My experience of conferences & training

I was in Wengen recently for the Swiss Epidemiology Winter School, receiving training in missing data from James Carpenter and Marcel Zwahlen, and in systematic reviews and meta-analysis of diagnostic test accuracy studies from Anne Rutjes and Yemisi Takwoingi. I also spent a lot of time skiing – although I had neither the skill nor the bravery to attempt it, the oldest downhill ski race is held in Wengen on the Laurberhorn. The course was arranged so we did lectures in the morning from 8am, could ski or do whatever in the afternoon, then do practicals in the evening. It was pretty fun, despite a storm closing the pistes for two days.

But it also got me thinking about the previous conferences and training courses I’ve been on, and how tricky I find it to do something that seems to be pretty essential to an academic’s career: networking.

In this post, I’ll talk about my past conferences, and how I muddled through without any idea what I was doing. I still have no idea what I’m doing, so don’t expect any helpful tips or hints (I mean, “talk to people” seems to be the sole advice necessary, perhaps with the additional hint to look up who’s going to a conference and maybe hit them up with an email beforehand saying you’d love to meet to have a chat). But if you feel like you don’t make the most of conferences, have trouble starting conversations with people you don’t know, then at least you’ll know you’re not alone. It’s probably worth mentioning that I spoke reasonably frequently in my own department and took many courses there, but I don’t class that as at all similar to speaking at a Conference or going away on a week(s)-long course.

First conference: Public Health Science, London, 2013

The first conference I went to was in London (UK), a one-day conference organised by The Lancet called Public Health Science in 2013 (1st year of my PhD). I wasn’t presenting, and, to be honest, I can’t remember much about this conference, other than I sat in a lecture theatre for a day, didn’t really move and didn’t speak to anyone. There are two impressions I took away: the first was that Ben Goldacre’s hair is magnificent; the second was that there was an early-year PhD student who spoke to this massive room full of professionals, and I thought “I can’t imagine doing that”.

Second conference: UK Causal Inference Meeting, Cambridge, 2014

I also wasn’t presenting at the second conference I went to, the UK Causal Inference meeting in Cambridge (UK) in 2014 (now the European causal inference meeting, how times change). I was massively out of place here – the conference was held in the mathematics department, which should have been my first clue. It turned out that my tiny epidemiology/medical statistics brain was unprepared for very technical lectures about things I didn’t understand. I guess the lesson here is to check the conference thoroughly before you go to avoid wasting hours sat staring at a series of intimidating Greek symbols you can’t even guess the meaning of.

First international training: University of Michigan Summer Session of Epi, Michigan, 2014

I went to a lot of local training courses (Bristol does loads), but this was my first training course that lasted more than a week, and also happened to be on a different continent. The Summer Session of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan (USA) was a 3-week course, where I did basic epidemiology for 3 weeks in the morning, and three 1-week courses in the afternoon. The basic epi course was helpful, as were two of the other courses. The third course, however, was taught entirely in R and SAS, statistical software packages I had no understanding of. I thus did not attend after the first day; I couldn’t understand what was going on, and I figured my time could be better spent.

The University of Michigan is in Ann Arbor, which is great, and I spent a lot of time walking/running around the nice woods. I went with a colleague from my University, which can certainly be difficult – it’s one thing to see someone in the office day-to-day, but a three week trip to a different continent is very different. I think it went ok, but I can only speak for myself…

Overall, we managed to get to know a couple of other course delegates, but as many of the attendees were there as parts of groups, it was quite difficult to socialise. Still, we learnt things, which was the major focus of our time there. I also realised that home-cooking is great – I was pretty sick of takeaway and eating out by the end of the trip. On the way home, we stopped off at Washington and New York – because the air fare wasn’t any different, we didn’t have to pay for the flights (universities are great), but we obviously paid for our hotel rooms.

Third conference: IEA World Congress of Epi, Alaska, 2014

The third conference I went to was in Alaska, the 20th International Epidemiological Association World Congress of Epidemiology (short names are for boring conferences). It was a 5-day event, and I was presenting a poster on the first day, which is especially fun when it’s a 20-hour trip with a 9-hour time difference.

I’d never been to a conference of this size before, so had no real idea of what to expect. Still, I arrived, registered, and slept in preparation for all the questions I would undoubtedly be asked in the poster session. I also went through the conference schedule to find all the sessions I wanted to attend. I’d been given the advice not to both with clearly irrelevant sessions that I at least wouldn’t find interesting: it would be a better use of time to have an hour off, read something, or do some work instead. There were probably 5 or more parallel sessions for every session, mixed in with plenaries and social events. As it turned out, because the conference had a very broad remit, I don’t think there were any sessions on at the same time I wanted to go to, which was nice.

I arrived promptly for my poster session. During the session, I spoke to all of two people. They were both lovely (I even went with one, and an Alaskan native, up a mountain on the final day, which was awesome). But it seemed something of an anticlimax to travel several thousand miles and only speak to two people about my work. It wasn’t even that my poster was incredibly dull (it was only slightly dull, I’m sure), it was that very few people came to a session where there were hundreds of posters on display. I was a little relieved I didn’t have to talk to too many people, but mostly felt deflated.

For the rest of the conference, I went to a Wellcome Trust organised event (as they sponsored my PhD), walked a little around Anchorage, and, as mentioned, went up a mountain with some conference delegates. The necessity of bear mace was a little daunting, but there were people literally running up the mountain (presumably for pleasure), so I figured it was fine. Although since there were quite a few people on the mountain, maybe the runners just felt they didn’t need to outrun the bears…

Fourth conference: European Public Health Conference, Glasgow, 2014

To round of 2014, I went to the 7th European Public Health conference in Glasgow (UK). I was presenting a poster, and after presenting in Alaska I wasn’t really looking forward to it. I was vaguely aware that there would be a poster walk though, which I guessed meant someone official would lead a group around, and whoever was in the group would read the poster and they might ask some questions.

I was therefore quite surprised when I found that I would, in fact, be part of the poster walk: everyone scheduled to stand by their posters during the session would in fact be required to give a talk about their poster to all the other people who were scheduled to stand by their posters. Looking at the layout of the posters, I figured out I would have to speak about halfway through the session. Nowadays, this would give me plenty of time to think of something to say (it was probably only a 5-minute speech at best), but as I had never given a public speech like this before, I felt some pressure.

Still, red-faced and stuttering, I gave a short talk about the work I had done the previous year and answered a few questions. I have literally no idea what anyone else’s posters were about – I was too busy racking my brain thinking of what I needed to say, or too busy feeling relieved to pay much attention.

Morale: even if you are just presenting a poster, be prepared to give a talk about it to 20 other poster people.

Fifth conference: Young Statisticians’ Meeting, Cardiff, 2015

When I was looking around for conferences at which I could speak, preferably to an audience sympathetic to a new PhD student who hadn’t spoken at a conference before, I was advised that the Young Statisticians’ Meeting (I couldn’t find a good link) in Cardiff (UK) would be a good fit. In fairness, the YSM conference was indeed a good place to give my first presentation – there were only two parallel sessions, the crowd were nice statisticians (many of whom had come over from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) in Newport), and the other presenters were a mixture of ONS staff, early postdocs and PhD students like myself.

I had practiced my talk a fair few times, both to myself and with others, so felt prepared. I don’t remember the specifics, but I gave a talk about albatross plots in a lecture theatre (one of the old ones with wooden benches rising up in tiers I think), answered some questions, and only really felt nervous before speaking (I’ve rarely felt nervous once starting, too busy concentrating on speaking I guess). Afterwards, a nice man came up to me and chatted about my talk, although as far as I remember, this has to date been the only time people have chatted with me after a talk.

I’d love to say that after this talk, the ice had been broken and I never felt nervous before speaking to a crowd about my work again, but it doesn’t really work like that. Over time, I’ve become pretty inured to giving talks (and will usually quite happily talk in front of anyone about anything now), but I still get a little nervous at conferences.

In any case, any UK-based statistical-type people who are looking for a first-time conference, YSM is a good place to start. They’re friendly!

Sixth-eight conferences: International Society for Clinical Biostatistics conference, Birmingham; Royal Statistical Society conference, Manchester; Cochrane Colloquium, Seoul, 2016

In my third year of my PhD (of four years) in 2016, I decided I should probably go to more conferences and give talks. As such, I sent abstracts to the International Society for Clinical Biostatistics (ISCB) conference, Royal Statistical Society (RSS) conference, and the Cochrane Colloquium. All the abstracts were about the albatross plots I developed, and I figured I would go to the ones that accepted my abstract. As it turned out, they all did.

The ISCB conference was in Birmingham, and although some of the talks were relevant to my work, there wasn’t much there that was really what I was most interested in  at the time (evidence synthesis). Still, I enjoyed the conference, and was looking forward to giving my talk. I was immediately daunted by the size of the lecture theatre though – it was a full-on 300/500/some large number seat auditorium, with a projection screen the size of a cinema screen. It was much bigger than I expected – there were plenty of parallel sessions, there weren’t many talks about evidence synthesis at the conference, and there weren’t many people in the auditorium for my session, so I thought I’d be in a smallish room.

I was presenting last, so I read and re-read my presentation and paid no attention to the people on stage (yeah, it was a stage) before me. When it was my turn, I headed up, probably quite a bit more nervous than I’ve been since. The size of the screen behind me was a distraction – I was more used to being able to gesture at the plots and for people to know what I was talking about, but that wouldn’t work here. I was also distracted by the size of the stage – whenever I’d talked before, I had to stay pretty much in place to avoid getting blinded by the projector or blocking peoples’ view.

I managed to say what I needed to though, and it probably went fine. I was asked some questions by people in the audience, and I answered as well as I could. I was given a recommendation to add something to the plot, that I instantly forgot because I was too busy trying to remember how to reply. It’s like exchanging names – I’m too busy trying to remember how I say my part (“hello, my name is…”) to remember the name of the person to which I’m speaking. It would probably be easier if I went first… Still, like trading names, I didn’t feel I could whip out my phone and note down the recommendation before I forgot it.

In any case, I finished up and sat down (the chair said it was nice to hear about something “refreshingly vague”, which I still think is a compliment, but can’t quite be sure). There was a bit of time at the end before a plenary, so I spoke to one or two people who wanted to know a bit more – I even made an albatross plot for someone who was asking about, I think, the ISIS-4 trial in a meta-analysis with previous studies looking at magnesium sulphate to treat early heart attacks (hint: it looks weird in a meta-analysis).

After the little break was over, the plenary speaker got up to deliver his lecture. I realised immediately that it was the same person who gave me the recommendation I had now forgotten. And it was Sir David Cox, probably one of the most famous living statisticians. Damn. I really wish I’d whipped out my phone and noted down what he said.

The RSS conference up in Manchester was much of the same, lots of parallel sessions, not speaking to anyone, limited applicability. The difference was this time I gave a speech in a smaller room, although to be honest I don’t really remember much about it. I guess it was unexceptional, apart from the amusing coincidence that the person speaking immediately before me, also spoke immediately before me at the ISCB conference. That’s niche academia for you I guess. I also went to an early career meet up on the first night, but for whatever reason, I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind to be exceptionally sociable, and don’t think I saw anyone from the night again during the conference.

The Cochrane Colloquium in Seoul was quite different. Mostly because it was in Seoul. There were still many parallel sessions, although now my probably wasn’t in finding something I wanted to go to, it was whittling down the things I wanted to go to since they all happened at the same time. Overall, I’m not really a fan of more than a couple of parallel sessions – a few people from my university went to the conference (colloquium…), and we were all speaking at the same time. This was a bit disappointing, I was looking forward to listening to a friend’s talk.

It also meant that each lecture room was pretty small. I guess that’s good for intimacy, but at the same time, I’d travelled across the globe to give a speech to a room that at best had 30-40 people in it. Probably more than were in the auditorium at ISCB, but that was 2 hours away by train at rush hour. I gave my speech, went to interesting talks, failed to win “best talk by a newbie” (understandably, I was just hopeful), went to some training-type sessions, the usual stuff.

Seoul had, however, quite a few differences to previous conferences. There were social things happening, and I got to know a few people. This really made a difference – like in Alaska, I could now go do things with people, including karaoke before and after soju (soju is great), going on a tour of Seoul, cooking our own bulgogi (Korean BBQ), making kimchi (dear lord, do not keep kimchi un-refrigerated in your hotel room), and going on a tour of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea. For those that haven’t been, the DMZ is the no-man’s land between warring North and South Korea. The North side is all barren and military-esque. The South side has an amusement park, with rides. I… I’m not sure the South are taking this seriously.

In short, Korea was much better than previous conferences, and it was due both to the more relevant talks (good ol’ evidence synthesis), and meeting people and being able to do things with them. So although I have no tips on HOW to achieve this (karaoke and soju work great, but probably limited opportunity to get them both together), it was certainly a good thing at this particular conference. I imagine it also helped that I knew some people at the conference already – with the exception of the YSM, where I met a few people that I knew at the conference, I had never been to a conference where I knew anyone. So maybe go with a friend, if possible.

Second international training: Winter EpiSchool, Wengen, 2018

If you can, go to this course. You can ski. It’s brilliant.

People from my university also teach on it, and as they’ve taught me on short courses before, I can say that they’re pretty good. The courses I went on were also pretty good (James Carpenter was particularly good I thought). Wengen probably isn’t the most exciting place to go if you don’t like to hike up snowy mountains or ski/snowboard/toboggan down them, but it’s pretty good if you do.

Conclusion

There’s always a conclusion, right? Well, what I’ve learnt from my experiences is that conferences can be pretty hit and miss in terms of content – sometimes everything is interesting and sometimes very little is interesting – and it can be difficult to get to know people, especially if they are already there with people they know. However, sometimes (and this is probably much more true of the longer conferences), you can make some good friends and have a great time. So far, I’ve only met people randomly – the social events that have dedicated “get to know each other” or networking sessions I don’t think have ever worked for me.

I’m still nervous before giving a speech. Much less than I used to be, but still a bit. Practice has helped – the more conferences I do, the better I will be – but I also teach on some of my university’s short courses, and this practice has helped a lot too. As has the knowledge that in several years of giving talks, no one has ever slammed my ideas or been rude, literally everyone who has spoken to me has been nothing but nice and friendly.

So yes. If you’ve never been to a conference before, then start with something relatively small, preferably go with at least one person you know, possibly go to some without a poster/talk, then go with a poster, then a talk. That’s the progression I did, and it felt fine. Of course, you could always dive in with an international conference talk on the first go, it’ll probably be fine. I hope that everyone in other fields appear as nice as they do in mine. And try to make friends, but if you don’t, that’s fine too.

Side notes

I did the 3-minute thesis competition in 2017, and I sucked. Properly sucked. I didn’t speak for 10 seconds, since I forgot what I was supposed to say. You get one slide in the 3-minute thesis, and have 3 minutes to describe your thesis, and this format did not work well either with my content (my thesis is pretty long and complicated, and the underlying statistical problem that makes up the interesting part of my thesis usually takes a little longer than 3 minutes to properly explain to a lay-person), or with me. So all my speaking practice meant squat when it came to talking in a really limited time-frame in a competition. I’m fine with a casual chat where I talk about my work, but something about that competition made me into a babbling wreck of a speaker.

My supervisor who was there said it was fine. I don’t think I believe them…

Funding

If you’re wondering how I managed to go to so many conferences as a PhD student, the I did a PhD with the Wellcome Trust, who gave me a reasonable sum that I could have used on anything – recruiting patients, travel, training, lab reagents/equipment, data etc. If you ever think about doing a PhD in epidemiology, I would strongly recommend the Wellcome Trust’s 4-year PhD. There are other links, but it’s late, I’m tired, and I like Bristol.