May 06, 2011

Dear Aunt Rex: I'm terrified of public speaking

Dear Aunt Rex,

I'm a second-year PhD student in the humanities but I've never done any conferences. I hate the idea so much. It's not just the public speaking but also the 'networking' or whatever you're supposed to be doing. Everyone says conferences are an essential part of being an academic but is there any way around it?

-Not a networker

Dear Not,

Conferences are maybe not as essential in the humanities as they are in, say, maths, but they're still important and I would encourage you to find a way to do them. They're an important way to stay on top of the latest developments in your field, publicise your own work and meet potential collaborators.

Finding a way to do them will mean, first and foremost, finding a way to NOT hate them! You might consider taking one of the public speaking workshops offered by the Research Student Skills Programme. This can help build your confidence about being in front of people.

If you have a conference paper already written and would like some practice, the Research Exchange Advisers offer a service where you can book time with one of them to deliver your paper and receive constructive feedback. Email

As to networking, my advice is not to think of it as 'networking' at all - this word has become so overwrought with images of slimy, insincere hand-shaking. Think of it instead as interacting with other people who have similar interests and expertise to you, whom you just happen not to have met yet. Talk business with people you sit with at lunch - discuss the things you've heard at the conference, for example. Introduce yourself to people whose papers you liked, and tell them why. Have useful conversations - don't just 'network'. The Research Student Skills Programme (link above) also has occasional Networking workshops and this can help as well.

Remember: being successful at conferences doesn't have to mean gritting your teeth and doing something you hate - it means figuring out what you hate the most about it and finding ways to adapt your experience so that you enjoy it more.

Good luck!

You can ask Aunt Rex a question here.

- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Actually you can go to a conference, just listen to the presentations and not talk to anybody. However, the problem is that someone might start talking to you and you can either tell them to go away or ignore them. On the other hand, you might find that you actually like the intellectual discourse and end up sharing emails (oops! you are now networking).

    05 May 2011, 14:25

  2. Perhaps we could just do away with the word ‘networking’ and replace it with ‘chatting with like-minded people’, and while I’m on the subject, replace the word ‘conference’ with ‘a meeting place for like-minded people’. I expect you can see the theme here! My point is that I think we all produce our work in the hope and expectation that other, like-minded (again) people will find it interesting and stimulating, and the best way to get the work ‘out there’ is by mixing with others.

    On a very tame level, somewhere like the Research Exchange might give you the chance to just talk about your field of interest, which might in turn help you to develop the confidence to go out into the wider world. When you come to the Exchange, there are people doing studies in a multitude of areas, so your subject might be novel to them, which in turn should mean they can come up with some interesting questions for you, but in a safe and supportive environment. And I’d definitely recommend some workshops – there, you’ll discover that most people have the very same fears as you do, which is often helpful in itself!

    06 May 2011, 14:00

  3. There are more Nots!

    Dear Not, I’m so delighted to find there are others out there! I thought I must be the only one more than content to be a complete hermit and spend my life blissfully just reading and writing: that’s what attracted me to academia in the first place. The only part of being a PhD student that’s scaring me (I’m in my first year) is not my thesis but that you’re expected to ‘network’, sorry to be resistant but I fail to see it any other way just by calling it something else. The very idea of giving a paper or going to a conference scares me to death. Anyway, as it seems there’s no way around it I hope we both get over our phobia: if you get to the other side before me tell me what it’s like and how you got there and I promise to do the same! Best of luck comrade (are we networking now?)

    25 May 2011, 11:57

  4. Here are some researcher articles from the new Rex website that might be useful:

    Not sure, since these give more practical advice rather than helping you hate it less, but anyway…

    The thing is, though, that making friends doesn’t need to be insincere and smarmy. Do you have friends in your department? Do you like talking to them about your subject area? Meeting more people to do this with can be fun and rewarding, if it’s the right people.

    26 May 2011, 13:19

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