For an academic, participating in conferences is important for lots of reasons: sharing research and having it critiqued, building networks, identifying collaboration opportunities, and staying up to date with advances in the field.
For PhD students there are additional advantages: you can use conferences to make your name known outside your immediate geographical area, potentially improving future employment opportunities.
For me, they have been invaluable in feeling included in my scientific discipline; for being part of a bigger student group outside my university; and for receiving a motivational boost when the PhD journey is feeling long and difficult.
There’s also a cost: conferences are expensive, particularly when you are travelling from Australia to, well, anywhere. There is time off research, travel time, and sacrificed casual income. Finally, it takes considerable time to apply for travel funding and prepare a talk.
Therefore, once you’ve made the commitment, you want to get fantastic things out of it – but to reap the benefits, it takes a bit of strategy and effort. So, here are my tips for making the most of your conference.
Befriend the PhD students.
Getting to know the students from other institutions is really important: you’ll have new connections at different universities, people to discuss PhD difficulties with, you can find out about upcoming events, and you’ll have more fun. Some conferences I’ve attended have offered a discount at a local hostel and encouraged students to stay there: this is a good thing to do as in the evenings there will be social things happening that you definitely want to be part of.
Wear your nametag.
This might sound obvious, but there are always people who don’t. If you don’t wear your nametag, other attendees won’t know who you are, and might assume you are not part of the conference or are someone too important for a nametag – either way they won’t say hello.
Don’t just hang out with people from your institution.
Do talk to lots of people…but not people you already know well. The whole point of going to a conference is to meet new people, and it’s hard to do this if you stick with people from your own university.
Actively seek out people you want to meet.
I’ve read some blogs suggesting that you get in touch with people you want to meet before the conference, to organise a meeting time. I don’t normally do this, as most people won’t be that organised, but certainly advise being proactive during the conference week.
At a recent conference, the first plenary gave an excellent talk, relevant to my work – but there were over 800 people at the conference spread across several big rooms, so I wasn’t sure I’d casually meet her by chance over the week. I sent an email introducing myself, suggesting a chat over one of the breaks, and we convened later in the week.
Make the effort in the breaks.
The whole point of going to conference is not about listening to presentations, but to actually talk to people. Academics are not typically known for their outstanding social skills, and a lot of people (even well known professors) can feel quite anxious about it. Use the coffee breaks to try and meet some new people – see the next few points.
If someone gives a great talk – let them know.
However, if you just say to someone ‘I really enjoyed your talk’, they will say ‘oh, thank you’, and the conversation can stall. Instead, link your compliment to your own research. For example, ‘I really enjoyed how you talked about methods for model fitting, it’s actually similar to an issue I’m working on with some data for influenza…’, it then gives the academic a chance to say ‘thank you’ before leading into a conversation about mutual resesarch interests.
Ask questions at talks.
Simple questions are fine – usually the speaker is relieved if they don’t get stumped on anything tricky! Sometimes, I think a talk is fantastic and want to ask a question, to show how interested I was – but then can’t think of one.
A good strategy is to ask the speaker to re-explain one of the charts or graphs on one of their slides (this only works for quantitative disciplines). E.g. ‘Thank you, I really enjoyed your talk. Would you mind just going back to slide 10, I was a bit confused about what that chart is showing…perhaps you could explain that part again?’.
Embrace social media.
I mainly suggest you do this because it’s really fun, but it’s useful too. It can make you feel more part of the ‘conference community’. You’ll get to know more people. If there are parallel sessions, it means you can get an idea of talks you might have missed.
Go to the conference dinner.
Always go to the dinner. It’s one of my favourite parts of a conference, as everyone is relaxed, and you can get to know your colleagues in an informal setting. Sometimes there is dancing! My advice is not to talk about work and not to sit with people from your own university (point 4). If you have a drink or two, keep it sensible.
Conferences can be really exhausting. At the beginning of my PhD, I thought I had to go to every session, and would be completely burnt out by the end of the week. It’s good to go through the program to identify the ‘must-attend’ sessions, sessions your interested in, and some spots in the program where you can have a break or catch up with a colleague.
Author Bio: Dr Alexandra Hogan, is a mathematical infectious disease modeller. She submitted her PhD thesis at the Research School of Population Health at ANU in November 2016.