I have attended and presented at a few different conferences now in the 3rd year of my PhD and I would like to share these experiences and regrets as advice for those starting out.
Attending without presenting is great, but you can feel a little invisible
When I started my PhD I had a completely blank ‘academic’ CV. I hadn’t published, presented, taught in academia and I wasn’t a member of any committee or body. This terrified me. As a young researcher in academia and being referred to as a “baby researcher” in my induction, I felt belittled and had the need to make myself known. As a result, I started attending any and every conference I could related to my discipline.
This was a great start for my PhD, I met “famous” authors in my field, I learnt conference etiquette, politics in academia and some presentations truly sparked a change of interest and direction in my own research. I would thoroughly encourage those starting out as an ECR to do this – these skills have assisted me in understanding the unwritten rules of working in academia and university. Despite these positives, after attending my 5th conference in 2 months I started to realise I was not making myself known at all. I had introduced myself to the same person for the 3rd time and, because my name wasn’t anywhere from presenting, I was a face in the audience with limited knowledge, experience or social standing to have an at-length chat with any presenter. I was often the one of the few that wasn’t an associate of the University holding the conference or a student of one of the professors presenting or a colleague or old collaboration.
Perhaps this is something that the older generation in the academic community should be more aware of or perhaps I should’ve been more picky in the conferences I attended. I was told at the beginning of my PhD that it would be an ‘isolating’ experience at times and attending conferences without presenting was one of these times. My advice – go crazy to begin with, but be aware, you may be eating your lunch alone.
Cross-discipline conferences can also be lonely (even if you present)
Having implied that presenting makes you stand out more at conferences, this isn’t the case if the conference is cross-discipline. Although applying to conferences that are less discipline specific may permit further opportunity to be accepted, this means the audience will be less engaged or knowledgeable about your research. Even the greatest speaker/presenter can be lost by an uninterested audience. Ok, for the post-half an hour after my presentation I was flooded with questions, but following this, it was hard to make conversation with other conference delegates with such a broad field of research between us. I’m not discouraging presenting at whichever and however many conferences you can, but be prepared to make small talk if you’re not in a room of people full of the same interests as you. N.B. This also applies to discipline specific conferences that are slightly outside but related to your own topic.
Some conferences are designed as a money-making business: avoid these!
In my experience there are very few organisations that run conferences for the money however it’s important if you are inexperienced in these things, to notice the signs.
A personal example of mine that I was pulled into:
This conference ran over 20 different conferences throughout the year from Architecture, to Language Teaching, to Economics. The conference ‘company’ provided City Tours at an extra 80euros and the option to join their ‘Researchers Retirement Village’, I had a bad feeling about this conference. I found out there were 3 conferences running in the same hotel, which had interdisciplinary round tables but no one knew they were interdisciplinary (v. confusing!). This was all purely money-making. When doing research, the hotel through the conference was 20euros more expensive than booking the same hotel through the hotel. In hindsight, I didn’t learn anything from the conference except for how not to run a conference. It was good practice to present and I got to start my morning at the top of one of the most beautiful ancient sites in the world but I have learnt to choose more wisely and look out for these signs.
- If your colleagues or supervisors haven’t heard about the conference, maybe have a thorough look through of programmes, abstracts and sponsors.
- If the cost is hugely different from others you’ve seen, question it and check why. (Check if you can book accommodation etc. individually)
- If the organisation runs conferences for more than one discipline, check the programmes of previous years for recognisable names.
- If the ‘aims’ of the conference are waffly and ambiguous, it might not be as focused or discipline specific as you initially thought.
Posters are a great place to start – great on the CV, little pressure on the day
So you want to present but not at a cross-discipline conference but you’ve had papers rejected left, right and center (we’ve all been there). Although your friends and family might think a poster presentation is no more impressive than your school science fair, these provide a great experience, they look good on your CV, are more likely to be accepted and provide you with less pressure on the day. You can mingle, still have things to discuss, have your name in the conference programme and have the opportunity to escape and sightsee (not that I’ve done that…..). You don’t have data? Some conferences still accept posters with hypotheses, theories or research plans. I’ve found posters to be a great compromise between being a ‘presenter’ and attending a conference which is discipline specific and relevant. A small #ad here – my most recent poster presentation was in Lyon (an incredible city which I haven’t had a chance to write a blog about yet but well worth a visit) but I was only taking hand luggage and therefore was stuck with a tube of A0 poster. I came across SciencePosters who print on foldable fabric. The outcome was crisp, vibrant and folded into a tiny box. With quick delivery and reasonable price – I highly recommend this.
Why not set up one yourself?
Ok, so a little pessimistic here. But I’m not saying conferences are the devil. When chosen wisely they can provide feedback, connections and inspiration. Another way to go about it may seem a little daunting but setting up your own conference with your department means you can decide the focus/discipline, you are one of the colleagues/student so enough of the small talk, and you can spot those ECRs attending your conference and ensure they don’t feel like I did during the days of my conference touring. Talking to your supervisor, research group or fellow PhDers in the department, you could share the load, promote your University and department and show your ability of conference organisation – an employability point for any future careers inside and out of academia.