Strategies to Address Poster Session Fears

If you’re nervous about an upcoming poster session it may help to articulate your specific concerns, develop a strategy to address each one, and then proceed to have a great poster session. Here are some common concerns and my suggested strategies.

Concerns about presenting unpublished or unfinished work

Fear 1: The project is unfinished so people will ask questions I can’t answer.

You are presenting work that isn’t yet published so there will be gaps in your research. People will ask about those gaps and telling someone “I don’t know” feels bad.

  • Strategy Lean into the gaps. Ask people for their suggestions. A benefit of traveling to a conference is getting a new perspective on how to finish up an analysis.

  • Strategy Remember that people expect posters to be unfinished work. You are not the only person with an unresolved analysis. Poster sessions are not dissertation defenses. Keep the small scope of a poster in the forefront of your mind.

Fear 2: The data are wrong and I won’t know until after the conference.

In many fields posters are supposed to feature research in progress. That means that after the conference, upon more data exploration or reading, you may decide to ditch one method for another. You may add more tests to your code that reveals previously hidden bugs. How embarrassing!

  • Strategy No one at a poster session is promising that their data are perfect so don’t hold yourself to that standard. Bugs are hard to find. Choosing the most appropriate method for your analysis is non-trivial. In fact, presenting at the conference may help you identify a more appropriate method.

Fear 3: The data are wrong and someone will tell me at the session.

  • Strategy Change your frame of mind. It’s much better to catch a mistake or incorporate a suggestion from a poster visitor PRIOR to paper submission. Embrace the mess and focus on getting helpful feedback during the session. If people wanted to see only finished work they would only read articles and would avoid the poster session.

  • Strategy Remember, you are the expert on your topic. It’s unlikely anyone knows enough or has enough time to find a flaw with your approach at the poster session.

Fear 4: I am behind the bleeding edge.

The field has moved on while I’ve dilly-dallied on my project and I didn’t know because I live in a research bubble.

  • Strategy Cultivate avenues to present your work to people outside your immediate sphere. Ask to present to your department, a different department, or another school.

  • Strategy Read broadly. Sign up for RSS feeds on the key topics in your field.

  • Strategy Change your frame of mind. The conference is a good opportunity to gauge the novelty of your work. You traveled out of your bubble to gather context on your research.

Fear 5: Getting scooped.

In some fields scooping is easy and the threat is real.

  • Strategy Post a pre-print prior to the conference to establish your priority. The pre-print doesn’t have to be beautiful or complete, it just needs to get your name attached to the idea, method, or conclusion.

Concerns about awkwardness

Fear 1: No one will come to my poster.

Posters are popularity contests. Your poster might not have (m)any visitors. An unpopular poster can be extremely discouraging.

  • Strategy Plan ahead. Think carefully about which conference to attend and try to pick one that is a close match for your area of research.

  • Strategy Invite people you meet to your poster. Even if the people you chat with aren’t in your exact niche, they may bring others with them who have a keen interest when they stop by. Additionally, posters with visitors attract more visitors. People jamming up your poster snowballs into more people visiting your poster.

  • Strategy Stay calm. Remember that the session is only an hour and it will pass.

  • Strategy Chat with nearby presenters to pass the time.

  • Strategy Smile and make eye contact with people passing through.

Fear 2: Strangers are the worst.

Talking to the randos at your poster can feel physically uncomfortable if you hate meeting new people.

  • Strategy Invite people to your poster. If you can get introduced to people by mutual acquaintances invite them to your poster. These new acquaintances are at least a little bit familiar and you have a go to topic to break the ice (your mutual acquaintance).

  • Strategy Set a time limit or conversation goal for yourself. Even if the poster session is an hour you are not required to be there the whole time. If it’s your first session set a goal to stay just 15 minutes or until 3 people stop by. At the next conference session you can increase the threshold.

  • Strategy Change your frame of mind. These people chose your poster out of all of the posters at the conference. People who are most predisposed to like your poster are the ones who will come to meet you.

Fear 3: I am an awkward communicator.

Some people have a hard time explaining their science or getting others to care.

  • Strategy Practice explaining your poster prior to the conference. But don’t just explain it to the other experts in your lab. Explain it to people without the necessary background. Try out different phrasing.

  • Strategy Have a pad of paper. Sometimes it’s hard to remember a specific word, but it’s easy to draw a picture.

Concerns about malicious interactions

Fear 1: Getting harassed at your poster.

Many people get harassed at conferences. There are innumerable reports of assault, bigotry, ableism, racism or sexism (you name it) perpetuated at scientific conferences. Conferences are a recipe for disaster: people facing systemic power imbalances at events that occur in unfamiliar places, often at night with alcohol.

If you have any resources you want me to link here, please share it with me (contact info) and I’ll post it. I am speaking without experience on this particular subject and could not find any poster session specific resources.

  • Strategy Have an advocate nearby you can bring in to disrupt or diffuse the situation. A formal example of this is at astronomy meetings where there is a group called “Astronomy Allies” that you can text if you need people to come support you in a hostile situation.

  • Strategy If the situation is unsafe or uncomfortable leave if you can.

  • Strategy If you want to report abuse know where to go. Contact the conference organizers. For more immediate response there is building security or the police.

  • Strategy Afterwards, give yourself space to react to what has happened and feel your feelings. You are not the only person this has happened to. There are people who have experienced similar abuse and, if you want, you can reach out to them.

Fear 2: People don’t like your science and want you to know.

People may come to your poster with a hostile agenda. Maybe they hate your experimental method because your boss’s boss got in a fight with their boss’s boss 20 years ago. This is a discussion you cannot win. This person is being rude and damaging.

  • Strategy Disengage. People with agendas do not want their opinion changed. Excuse yourself (go get a drink), change the topic to neutral ground (no need to be subtle), or cut them off (talk to someone else passing by).

Good luck!

Preparing for and thinking about a poster session can induce anxiety. I hope you can funnel the energy about your concerns into productive, proactive planning about how to handle a negative situation.

Looking for more tips on having a positive poster session? See my essay on How to Have a Positive Poster Session.

Good luck at your next poster session!