the conference program has been finalized, it should be safe to withdraw. In speaking to your adviser, you could suggest alternative venues to present your research, or you could instead publish your work in a journal.


To weary researcher/student, I think you have to look at the plus side and try to calm your fear of a 20 hour trip. The up side is that you don't have to feel intimidated by the audience because, after all, they probably have no prior knowledge of what you are talking about. Anything you say will be interesting to them. Once your 15 minute presentation is over you will be grateful that you chose to go. Even if your presentation isn't great you will probably never see these people in your life again. Everyone has butterflies before a presentation. Just be well prepared and try to tie your specialty in with the current events of the day. Good Luck.

  • 1
    Anything you say will be interesting to them. Not necessarily.
    – Mad Jack
    May 18, 2014 at 3:46
  • Even if your presentation isn't great you will probably never see these people in your life again. That's not necessarily true, either. I remember one fellow I met at a conference and I seemed to keep running into him every three or four years. It was uncanny. In any case, I think it would be better to go with an attitude of, "Maybe I'll meet someone I'll be able to network and keep in touch with," than, "Thank goodness I won't see any of these people ever again."
    – J.R.
    May 18, 2014 at 19:45

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