Going To An Academic Conference For The First Time: What To Do As A New PhD Student


Attending Academic Conferences

It finally happened. You saw a call for papers for the perfect conference. It was in your area of specialization and is taking place in a cool city you’ve always wanted to visit. You plucked up the courage and submitted an abstract, and the organizers just emailed you to say you’re accepted. You even got a little bit of funding to attend this awesome conference. You are feeling excited, but also a little scared. This is your first conference, and you’re not entirely sure what is going to happen or what you should do.

Not to worry, as in most instances you are not alone. Every graduate student faces their first conference with the same mixture of excitement and fear. Like many other aspects of academia, academic conferences are something most people don’t really understand. What happens at an academic conference? What should you expect? What should you do at the conference? How can you make the most of your experience? These are all questions you might be pondering as you prepare for your first conference. Below is list of experiences and eventualities that you should anticipate and prepare for.

Watch the video that this post is based on (But, someone else from the R3ciprocity Team wrote this post for Dave):

What Happens at an Academic Conference?

Format

Academic conferences regardless of the field tend to follow the same format. The accepted papers are organized into panels based on a common theme, methodology, or idea. Depending on the size of the conference there might be several panels running simultaneously around the conference venue. Panels typically last between 1 and 2 hours during which the presenters are all given time to read and present their papers and then there is time for the audience to ask them questions. There will be several panels throughout the day with breaks for lunch and coffee. Some conferences, particularly large conferences, may also have panels after dinner, but many do not. There are often also social events set-up throughout the conference such as organization meetings, bars, dances, and coffee hours. You need not attend everything, but it is a good idea to attend at least some of the social events in addition to the panels.

Presentations

Presentations vary some in length depending on how large the conference is and how many people are in your panel. Likely you will give somewhere around a 15-20 minute presentation. You have a couple of options for how you want to conduct your presentation. In some fields, it is common for people type out their whole paper and read it. In Business Administration, Economics, etc., it is common for people to present from slides, cue-cards, and some freestyle their presentations. People that freestyle the presentation tend to be more seasoned academics. In some fields, there is nothing wrong with reading your paper out but remember to practice it and give some life to the reading with inflections, pauses, and animation. However, in Business Administration, this would be not considered acceptable. Get advice from your advisor in what the expectations are in your field. It will matter a lot for how you look on the job market. Many people opt to use PowerPoints as well for added visual affect. It is best to pick a style you are comfortable with and go with it. Just remember to practice before your presentation.

It is extremely important that you practice your presentation before you attend the academic conference. Make sure that you go through the presentation 5-10 times before you present your work to anyway. Then, once you feel you are comfortable, than you should present your work before your advisors or a group of peers. If you want to know how to have great meetings with your advisors, check out this in-depth post. You really need to come off polished and looking good. People will remember a great presentation if you nail it.

How Long Are Academic Conferences?

Conferences vary in length. Highly specialized conferences tend to be short, a day or two. They have a small number of attendees and don’t need that much time to get through all the presentations. More general discipline wide conferences tend to be much longer. For instance, the International Medieval Congress takes place every year at the University of Western Michigan. This conference attracts scholars from all over the world as well as from any discipline that handles Medieval topics. There are generally thousands of participants, so this conference is spread out over 4 days and takes over most of the university’s campus for that 4 days. There can be up to 50 simultaneous panels at this large conference. The Academy of Management is the major conference for those in Management, and it will span ~5 days and involve ~15,000 people. Typically, large conferences such as this take place in the summer, so they do not disrupt students during the academic year.  

Why Should I Attend an Academic Conference?

If you don’t feel like reading, this video on the costs and benefits of academic conferences will greatly help you make a decision about attending a specific conference:

Networking

People network to gain exposure, make connections for future projects, exchange ideas, and meet the other people in their field. One of the big reasons graduate students in attend conferences is to network with other people in their field. Your university community is great, but there are so many other people in your field. Graduate students want to network so that they can get better exposure for their work and to make connection which could help them find a career in the future.

There are other reasons to network. Networking is a great way to exchange ideas with people working on similar topics to you. This of course gives you some exposure, but it also allows for the opportunity for you to partner with someone else on a future project. It is also always nice to talk with someone who has similar research interests to your own and bounce ideas off each other.

Networking can seem a bit daunting particularly as a graduate student, and even more so if you are suffering from impostor syndrome (for more on impostor syndrome and dealing with its effects see this post). Don’t feel that you need to rush up to every big name academic and insert yourself in their conversations. Let networking happen naturally. Talk to people over coffee breaks and meals. I have found over the last few years that a good way to meet people is by talking to them after their panels are over and engaging them in conversation about their presented work. I usually say something like, “I really enjoyed your presentation on —–. My name is —– I am a PhD candidate at —— working on —–. I found (particular aspect of their research) really interesting as it relates to my work on —-,” and just letting the conversation flow from there.

However, something important to remember about networking is that it takes time. You are not going to come out of your first conference with thirty new connections and a bunch of collaborative projects. You will slowly build your network over the course of your PhD and continue to expand it for the rest of your career.  

At conferences don’t just concentrate on meeting the big names in your field, also meet other graduate students. This is a great way to see what new research is going on outside of your university and to make some new friends as well. There are usually events scheduled just for graduate students, take advantage of them and meet your peers.

For more on networking see this video.

Feedback on your research

One of the other big reasons to attend and present a conference is feedback. Feedback is very important for your progress when writing papers – you can see different ways to get feedback during a PhD in this post. As nerve racking as presenting your research to a crowd of strangers can be, it can also provide you with very valuable feedback. You should of course be getting feedback from your committee as you go through your PhD, but it is also helpful to get feedback from others, particularly those who have no connection to your project. You may present at a conference and get fresh insight into your topic from another academic and be able to consider your research from a new angle. Someone else may see a connection or have an insight into your data that you have missed.

Remember that everyone is nervous at their first conference not only presenting their research, but also getting feedback on their findings. This is normal. You are combining public speaking with feedback from strangers who are very smart. It is best to accept beforehand that your first presentation is not going to be great. Almost everyone will have this experience. You might get negative feedback, but that is all part of the process. Your presentations will improve over time, and you will learn to handle negative feedback (see other post). Embrace the adrenaline rush that comes with presentations and learn from your mistakes, it’ll all get easier over time.

If you are nervous about negative feedback you may find this post about evaluation during a PhD useful.

New and Fresh Ideas

A final reason to attend conferences is to get new and fresh ideas. One of the best things about conferences is the energy that they create. I always walk away from conferences with a bunch of new ideas, and with a renewed excitement about my research. Not only are you going to present your own work you are also going to hear what other people are working on. You’ll hear the latest research in your field at conferences. You’ll talk with other people with whom you have similar research interests and ideas will just generate naturally.

One of the best ways to take advantage of the creative energy at conferences is to choose your panels wisely. This will be more difficult if you are at a large conference which can have dozens of simultaneous panels. There are a couple of ways to narrow down your choices.

Go to panels featuring academics you know about, particularly if you draw on their work often for your own research. You may not know the other people on the panel, but you will likely get a lot out of the panel if you are already familiar with one of the researchers presenting.

Don’t choose based solely on paper titles. Some academics are really good at coming up with eye-catching titles, but some are terrible with titles and the title sounds super boring. This is really a don’t judge a book by its cover scenario, and a good title does not always indicate a good paper. Instead try to chose sessions based on their connecting theme or the people that are going to attend. Is the over all theme of the panel something you are interested in and want to learn more about? Go to that panel.

Don’t just stick to your immediate area of research. If you do this likely there are very few panels that will apply. Go to panels that have different topic that interests you, likely it will be loosely related to what you do – after all you should be interested in your own research. Going to a variety of panels with interesting topics will give you more ideas and a wider view of your field. For instance, at a discipline wide conference I attended recently I went to panels that were related to my immediate research area, but I also went to panels on ways to effectively teach my subject. I got as much useful information out of these panels as I did out of the research related ones.

If they are available also go to fun panels. Some conferences will have more of these than others. Sometimes there are panels that feature the lighter side of academia and it is always good to see that. If a panel looks interesting and fun don’t discount it and not go because you don’t think it is “serious” enough or that others will think less of you for going. You are at the conference to network and learn, but you should also have some fun.

What should I keep in mind during my first conference?

Academic conferences are exhausting

Phew. Something to keep in mind particularly for your first couple of conferences is that conferences, are absolutely exhausting. If at the end of your first day of attending panels, networking, and attending some of the social events you feel exhausted at 9 PM and ready to fall face first into your pillow, that’s not unusual. Conferences are mentally, emotionally, and, depending on the campus, physically exhausting. You have been “on” all day listening to sometimes heavy academic talks, attempting to make conversation with a variety of people, and traipsing around an unfamiliar campus.

You are also likely to feel lost and uncertain as well. Most academics get lost in the crowds – its ok, just know that this feeling with go away as you attend more conferences, and get to know more people. Watch this video right here about such an experience:

Conferences are very taxing. My first couple conferences I was determined that I was going to keep to my regular fitness routine. I found, however, I did not have the time or energy to go for a run at the end of the day or go to the campus gym. There is so much going on during the conference and the energy the conference takes out of you is surprising. Keep this in mind if you find yourself unusually tired at the end of each day.

Make the most of it

Likely you will travel some distance to attend a conference. During the five years of my PhD I attended a dozen conferences. Only one conference was in the city where I did my PhD the rest required a day’s drive or lengthy flights. This aspect of conferences in and of itself can be exciting. I often attended conferences in places I had never been. Its best to make the most of this and schedule some time to experience the place you traveled to. You of course want to take advantage of the conference, but you may have little opportunity to visit this place again. For instance, I attended a conference in Madrid. The organizers of the conference scheduled some cultural outings that I took advantage of, but I also scheduled some time for myself to explore the city. After another conference in the UK my partner flew over and I appended a vacation to the end of the conference since I was already there.

This is a common thing for academics to do. They often take some time out of the conference or schedule some time before or after the conference to go sight-seeing and have a bit of a holiday. Conferences offer a unique opportunity to see a new place. In line with that, if you can try to bring as little outside work to the conference as you can. It makes it much easier to enjoy the conference and take advantage of all the conference and the surrounding area have to offer if you don’t have to worry about grading or writing deadlines. Sometimes this is impossible, but if it is possible try to take a step away from your work at home and immerse yourself in the conference.

Also remember to take some time for yourself. Not only to sight-see, but also to relax. Conferences can be exhausting and overwhelming, so it is okay to take a bit of a break. Go somewhere and have lunch or dinner on your own. Take time at night to regroup and decompress after being on all day. Embrace one of the few times you will be on your own with few responsibilities to anyone else.

Relax and take a deep breath, your first conference is an exciting time. Your first presentation may not be all you want it to be, but don’t let that ruin the full experience. You’ll get the hang of it with time and conferences will get more and more enjoyable. You’ll get to know new people, be on the cutting edge of new ideas in your field and get the opportunity to explore a new place. Make the most of your time at a conference and take advantage of all the conference and the venue have to offer.

If you want some more thoughts in how to deal with academia and PhD life, make sure you check out the following posts:

  1. An illustrative guide to writing a research paper.
  2. A guide on how to become a professor.
  3. How to find research topics that matter to you.

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