Written by Hannah Slack
You might have already heard about academic conferences if you did a Masters. You might even have attended one. But why are they so important to PhD students? And how do you make the most of them?
This page will give you an introduction to the different sorts of conferences you might attend and the types of presentations you could give.
What is an academic conference?
A PhD conference is an event where researchers and professionals gather to present their latest work. The day is mostly made up of hour-long topic panels that combine similarly themed presentations into one slot. Panels are then followed up by a question and answer session, allowing attendees to engage and discuss their thoughts with the presenter. Other forms of presentation include posters, more commonly done by students and early career researchers. The event is then usually ended with a longer talk from the keynote speaker, a well-respected researcher in their discipline.
There are a few different types of conferences, though most follow a similar format.
An academic conference is the most common type that you will come across. These follow the standard format of panels and question sessions followed by a keynote speaker. Academic conferences can be small events run over a couple of days or can be larger, running up to a week depending on the organiser. Organisers can be single academics, a group of researchers, or a large-scale funder.
An annual meeting is very similar to an academic conference, and sometimes the names are used interchangeably. Organisers are mostly funding bodies, experiment groups or societies. The general format is usually the same as a conference but will highlight talks from new board members.
Postgraduate conferences are organised by students for students, though some funders will also run these events. Most talks come from students, Masters or PhD, and only the keynote speaker will be an academic. These are a great, more informal, introduction to conferencing.
Why should PhD students attend conferences?
While there is no set amount of conferences you should attend during your PhD, it is recommended you go to at least a couple. The first year is a great opportunity to dip in with a postgraduate conference, before attending larger scale events later in your studies.
Writing multiple papers and attending events might seem like it’s taking time away from your dissertation, but it can actually be extremely beneficial to your research and future career.
Presenting at conferences, particularly ones for postgraduate students, is an excellent way to test out your ideas and theories. Any questions you receive could identify areas you haven’t considered in your research, or aspects that may need clarifying. Some attendees might also have literature recommendations that will help strengthen your knowledge of the field.
Benefit to research career
Your future career can greatly benefit from these events as they provide another opportunity for you to engage with the research field. Presenting at conferences looks great on an academic CV as it shows you’re already invested and active in the community.
Another important aspect of conferences is networking. If you’re planning on applying for academic roles after completing a PhD then this step is vital. When an academic knows you and your research they might be more likely to reach out to you if an appropriate opportunity presents itself. Networking will also help you keep up to date with who’s working in your field. This is a key component of working in academia and there are several things you can do to make the most of attending a conference.
Types of conference presentation
As already mentioned, there are many different types of presentations you can give at a conference. Below are the most common ones for PhD students.
Short papers are a 10 to 15 minute talk followed by a 5 minute question and answer session. For Arts and Humanities students, this is the most common form of presentation you will do. Those researching a science-based subject are less likely to give presentations, unless at a postgraduate conference. Depending on the speed you talk, a short paper will be between 1,000 to 2,000 words. Some presenters will choose to read their paper, accompanied by a PowerPoint, whereas others will have cue cards.
Exactly the same format as a short paper, a long paper is simply longer. They are usually around half an hour. Students who present long form papers will most likely be in the end stages of their PhD.
More common in science-based subjects, posters are presented during a poster session. A room will be set up with multiple posters and attendees will have about an hour to walk around and view those of interest. This casual style of presentation enables more informal discussion between the presenters and the audience members.
How to apply for an academic conference
When a conference is looking for presenters, they will send out a Call for Papers (CFP) or a Call for Abstracts (CFA). To apply you’ll be required to choose what type of presentation you want to give and submit an abstract of your talk or poster. Some conferences won’t ask you to choose a presentation format but will assign you one if you’re accepted.
Many conferences will have a theme, so make sure your paper fits. That way you’ll be more likely to be accepted.
An abstract is a summary of a talk or poster. Around 300 words long, you will be expected to summarise the purpose of the study, what was investigated, the methodology, and your general findings. This is so the organisers know roughly what to expect from your presentation.
In addition to an abstract you might be asked to provide a brief academic biography. This allows the presenters to know who you are, what your research in concerned with and what institution you represent. The biography will also be used to introduce you and your presentation if you are successful.
Funding and grants
Attending conferences can involve a lot of travel which can get expensive. That’s why many funding bodies, universities and conference organisers often have travel grants available to PhD students. A conference will make it known in their Call for Papers if they are offering travel grants. Often these are prioritised for those travelling internationally or self-funded students. You can also check with your university or funding body as most have budgets specifically intended for conference travel. Read our guides to PhD funding to learn more about the variety of funding options on offer.
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Last Updated: 11 December 2023