Academic conferences can seem daunting, especially for PhD students and early career researchers. However, these events are supremely useful to students, academics and professionals at all stages of their career. This article will explore why academic conferences are so useful, and how to prepare for them.
Papers and research
Conferences are the place to hear about cutting edge research, no matter what your field of study is. Attending a conference means that you will hear colleagues in the same or similar fields speak about what they are working on. Conferences offer the chance to share and test new ideas and concepts. Think of the academic conference as an ideas exchange – you will learn from the academics around you, and get quality feedback on your research, should you give a paper. For PhD students, the academic conference is a great place to practice talking about your own research and your ideas, in an environment where people are personally and professionally interested in what you have to say.
If the word networking alone makes you want to hide in a dark room, do not worry. For lots of people, the very idea of networking puts them on edge. Academic conferences however, provide the perfect place to network, without it feeling like networking. Everyone is there because of a mutual interest in the field. Even the most established academics are human too – go and talk to them, listen to what they have to say. Being with such like minded people can be an energising experience, giving your own research a boost. Especially for PhD students, for whom the research process can be a lonely road, getting out of the lab or the library and meeting people who are as excited and interested in your work and your field as you are, can be fantastically refreshing and invigorating.
Most conferences have informal spaces too, away from the papers, panels and keynote speeches. Either conference dinners, post conference drinks, even the coffee and lunch breaks. Most people find these moments the ideal time to get talking and to network. And if you have given a paper, delegates will come and chat to you about your paper in the coffee breaks or during the post conference drinks. From here natural and relaxed conversations will begin about your research and theirs too. Ask them questions, open a dialogue, leading to constructive feedback, encouragement for your work, and even plans for future collaboration.
Thinking of the conference as a safe space to test ideas, means that as you listen to other papers, you are expanding your knowledge not only of the most up to date research, but also who exactly is in the field. Getting to know people, what they do, where they work, is crucial when entering the job market. The academic conference expands your knowledge of the current work in the field, but also of the landscape of academia itself.
Presenting at a conference
For any academic or PhD student, presenting at a conference is both useful and daunting. Even the most established researchers and academics suffer from nerves before they speak. In a room full of experts, giving a paper can feel intimidating. You can prepare for it though, with these simple tips.
- Practice your paper before you go. Stand up in your office, or at home, and practice your paper out loud.
- Time your paper. Most conferences allow a designated 20 minute slot per paper. You should not go over this time as there will be a tight schedule that the conference is running to.
- Write your paper to come in under 20 minutes, aim for 17 or 18 minutes. This way, you have some leeway for any technological problems, and this also allows for a smooth crossover between one paper and the next.
- Keep technological aspects simple. If you have a PowerPoint presentation for example, keep slides minimal. People cannot read many paragraphs of text on a slide, and listen to you at the same time. Instead you can bullet point key terms, use images, graphs, or infographics.
- It is absolutely fine to read from a script. Have your paper in full, typed and printed out, which you can either read directly from or refer to. Or you might prefer to read from cue cards.
- Take your time when speaking. For those who get nervous about public speaking, it can be tempting to race through your paper to get it over with. Instead, take breaths, slow down, speak clearly. The delegates all want to hear what you have to say.
- Take a notepad and pen with you. When you listen to everyone else’s paper, you will want to make notes, remember names, institutions, or contact details.
- After a panel, there is usually a Q & A. If a delegate asks you a question, take this as a good sign that they are interested in your research. Take your time with your answer, and make notes if you need to.
- Get some business cards made. Yes, this smacks of that networking thing again – but they can be useful to have to hand for when you are chatting to other delegates.
So while attending academic conferences might seem time consuming, expensive and even intimidating, the benefits are excellent. You will develop your own skills while learning from others. You will meet other people in your field, from other institutions, from around the world. You will make friends and professional contacts. You will hear cutting edge research and get quality feedback on your own work. And above all, you are putting yourself out there, where fellow academics will get to know you and your work, which is essential for your future in academia.