Conference talks: generally a bit rubbish?

Athene Donald recently wrote about what you don’t see at academic conferences. Academics may go to conferences in exotic places but they only see the inside of conference centres, hotels, airports and restaurants.

In the last year I’ve only been to two conferences. Unfortunately neither of them were in exotic places. The first was in York and I went with a few people from my group. As none of us are especially well-known in our field we unlike Athene had the freedom to explore York in the evenings. The second was held at Imperial and attendance was compulsory for DTC students. They were both small (no parallel talks) and lasted two days.

The speakers at both conferences, with the exception of one or two each day, were incredibly uninspiring and unenthusiastic. I remember trying to fall asleep one afternoon in York after nearly exhausting my iPhone battery reading papers. I was very disappointed as I had hoped to come back with fresh ideas but instead felt that it was a massive waste of time and money.

How can people talk so blandly about their own work? If the speaker isn’t excited by it then they most certainly can’t expect the audience to be interested. Many talks didn’t have any questions—the presentation equivalent of a death knell.

How have we ended up in this situation? I find it particularly baffling when I think about talks given by PhD students in my DTC. Recently we had a day with industry sponsors and visitors from other universities to listen to some third and final year PhD students present their work. The presentations were largely fantastic. Enthusiastic, confident, engaging, interesting… Really very good. Last month my cohort gave our MRes talks and the comments from markers were (nearly) all positive too. A world apart from the dreary, mind numbing talks I’ve sat through at my last two conferences.

Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I’ve really been put off going to anything other than something massive like the MRS conference where there will always be something related to my field and hence tolerable, even if the speaker is a bit tedious.

Does anyone else find most talks bad too? Are good talks unfortunately the exception? On the positive side, at least I’m at the beginning of my career so I can follow Athene’s advice, especially for my next trip to Italy in April:

Early career researchers, don’t kid yourself your professors enjoy themselves on such trips by seeing all the sights of the world you’ve always wanted to see yourself. Chances are, if you get to visit some far-flung place for a conference, you will enjoy your trip much more than your seniors because you live your life at a more leisurely pace. Make the most of it!

First conference: any advice?

On Monday I’m going to my first conference! It’s titled Continuous Flow Technology in Industry (more detailed information here if you’re interested). I’m not presenting anything, just attending.

I came across it on a Royal Society of Chemistry mailing list and thought it’d be good as it’s quite closely related to my group’s work[^groupwork] (four of us are going). It’s relatively small in size (no parallel sessions) so I thought it’d be a reasonable choice of first conference. I hope to pick up some ideas that will help solve a few particular problems in my own work.

I’ve been wondering whether there’s anything I should do in preparation. I’ve consulted my trusty guide The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research but, aside from networking (which I’m fairly happy about), it doesn’t have that much to say on the topic unless you’re presenting.

I’ve looked up all the speakers to have a quick look at what they do, but the majority of them are from industry so they don’t have a web page summarising their work like most academics. I’ve got myself some Imperial-branded business cards.

I’m unsure whether to take my laptop. I’m leaning towards no, as I think it’s a bit rude to sit typing away (and it won’t do my hands any good either). I could always read a couple of papers if a particular speaker is really that bad.

Does anyone have any advice? Please let me know in the comments.

[^groupwork]: See this paper for my group’s most recent publication on our work on flow chemistry.