Post-conference come down

Having had a look around the internet this morning, this doesn’t seem to be discussed anywhere [feel free to correct me if I’m wrong]. But I think it’s an important thing that has to be dealt with – the thing being the post-conference come down, for those who presented a paper at a conference. If you’ve only attended conferences, then this isn’t for you, or if you’re a seasoned conference speaker, then maybe you don’t need to worry about this so much. But for people like me, finding their feet, their speaking style, their research methodology and topics … basically, their confidence in who they are as academics and speakers, this is certainly something that needs to be discussed.

What is post-conference come down? In the period immediately after the conference, there may be some jubiliation, a high, if you feel as though you’ve done well, a sense of relief, perhaps. There may not be, and that’s okay. This isn’t meant to be prescriptive, a “you must feel these things after the conference” list. Everyone feels things differently. But after the high, and perhaps if you didn’t have a high, and certainly if you struggle with imposters syndrome, the doubt and the questioning can start to set in. ‘I only got one question!’ … you might think. ‘I ran over by a few minutes, had to drop a couple of slides’. ‘I didn’t explain that bit very well..’. The exact words & phrases will of course differ, but the underlying emotional tones are the same: self-doubt, questioning, and if you did have a high, that drop from the high to the self-doubt and questioning is horrible. Really, and truly emotionally horrible, and it can be enough to really badly knock you off your path as an academic. It can come out in a number of ways: being grumpy, being teary, lethargic, not wanting to do any work, right through to feeling really low, down, and perhaps even depressed and wanting to quit.

[And before I go any further, something of a disclaimer: If you feel depressed, low, down, to the point where it is really starting to affect you and your life, then you need proper help, personal help, and not the kind of help that is suggested here. Most Universities will have some kind of counselling service, that, or your GP, may be a good place to start.]

The thing is… dealing with this kind of come down really is very simple, for most people. The the real key is communication: talk about it with your peers. Be honest about how you’re feeling, name your fears. You’ll be amazed at how many people confess to feeling similarly, and who might offer thoughts on what’s worked for them. The really important part though is not the tips, but the simple fact of knowing you are not alone. Once you know it’s a normal sensation, it can suddenly start to become less ominous, less looming, and to take on a relevance that is more reasonably proportional. It is too easy, sometimes, to criticse yourself to the point that you’re actually being too harsh on yourself; being unreasonable in your expectations of what you should have achieved, given where you are on your career path. That’s why naming your fears – specifically naming your fears – for example, ‘I should have phrased that paragraph better’ or ‘I ran over time’ works, because it means that people can engage with them and either reassure you (and you can believe them, because they’ve been there) or they offer a tactic for dealing with the issue. Or you may even be able to see a tactic for dealing with the issue yourself. Either way, you can work on it. It’s reasonable, addressable. Wailing ‘I SUCKK!’, or ‘my paper was terrible!’ … yes, may be how you feel, and may be your fears, but those fears are more difficult for either you, or anyone else to engage with and to address.

Sometimes post-conference comedown can be very subtle, and can come out in ways that aren’t obvious as being just that – for example, you could be incredibly grumpy and just feel like you’re having a bad day. Everyone has those, right? Well… if it’s within a couple of days of presenting at a conference… do stop to consider whether it might just be a post-conference come-down.

Presenting a paper is in many ways akin to delivering a performance on a stage – post-performance blues is certainly a recognised thing, and I think post-conference comedown, blues, drop – call it what you like – needs to be recognised in a similar way. So, how best to deal with it?

well… I admit to not having all the answers right now, as I only delivered my first paper on Saturday and spent most of yesterday feeling rather grumpy and fighting imposter syndrome. It wasn’t until someone else presenting at the conference admitted to feeling ambivalent about her delivery in a private conversation that the penny dropped for me. But some of the things that spring to mind are:

  1. Being on the look out for it, now you know it might happen, and being prepared for it, taking some of the actions below, and being prepared to need to take them (i.e. buy the bubblebath and candles).
  2. Being kind to yourself. Emotionally, physically, mentally. Whatever you need to relax, do it. bubble bath with candles, a good hard run, a meal out with a loved one, self-reflection in a journal. Maybe more than one or two of these. We’ve all got different needs and tactics, so do what works for you. Make sure you are around people you love and trust in the days afterwards, and warn them ahead of time that you may be emotionally struggling for a little bit. Ask for their help and their support.
  3. Sit down and write down all the compliments that you got, and who you got them from. If any words were emphasised by the person, underline them. ‘”Your paper was FABULOUS!”, cried Craig Revel-Horwood‘ (wellll, okay, perhaps not…!). Write down any sensible suggestions or questions that you had as well. There’s a reason that just about every conference-how-to-article I’ve read suggest writing down the questions and comments your paper receive, and its not just to help you write a killer article from it afterwards, either.
  4. Likewise, on a seperate sheet, write down the issues you felt you had, again, being careful to be specific, AND what you think you can be done in response. For example – Paragraph 3 was unclear and had a question that asked for clarification on that [easily sorted: you can rephrase it in the next paper/article]. I went on too long and had to drop slide 6 and 10. Again, maybe what is needed in that situation is to practice more, or ask someone what their go-to figure is for the number of words when reading aloud (125wpm for me). Maybe look at your material – did you try to cram too much into the time you were given? Be reasonable and constructive, and do it while you’re still on the high, if you can (if you have one), as it’ll help to counteract the self-doubt that might kick in while you’re doing this exercise. Or do it before you do something nice, like going out for a meal with a loved one, that can distract you from the self-doubt. Absolutely do not sit there chewing on your fingers/nails and ruminating on the negativity, giving it a chance to feed and grow stronger; that is about the worst thing you CAN do.
  5. Pin the compliments sheet to the wall somewhere where you can see it (mine’s above my computer monitor in my study). Leave it there for a week post-conference (or longer, if necessary), then file it with your talk/powerpoint/research notes/ and the issues sheet from point 4. When you’re ready to do another paper, pull out the issues sheet and use this to make the next one better, while remembering the compliments too.
  6. Most importantly.. TALK ABOUT IT. I was lucky: it was a postgraduate conference and several people from my uni were presenting, two of whom I knew already. We talked with each other about how we felt afterwards and as a result, we’re now supporting each other a lot more than we otherwise would have done, which is lovely. [I love the postgraduate community at my uni, mostly for this reason.] These kinds of support groups, formal or informal, the networks that are created, are what will carry you through your studies, through your PhD, through the struggles of being a post-doc. I’ve recently seen reference to similar groups even in people who are wayyyy beyond post-doc stage: these support groups really are worth their weight in gold.  If you can join them, do. If you can form them, even better! Regardless: keep talking, whether in person or by social media, email or the phone. Talk to someone.
  7. Don’t make any big decisions on the basis of this conference. It’s too easy to jump to the conclusion that you stink, you’re terrible, you obviously weren’t cut out to be an academic, you should quit immediately and walk home in sackcloth and ashes with a huge placard over your head marked ‘FAILURE’. Yes, I’m being ridiculous, deliberately so – in this kind of funk, this is the kind of thing that often comes into your head (well, it comes into mine). And if you do it, you will hugely… hugely regret it. Don’t do it. Please.
  8. If you’ve read this, and it doesn’t apply to you, if you’re the kind of lucky sod who has the confidence to present at a conference and walk out again without the self-doubt or questioning I’ve described here: Great. Good for you. You still have a role to play: if you know someone who’s delivered at a conference recently, and know them well, keep an eye on them. If you see someone else struggling in this way… then help. It doesn’t have to be much: just send them the link to this or a similar article. Anything to help them know that they’re not alone.

If you’ve any ideas, suggestions, whatever for dealing with this issue, do feel free to leave a message, or share this, pass it on. It could be that I’m the only one to feel this strongly about this issue, but somehow, I don’t think I am. We know academia as a whole generally has a bit of a bad rep for not taking care of people’s mental health sufficiently; maybe part of where we need to start is right here. In prevention, rather than cure.

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