An integral part of doing a PhD is going out to conferences. They are a way of finding out what people in your area of study are up to, meeting people in your field (read: network), and to present and get feedback on your own work. I’ve decided to write this article for those of you who still have to attend a conference and are curious about the experience.
For most conferences you’ll only be invited if you have something to contribute or are part of the network they are associated with. It is rather unlikely you can just rock up to a conference. Especially when it comes to limited availability and the network or institution paying for your costs of transport and overnight stay. This just makes sense from a organisational and financial perspective.
Now, let’s assume you have done relevant research or are speaking at the conference for any other reason. As it is your first time, there aren’t many previous experiences to draw from. What are you supposed to expect?
It is important to check in advance how big, but mainly how formal a conference is. Especially if you are presenting, you don’t want to be in front of hundreds of people in suits, when you are wearing jeans and sneakers. Other things you might want to keep in mind besides your own looks, are the looks of your presentation. I’m afraid that most of what people perceive are peripheral cues, and not content cues, so make sure your PowerPoint has “suited up” as well. Try to avoid endless sentences and text, break things up with (relevant!!) pictures and effects and just in general watch your own pace. Stopping for emphasis is a great idea. Stopping to just take a breathing break can help too. It gives you time to, well, breath and for the audience to catch up and take a mental breath. This ensures that the little content they are taking in, is being taken in properly. On the topic of taking breaks, are you taking questions during your presentation, or only after? If you are a person that easily has their “flow” disrupted you might want to opt for the latter. Do make this clear at the beginning of your presentation though.
Presentation finished, good job. I hope. Now the time has come for most comments, suggestions and questions. Sometimes, this part of the presentation can be longer and much more nerve-wrecking than the actual presentation. Stay calm, allow yourself to think before replying. This ensures you don’t have extremely emotional responses where you are trying to defend your research, rather than listening and analysing the information given to you. People at conferences, especially when in your own field of study, tend to know what’s up. So stay calm, ask for clarification when needed, reply in a neutral tone, and write down the recommendation. When you are writing down suggestions this makes you seem interested and eager to learn/improve, but in general it signals you are open to critique and communication. It will make you much more respected within the conference community.
Now your part is done. You might feel great, you might feel terrible. You very likely feel as if you want to take a nap. Despite this, from my personal experience I would still suggest taking an as early as possible presentation slot. If you have any influence in the planning of the conference, or the order of certain topical presentations. The reason for this is simple: you won’t pay attention to anything happening before your presentation and will just mill over and over it in your head. There is no point to this. It might just make you more stressed.
On a similar note, if for any other reason you are unable to focus on the talks given, just take a break. You are under no condition obliged to go through all of the conference and be present at each and every talk. This can especially be difficult for people who are more visually inclined when it comes to taking in information (this is me…), introverts or anyone else having issues with being continuously present in the company of a large(r) social group (highly sensitive individuals, those on the anxiety spectrum or autism spectrum, etc.). If you feel it’s becoming too much, leave. Conferences tend to happen in nicely designed buildings with plenty of escapes or nooks and backrooms to hide in. When you are in a hotel and you have a room, go to your room. Maybe even take a nap. No shame in being overwhelmed or just plain tired.
It might seem counterintuitive at first to not go to all the talks and absorb all the knowledge, but don’t forget why you are at a conference. It is as much a learning environment as a networking environment. It is important to be able to present yourself well to those in your field. This is something quite difficult when half asleep or grumpy as a result of your tiredness. Moreover, you might not find all the talks and topics presented interesting, so why go to them? Personally I would never attend talks on macro-economic based theories. It’s not what I study, I focus on behavioural micro-economics and prefer to direct all my energy to that field.
As I’m proof-reading my own article I have realised I made a conference sound like a lot of work, and no fun at all. But that is not true. During most conferences you won’t be alone. You’ll have people you already know in your field, or at least people from your own institution (supervisors etc.) joining. Discussing research, or anything else for that matter, with them is a lot of fun. So is meeting new interesting people (networking!). And, if you’re lucky and it is a multiple day conference, your food and accommodation is provided for. So overall you get to hang out with interesting people, get the latest info on research in your area, get feedback on your own work and get to dine out and sleep in a hotel. That could be worse right?
Let me know if there is any key information I have missed on attending a conference, whether your experience was similar or completely different. Or, if you have any questions left!