The conference has just finished and there will be dinner in 40 minutes or so.
Yesterday I overheard an organiser saying something about these type of conferences, about how it’s good to have seasoned experts, some young stars, and a few students who will learn a lot but probably won’t contribute much. After my initial paranoid reaction, I started to question whether this is just a lofty ideal from someone who can’t remember what it’s like to be starting out. I wondered what exactly “contributing” means – giving a talk, asking constructive questions, presenting a poster, informally sharing ideas? And I wonder how many people really go away from the conference feeling that they have learned a lot or got some new ideas for their work? Probably it’s the people that already know an awful lot, because the more you know, the more talks you can actually understand. So the early-stage students likely neither contribute much nor learn much. An extreme example of this for me was the summer school I went to about 10 days after starting my PhD.
This would make it seem there is little point in going to conferences until at least a year into a PhD. But the norm seems to be to do everything like that really early on.
I think this has given me a general idea of what the hot topics are in my area of research just now, even if I haven’t understood much of their details. The few talks and posters that did relate to things I know about, though, I found much less scary. I’ve felt able to engage with subjects I know enough about to get my head around. So I don’t doubt my own ability as such, just my ability (or motivation) to acquire expertise fast enough for this game, and my ability to consolidate ideas/make imaginative leaps/manage and direct my work. I can manage it on a micro level, but at a higher level I would rather just be given tasks. I know it sounds horribly unfeminist, but there we are.