Thursday, July 10, 2014

Asking questions at conferences

One of the things that I know I should do, and should do more often, is asking questions during sessions in a conference. Most of the time, I feel a little too intimidated by the presence of other more senior researchers and worry that I might have missed out something, and end up not asking the question (a left-over of the Belgian education system, and a blatant showcase of impostor syndrome in action).

My style of working is mostly based on results, and not on talking. I hate having to toot my own horn. I don't appreciate a working style in which people talk a lot and deliver not much. But my stubbornly-working-away-in-the-background approach is sometimes getting in my own way. I often identify people at conferences with whom I'd love to have a chat - but I don't know how to approach them.

Before getting to the step of approaching people at random, I'm planning to work on my ability to ask questions during sessions - instead of just repeating the question in my head and then decide it might not be a good question. Here are the 3 things I'm going to try:

1. Practice small

The odds are I'm not going to raise my hand in the Big Annual Conference in My Field without hesitating. I'm going to test my ground at smaller events, during presentations at my own university, and at meetings of groups in which I already feel at home. In those situations, I hope to learn that I won't get decapitated when I ask a question, and from that experience, I hope to build up the confidence to move forward and start to raise my hand at larger gatherings.

2. Ask questions after the sessions

This technique is something I'm already practicing: if I have a question that, after deliberation with myself, seems not to be overly ridiculous, then I often keep it for the time after the lecture session, and approach the speaker with my question. It has happened that a speaker has brushed me off, but most of the time, I'm met with enthusiasm and end up chatting with said speaker for a fair amount of time. Admittedly, I much prefer this type of contact with a speaker over asking a question for a full room - but both ways of interacting with speakers are necessary (and when I present, I also enjoy getting questions during the Q&A as well as after the session).

3. Join panel discussions

I need to practice to "sit at the table" as Sheryl Sandberg would say, and as such I will push myself out of my comfort zone and into panel discussions at conferences. I can't use the excuse anymore that I'm just a students and trying to soak up some information - it's time to actually speak up based on everything I've learned over the past years. Again, I'm planning to start small, and try to speak up more at any meeting I attend - instead of just nodding my head or quickly frowning.

What are your experiences? How do you gain the confidence to join the debate at conferences?


  1. I empathize with this dilemma. A fourth choice could be to email the presenter with your question or start a Twitter conversation with him/her. S/He may be too busy to respond but it's worth a try.

    1. Not many researchers in my field are on Twitter, though..