Maximising Your Conference Experience
Academic conferences may not top most people’s Summer Perks list, but for PGRs the summer months are peak conference season. Maybe not be as relaxing as a holiday, but they almost always involve travel, adventure, and meeting cool new people; and if you’re hailing from Scotland like us, they will certainly be in a sunnier place! A bit of organisation will go a long way to get the most out of the experience.
Step 1: Define your goals
In first year, you may want to attend a conference to catch up on the current state of your field. Once you’ve gathered some data of your own you will want to present your work, whereas in final year conferences are excellent opportunities to network and find a new job. Clearly these are very different aims, so to choose a fitting conference you’ll need to have a think about what you want to achieve.
Aim #1: Learning new stuff
When you are just starting out, conferences allow you to get acquainted with your field, learn who the key opinion leaders are that you may want to follow more closely, and generally get inspired about becoming part of this professional society. An important decision is whether you’ll benefit most from a conference that covers a broader range of topics to get introduced to the wider field, or go for a more specialised meeting that helps you dive right into the depths of your PhD topic.
Many conferences have parallel sessions, so pick the ones that will be most useful to you. Hold on to your abstract book for dear life: this is a great resource with summaries of the talks you attended, but ensure to make effective notes on what is not covered in the abstracts and what you would like to look up once you get home. Equally, jot down key messages from the poster sessions and the (contact) details of people you met for future reference or to get in touch later.
Aim #2: Present your work
There are many different aspects about presenting your own work at conferences. As we all work on focused topics that only a few people in the world are specialised in, you don’t often get the chance to meet face to face and chat about your work, so really try to make the most of it. On one hand, this will enable you to gather feedback on your approach, techniques, and findings. Equally, it presents an opportunity to make a name for yourself and your work and establish yourself in the field. I’ve written separate blogs on How to Impress with Your Conference Research Poster and How to Give a Winning Research Presentation if you are looking for specific tips.
Aim #3: Find a job
When the final stages of your PhD are approaching, conferences present great opportunities to find a new job. Many supervisors receive dozens of emails a week from people interested in working with them, so it is much more effective to talk to them in person. Set up a meeting beforehand and indicate that you’d like to discuss future opportunities. Don’t take this informal chat lightly: it may not be a real interview, but will certainly play a role in whether they will seriously consider you, so prepare appropriately. Definitely chat to members of their research group too, as they’ll know what the day-to-day in the department and place of work is actually like. Finally, don’t be shy to ask your supervisor for help in arranging these chats – this is the key time to make the most of their network and reputation.
Even if you’re not interested in an academic career, conferences are useful for your job search. Depending on your field, there will likely be editors from journals, people working in the related industries, funding sector, etcetera. They will undoubtedly attend the conference with clear professional goals and have many meetings planned, so ensure to get in touch well in advance with a representative of the company or organisation to ask if one of their staff will attend and whether they have time to meet you.
If your conference is in (or close to) a cool place, why not add a cheeky few days to your trip for some #PGRSelfcare? Cia recently had a conference in Toronto and couldn't pass on the opportunity to visit Niagara Falls!
Step 2: Gather the funds
You may have a part of your grant or department budget allocated for travel and conferences, but I’d still suggest applying for travel grants. These look great on your CV, as they imply you pro-actively seek for opportunities and have experience in writing grants – which will be greatly appreciated in academia. But it’s equally valuable if you want to go towards a more business-focused profession: being able to display that professional organisations believe in you enough to sponsor you in your endeavours is always a good sign.
Your graduate school at UofG should have a budget to provide support for conference attendance. Additionally, professional organisations in your field also often offer travel grants. Note that you usually have to be a member of the organisation for a year prior to applying, so make sure to join them early on in your PhD to benefit from these schemes. Finally, many conferences and workshops provide their own travel grants for selected attendees.
Step 3: Take care of your safety
It is likely that you will travel to unknown places for some of your conferences – which is a major part of the fun! However, usual travel rules apply regarding your safety: be sensible with valuables, exploring alone or at night, interacting with strangers, etc. Don’t forget that the university offers a free of charge institutional travel insurance policy that covers PGR students – just ensure to fill in these forms well in advance.
Another point I want to touch upon is appropriate behaviour. I fully recommend that you join the dinners, pub sessions, and conference parties, as lots of the “bonding” and networking happens after the official programme ends. But never lose sight of the fact that you’re at a professional event and the way you conduct yourself will reflect on your reputation.
Another stop on Cia's list: Ottawa! You can just make out the Canadian Parliament in the background.
Step 4: Follow up
The journey doesn’t end when you get home. Make sure to take the time to go through your notes and convert them into action points while your memory is still fresh. If you’ve made any promises to send people a paper, protocol, or something else – follow up on them. If someone was interested in your work, forward them your paper once the work is published. Send thank-you emails to people that gave you valuable advice. All of this may seem a bit pretentious or superfluous, but it’s all about building your network.
Finally, think about what you learned about your research and life going forward. What talks did you find inspiring and why? Which research avenues and topics interested you? Did any put you to sleep? Was there anyone who was genuinely supportive, interested, and knowledgeable that you’d like to remain in touch with? Thinking about these questions will help you determine what direction you want your research to take in the future, and who you’d like to work with. Equally, if you’ve been to a couple conferences and have been uninspired by the research, the people, and the general vibe – maybe it’s an indication that this direction isn’t for you. That, too, is vital to realise so that you can use your remaining PGR time to figure out what you do feel passionate about and develop the relevant skills to flourish in that area!
Happy conference season, y’all! Tweet us any tips of your own at @UofG_PGRBlog.