In praise of the small conference

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As a PhD student it is easy to get starry-eyed over large conferences. You know the ones I mean. The ones with attendance figures of seven thousand, with stellar keynote casting and hotel spaces booked up three years in advance. For five or six days ‘the big names’ are chased by the non-tenured for their breadcrumbs, and graduate students run around after everyone simply looking for the chance to hold the breadcrumbs.

People with the energy for such conferences can get big wins, meeting their idols and getting a place on a dream research collaboration. But for some students, like me, who don’t have unlimited extrovert energy, and who simply want to seek the like-minded – rather than the famous – for collaborations and support, then a smaller conference might be better.

At the International Society for Education Biographers in San Antonio I was treated to two-days of serious scholarship on what is an admittedly niche topic – but one that I am very, very interested in. Instead of picking my way through an enormous conference catalogue, I was given the choice of just two sessions to select from and every single talk provided relevant knowledge.

Its small size meant there was an attendance of only 100 people, but because of this most people stuck around for the full two days. This gave the chance to speak with people of all levels: grad students, new professors, older ones, even long retired researchers with oodles of knowledge and the time to spend heaping it onto willing ears like me. It was like sitting among a living collection of journals on my PhD interests – which graduate student doesn’t want that?!

Spotting when and where these smaller conferences are on can be tricky. Sites such as conferencealerts.com are useful, as are old-fashioned discipline based list-servs. A slightly more stalkerish approach is looking at the ‘Presentation’ section of your favourite academics’ CVs and seeing which conference they attend. It can help you get an idea of people with your research interests hang out.

Usually the more niche-sounding the conference title is, the smaller the crowd. To check search for the website of the last conference and download the previous years’ programmes. If there are only two or three sessions on at once over a few days then you’ve likely found your match. Having experienced enormous conferences and smaller ones, there are some tips I would give for getting the most of these smaller, niche events:

  • Attend the whole thing. Most only run for a day or two. It will be noticeable if you only attend for your own talk and while this isn’t an entirely frowned upon practise, it is respectful to watch other speakers and this may be the best chance you have to hear about research in your field that is otherwise unpublicised.
  • Take notes, ask questions. If the floor is opened only after three or four speakers in a session have presented, it can be tricky to remember what was said. As each person is speaking, write notes and put a star next to questions that arise for you. At the end of the session you can either ask publicly or, as is the joy of a small conference, you will likely see the person over the next few days so you can always ask then.
  • Never eat alone. Smaller conferences tend to offer lunches and dinners that all guests can attend. Usually these can be booked with your registration and are highly worth it as the more intimate number means you will get to meet lots of people at once, and stops the feeling of being at a high school dance that can sometimes occur at larger conference socials.
  • Swap contact details. Standard for any academic networking, business cards are a vital tool for info swapping.

Throughout this first year of the PhD I have usually come home from conferences absolutely exhausted and sometimes feeling a little shortchanged. I cannot tell you how exhilarating it was to go a more topic-specific, welcoming conference. Perhaps as with partners or thesis topics, sometimes you have to cast about to find your perfect match – but when you do you know you have found it. For me, the small conference is definitely “the one”.

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