I was awarded my PhD in November last year and will be giving a paper at my first official academic "débtante ball": the most important conference of its kind (outside of N.A.) for my discipline.

The problem is that I am still suffering from the 'imposter syndrome' and this will likely inhibit me from participating in any small talk. Networking is essential but I am too embarrassed to divulge my day time job is that a public school teacher. Elitists are unavoidable at these events and trust me, everyone else there is more accomplished than I am. The immediate demands and responsibilities of my profession have really prevented me from publishing. My one saving grace is that I am a very engaging speaker and my topic has popular appeal.

My objectives at the conference are to make my name better known, to highlight the originality of my research, and ultimately catch the attention of a publisher.

There will be a book fair but I believe its nothing more than kiosks with booksellers.

How do I maximize my time at the conference? How do I make a lasting impression?
How can I overcome my inferiority complex?

Teacher in transition :/

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    Buy the first round at the bar. Everyone will remember you (in a good way).
    – Calchas
    Commented Feb 13, 2016 at 21:44
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    Be proud of you day job, not embarrassed to divulge it. Most recent PhD graduates have relatively little training or experience in teaching. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 7:35
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    What do you mean by catching the attention of a publisher? In most fields scientific publishing is about peer review, not about publishers. But this may be field-specific. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 16:38
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    @Bitwise: "poster sessions (often with alcohol)" - on what kind of venues/in what field is that usual? I've been to many poster sessions and often, you were happy that even the coffee break snacks were left standing rather than done away with at the beginning of the session. Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 16:52
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    You should probably give at least a broad indication of the field you are in. For me, it seems a little odd that you have this experience after getting a PhD (as opposed to early in grad school). Or that you are trying to "catch the attention of a publisher".
    – tomasz
    Commented Feb 20, 2016 at 23:17

5 Answers 5


Don't try too hard. You will have plenty of time later to build a solid reputation.

First impressions are way overrated. They will not be the basis of any serious (as in "costs real money") decisions, least of all concerning some complete newbie.

Enjoy the conference, get to know people, mingle. Play your rôle of newcomer who is just joining the club. Check out what is going on in the sidetracks, you might be quite wrong about their importance (or totally right).

  • Will not need to 'play' the role of the newcomer; it will be very apparent that I am one. Usually competent at appearing confident but placing too much emphasis on making those first impressions. Will channel my anxiety into writing a great paper. From what I have read, all the 'fun ' and 'real networking' occurs in the sidetracks in A&H conferences. Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 1:20

Are the objectives really realistic for the conference? Making your name better known is unlikely in general, given the amount of speakers. I'd focus on finding people with whom you share (research) interests, esp. people who complement your skills in order to do better research. As for highlighting the originality of your research, well, that's overrated IMO. You have to build a bridge to what is already established (which can work as a good contrast to what you did). However, for really new approaches, the reactions might be surprisingly critical. As for catching the attention of a publisher -- not sure whether that's likely. If that's really important to you, perhaps find out in advance which publishers will attend and whether you can talk to them at the conference.

As for being only a public school teacher, sorry, you're not. Or, you're not in that setting. You weren't invited because you teach children, or because of a "pity presentation" (if that is even a thing). You were invited because you did scientific work that is interesting for the community. And you've already got the 'union card' to Academia -- your PhD.

So, frankly, I'd chill and re-think the goals (and the attitude). Like written, it's a chance to meet people with whom you share (research) interests for future collaborations. Have a look at the program and seek out interesting people, esp. on a similar level (PhDs and PostDocs). Reading their papers beforehand might help for conversation starters, esp. when you consider what your (likely) unique "day job" background can offer to their research. Seriously, if it's anything related to social sciences, it's usually extremely hard to find people in a practical setting with whom you can work together, who have access to a good sample. And usually people like to talk about their work (well, some are intimidated by the setting as well).

That approach might make a lasting impression on those people who matter, those with whom you can work for mutual benefit. And these aren't the Elitists. Just be open, and if people look down on you, you know where you stand (in their perception) -- and you know to look elsewhere. And regarding talking to people -- nothing simpler than that (and I say this as an introvert). You share an overall interest in the conference topic and you likely listened to similar presentations. So you have a lot in common/belong to the same group. Not all will want to talk, but if you are not discouraged and try often enough, enough will (and will be thankful for having someone who starts the conversation).

And -- lastly -- given that finding people to work with is still be a very aspiring goal, I'd look at the conference as a learning opportunity. I think too many people go on business card collector sprees on conferences, instead of using the opportunity to find out how the people in your scientific community tick. So don't sweat it -- learn from it, esp. from things that went wrong, and above all, enjoy it.

  • You've offered many great points which I have overlooked, i.e. seeking opportunities for collaboration and individuals who 'complement' my skills. I am one of those introvets who adopt an extrorted persona quite well so talk I will as nerve-wracking as I will be on the inside. Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 1:13

Everyone starts at the bottom, and no academic of any standing should be put off by the fact that you're a public school teacher. You got invited to the conference, didn't you? Just like everyone else?

That said, spend some time listening first, talk second. Don't try to hit it out of the park. Just get the ball in play and if that leads people to talk more than you believe me, you'll be remembered favorably for it.

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    Also not sure my comment improves on vonbrand's answer, just wanted to repeat it. Not sure you're going to get much different advice.
    – Raydot
    Commented Feb 15, 2016 at 22:12
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    :feel compelled to play Drake's 'Started from the Bottom'. Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 1:15

Disclaimer: your mileage may vary, as conventions vary greatly among fields. That being said, here are some things that have worked very well to my advantage in similar situations.

  1. Go to mixers. Many conferences have lots of these. Specific ones, general ones, it really doesn't matter. Same thing goes for organised social events. If there is an early career mixer, I highly recommend it. People open up quite a lot at these things, and you will likely find yourself having very interesting conversations with people of similar interests. I have made lasting professional contacts (and friends have gotten postdocs) out of these kinds of interactions.
  2. If there are specific more senior people you would like to meet who will be there, it can't hurt to send them an email before the meeting, mention that you very much like their work, you noticed they will be at the conference, and will they have 10 or 15 minutes during the week to chat a bit. Your only objective for this should be to meet the person and have an interesting conversation about science.
  3. Don't be shy. Talk up your work. You have the Ph.D., so you're an expert in what you do. Use this.
  4. Someone above mentioned poster sessions. I fully agree with this idea. It can be a bit harder to find people here, but if you find a poster that interests you, strike up a conversation. Many posters are poorly attended, so usually the presenter is happy to have a conversation about the work.
  5. Relax! Everyone there is interested and interested in the field, and no one wants you to fail. So enjoy yourself and go home refreshed and excited about your field. If drinking is your thing and will help you unwind, enjoy a beer at the poster session or a mixer, just don't overdo it.
  6. As for the day job, all I can say is that in my own field (life/earth sciences), many people would find the fact that you do both to be an advantage and something interesting to talk about. You'll have to go with your gut about whether it's something to talk about extensively or not, depending on how broadly-minded people of your discipline tend to be.
  • @z-dood: Re: tip# 2. I'm on it! I just received the conference programme and there are a few talks that pique my interest and a couple of names that I recognize from my undergradudate days (peers and professors). Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 1:38

I always find it sympathetic to use a tiny joke at the beginning. Not like "one man walks into a bar" joke, but rather modifying a famous quote to match your area of interest kind of joke.

I remember a thesis presentation about localization. After the first slide, he put:

"Money, money, money" - Napoleon Bonaparte
"Location, location, location" - Mike (made up the name)

There are several benefits of doing this, the major one being able to ease up the introduction talk. Better than just saying "Hello my name is Mike, and I am going to talk about localization today".

I also used the very same trick in my master's thesis presentation.

One of my former colleagues was dealing with natural language processing and begun his conference presentation by pronouncing his surname (which was very hard for non-native Turkish speakers).

In your case, I would suggest forgetting about the elitists and give your talk to people who are really interested in your topic.

There are and will be people around to criticize whatever you do/say. Criticize your work, etc. Key is to remember that they are all human beings.
As Bill Cosby said,

I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.

An extension regarding @vonbrand's comment:
It is extremely true that the audience is usually bored during talks. Main reason for that is the fourth wall. A tiny joke (by joke, I don't mean to tell a hoke, but a little bit sense of humor) would help you to break the fourth wall. As a listener, I lose my interest on the topic when the talker talks like he/she memorized the talk, with a robotic voice.

If you slip one or two daily-life sentences into your talk, the fourth wall can be easily broken. Something like

Now, let us take a look at the experiments. We expected that our algorithm has 100% success with random data. But of course, reality is different than the expectations.

would do no harm at all. Puts a smile to the face of most listeners, and regains their concentration. Then, coming back to the topic with a sentence like

Even though the algorithm is not perfect, I believe we did quite well considering this graph

keeps you away from being too much informal.

Due to my experiences as both listener and talker, this is the way to make - maybe not great - but above-the-average impression on the audience.

  • 2
    A joke can be exactly the wrong way to start a relationship. Your counterpart might even be offended by a joke that you consider neutral. OP is presenting a serious talk, and is a newbie.
    – vonbrand
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 17:32
  • @vonbrand I don't mean a sloppy joke, but something tiny to ease the stress. A serious talk, in my opinion, does not have to be given with a grumpy face and cold behavior.
    – padawan
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 17:34
  • Whoever is presenting is stressed (more so a newbie), the audience isn't (more along "bored" perhaps).
    – vonbrand
    Commented Feb 16, 2016 at 17:47
  • @cagirici: It just so happens that I talk about breaking the" fourth wall " at one point in my paper. Will aim to enlighten and entertain. Commented Feb 21, 2016 at 1:06

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