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Sometimes it’s not about the academic content and the impressive speakers and networking with international experts, but the personal aspects of the experience that make you feel like you’re in the right (or wrong) place.

The lone (st)ranger

As a solo traveller to BSG 2017, I felt very apprehensive about attending the conference without any colleagues or friends to hide behind. I regularly travel to conferences alone and always tend to feel overwhelmed, intimidated and generally like an outsider amidst people who seem to have known each other for years. BSG 2017 was completely different for me, and has made me think differently about conference attendance, the dreaded networking, and generally soaking up the atmosphere.

So, after a 6 hour train journey – where I spent most of the time wondering if I could just turn around and go home – I finally arrived at Swansea train station. I was greeted by the most cheerful taxi driver I’d ever met. He took my bags and gave me a guided tour of Swansea on the way to Bay Campus, and I started to feel less apprehensive (‘if the locals are this friendly, the conference should be a doodle?’).

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Get involved

Now, I should let you know that I’m part of the Emerging Researchers in Ageing (ERA) committee within BSG. This was by no means an easy choice for me, as I was terrified of the unknown, and worse still, having to actually speak to people I didn’t know! For anyone who is feeling a little out of the loop, or like a fish out of water at big conferences, I’d definitely recommend joining a committee or network within the society. Even if there are no vacancies, just talking to current committee members or conference organisers may help you feel more at ease, or just help you to put names to faces. This can be a big help if you’re feeling like you don’t know anybody.

By the time the conference came around, I was really looking forward to the ERA pre-conference event that we had organised over the previous year. We wanted to provide workshops that early career researchers and students would find most valuable. I was really keen to learn from our keynote speakers Professor Christina Victor and Dr Martin Hyde, who kindly agreed to talk to us about their experiences of the publication process. They certainly did not disappoint! I learned all about Altmetrics (which I had never really understood before) in Martin’s session – and was very surprised to find that my recent paper had an Altmetrics score of over 600! Christina was as inspiring and humorous as ever, and gave some useful inside information about publishing from the perspective of a busy editor of the Ageing and Society journal. These finer details of publishing (the stuff going on in the background while we write and re-write our papers) are things that we do not necessarily consider, and so as an early career researcher myself, I found this insight was pretty special.

I was so inspired by the confidence and clarity in the ERA members’ own presentations. I really hope that has at least something to do with the supportive atmosphere of the ERA community. I only hope that future generations of ERA members will continue this friendly and collaborative spirit for years to come, to encourage our emerging researchers to share ideas and inspire others – and to put a friendly arm around new members.

If in doubt, reach out

As a cognitive psychologist, I spent a lot of my time listening to the talks on ‘Cognition and Dementia’. It was in one of these sessions where I delivered my own talk on some new research we’ve been working on. I was so nervous, as it was still very much a work in progress and I didn’t know how people would react to that. The audience was very attentive, and we had a great discussion afterwards with people offering advice on how I could understand my data more clearly, and suggesting factors that I hadn’t even thought of exploring. I even managed to take this audience selfie to share on my Twitter account!

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This was quite out of character for me, and was a last-minute flash of inspiration as I made my way up to the podium. I’m so glad I had that brief moment of bravery (like ripping off the proverbial plaster), as my request for a Twitter selfie raised a few giggles from the audience and really helped to break the ice. I’m still very new to Twitter and don’t really know what I’m doing, so, like most things ‘social’, I thought it’s best to just dive straight in.

After that, I spent most of the conference Tweeting about other people’s talks, the beach BBQ, the sunshine, you name it – I tweeted it! I also realised that I’ve been missing a trick in previous years when I felt like a bit of a lone wolf at conferences. Reaching out to peers – even on social media – can give you a really nice sense of belonging, even if you haven’t met face to face. I’ve made lots of new Twitter friends, who I am sure will be at BSG conferences in years to come, so I now know that sense of community is right there at the touch of a button on my phone, all year round.