What's it Like to. . . Attend (and Present!) at a Conference During Your PhD?
A doctorate is about producing new research. Academic conferences are where new research gets communicated and discussed. So it’s no surprise that the two overlap, with conference presentation being an important ‘rite of passage’ for PhD students.
But what are these events actually like? And what can you expect? Melanie Brown recently had her own first experience of conference presentation. She shares her experiences – and advice – in this post.
Attending conferences and presenting at them can be challenging for experienced academics, so it’s no surprise that fresh PhD students may find them intimidating.
Below are some tips that will hopefully reassure you that conferences are an excellent opportunity to improve your research and network with fellow academics, not something to be shunned.
What to expect from your first conference
There is a perception of conferences as massive, week-long events with hundreds of people from all over the whole. For some conferences, this is true. For others, the event might be one day, with talks given by a group of experts to a smaller number of people.
Both conference types are equally valuable to attend: at larger and longer conferences you will hear a number of presentations from academics and experts at the top of your field, and will likely meet a number of people whose work relates to your PhD topic. At smaller conferences it is easier to get the chance to speak to an academic you admire, and some people feel calmer in quieter social settings.
There is also a perception of conferences as very formal affairs, which is not always the case by any means. At many, informal discussion and conversation is likely to continue over a relaxed meal, or a drink in the bar.
Basically, take everything you hear about conferences with a pinch of salt. Go along and find out for yourself; you could listen to a talk that changes the course of your research for the better.
Ten simple tips for attending a conference:
You’ll definitely want to attend at least one conference during your PhD – and probably several. Here are some ways to make the most of an event:
- Think carefully about the type of conference that you want to attend – do you prefer smaller meetings, or larger international conferences?
- If you only have the time or resources to attend one or two conferences a year, make them relevant. Go for events with a strong link to your PhD topic.
- But, if you can make it to a few events, be brave and consider attending a conference on a topic that is linked to your research, but not directly. It’s highly likely you’ll hear about research in a related field that sparks an idea for your own project, or places it in a new context.
- If there is information provided before the conference about the key speakers, read some of their recent work. I did this, and I felt much more comfortable knowing that I had a foundation of knowledge beforehand.
- As always, money matters! Whether you are self-funding your attendance, or if your university is providing the money, you need to check what you can afford. Travel and food all cost too, so remember to account for this in your budget.
- Regularly check places like Eventbrite and your university’s website for upcoming events near you that relate to your research, as you will network with local organisations and businesses that could generate potential collaboration or job prospects. Events do not have to be international to be worthwhile.
- Remember that the people presenting are just that, people. They might have been nervous during their presentation and may welcome you coming up to them during a break and telling them you found their presentation interesting.
- Ask questions. Horror stories circulate online warning that asking questions at conferences will get you metaphorically mauled by the academics. Whilst there are difficult people in all fields, I do not believe that academics as a whole are like this. As long as your question is well-intended and sensible, ask it!
- Be courteous. If there is a presentation you are not interested in, or a speaker whose presenting style does not suit you, smile anyway and look attentive. This is my personal opinion, and I think I might be the minority on this, but seeing a room full of people looking at their phones during your presentation is not encouraging, so do not be one of those people. Smile at all speakers and be kind, hopefully they will return the favour when you present.
- The final tip I can offer you is this: there is always something new to learn, however experienced or inexperienced you are. Be open to someone’s research challenging your own, or using a methodology that is not the ‘done thing’ in your field.
Presenting as a PhD student – my experience
I recently gave a short talk on copyright law at my faculty’s PGR conference. I felt very anxious beforehand, but the presentation went well and I felt a huge sense of accomplishment afterwards. It was a nice way to ease myself into the process of preparing for, and delivering, an academic presentation.
I had spent the weekend before rehearsing my script, but as is always the way, I ended up improvising depending on what the audience seemed to response more to. This was only possible as I knew my topic well, so preparation is vital!
Top ten tips for presenting at a conference:
Thinking ahead to your own conference ‘debut’? Here are some tips, based on my experience:
- Most importantly: rehearse your presentation so that you know it well. People might have travelled a long way for this conference, do not waste their time by under-preparing.
- Be ready for technical hitches. Computers die, memory sticks fail and microphones emit awful high-pitched squeaks. You are going to have to roll with it sometimes!
- You can only improve through practice. The first presentation you ever give is not going to be your best one, and this is the same for every esteemed academic in your field. So try to present as much as possible.
- Be aware of the audience. If it is a specialist group of academics you can use specialist terms without explanation; but a non-specialist audience will not be able to follow your argument if they do not understand the terms you are using.
- Related to the tips above for attending a conference, remember that a lack of questions from the audience does not mean that your presentation wasn’t good. A lot of people feel awkward asking questions publically, or (like me) they think about that was said for a few minutes and form questions later.
- Keep to your allocated time. It disrupts the entire day’s scheduling if you run over, and no one will thank you for that.
- Dress however you feel most comfortable. Some speakers prefer formal suits, and others at the same conference prefer jeans and a jumper. A genuinely engaged audience is more interested in what you are saying than what you are wearing.
- Remember that you will not die from a bad presentation. If it does go wrong, brush yourself off and hold your head high: you did your best, and you can learn how to be better for your next presentation.
- If you get asked a question you cannot answer, or you do not understand the question, it is perfectly acceptable for you to say ‘That’s a really interesting question that I’d love to explore further. Could we discuss this more in the next break?’
- Smile at the audience. I find it helps to calm your nerves, and it makes the audience smile back at you.
At the end of the day, presenting at a conference is just one of the many new experiences you’ll enjoy during a PhD. Make the most of it!
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