Participating in academic conferences can be a really rewarding part of life as a researcher. They are a great way to join in conversations with academic peers and stay up to date about advances in your field. They also offer networking opportunities that may help you to advance your publication and employment prospects. Your work doesn’t need to be polished or finished, in fact work in progress can be hugely developed through expert feedback.
Choosing the conferences you think will be beneficial for you isn’t a simple calculation. It is not always the best idea to aim for the largest, highest profile events. Smaller conferences that you know key people will attend, with a theme that fits your work well and where networking opportunities will be less intimidating can be a great option for a PhD student.
Can be high profile
Possibility to meet important people
Look good on your CV
More chance to meet/ engage with others present
Networking is less intimidating
More opportunity to present papers/ organise panels
Can be overwhelming and hard to navigate
Requires lots of planning to meet people
Harder to get accepted onto high profile panels
It's hard to 'hide'!
Can be less impressive on your CV
It's worth thinking strategically as you plan which conferences you would like to attend, specifically consider if there is a 'hierarchy' of conferences in your discipline, and if conferences have associated publications that you would like to submit papers to.
Conferences are not spectator sports so make sure you do submit an abstract! Once you know you will attend, go through the conference information with a fine tooth comb to see if any student presentation prizes are on offer. You will need to submit your paper specifically to be considered for this, so look for deadlines. If you are selected you could win a financial prize, or even be given specialist help to develop your paper for publication.
Your department or graduate school may offer grants, or information about where to apply for grants. However, most conferences also offer limited student travel grants but to be considered you will need to have a paper accepted and apply for the funding so organization is key. If you do win funding to finance conference attendance make sure to keep good records, this information will all be key to profiling your experience when it comes to job applications, and is almost impossible to recall accurately after the event!
Accommodation will be a considerable expense and the conference hotel will typically be very costly. If you feel it is important to be in the middle of the action, look for peers who you could share a room with. Check out the location of panels, workshops and conference meals – they may not even be hosted at the hotel in which case looking for cheaper options makes even more sense. It’s also worth remembering some conferences offer reduced rates for volunteers, but you should be sure you will get the time off you need for it to be worthwhile!
Conferences can be totally overwhelming! It’s a good idea to decide on a handful of aims such as meeting someone, presenting a paper, and attending a few key talks. If you know someone you are keen to meet will be at the conference, email them ahead of time and ask for a meeting. Leaving it to chance or ‘grabbing’ them at the conference may work at a small event but will be almost impossible at a large, busy event. Remember, for established academics conferences can be a yearly opportunity to meet up with long lost friends or antagonists and they may actually attend very few of the panels, or be continually surrounded.
Take business cards
Plan an ‘elevator speech’ (a clear outline of your research to fill a 30 second/ 2 minute chance encounter conversation)
If you are thinking about publishing pay attention to who the editors of the journals you aspire to are. Big conferences often host sessions for important journals, but editors will also be presenting work, chairing panels or running graduate workshops. Introduce yourself to editors, use your ‘elevator speech’ and business cards. Let them know that you would be happy to review submissions in your field - they make take you up on the offer.
Most conferences run parallel sessions so it will be impossible to see everything. Fortunately you won’t have to carry around a hefty schedule with you since most conferences now have planning apps that you can download. Although there will be loads that is interesting, be restrained in your plans! For example, select the sessions that are in your field, and then chose something new to learn about. Going to everything will leave you exhausted and unable to engage.
Look for graduate student skills or networking workshops. Go to them, engage and try to make a good impression. Typically they are led by senior academics that hold important positions within these conference and publication networks. You may also meet others in your position whose work interests or helps you and who may become future collaborators or co-authors.
A - Engage People
Try to avoid the temptation to cluster with people that you know for the entire conference. Look for groups to join, talk to those sat next you in panels and try to expand your network. Use your business cards! Don’t feel anxious about approaching senior academics, tell them if their work is important for your research, or if you are looking for reviewers. Watch out for other people who look lost, you can either gang together or you can introduce them to people and help them have a better time. Go to the conference meal. Talk to people. Dance!
B - Get involved in discussions
If you are nervous about asking questions pay attention to how other people frame them, you could note down some of your own ‘mad libs’! Always be constructive and respectful in your comments. If you find yourself in a poorly attended session or with presenters who have not given a great talk, try to offer some feedback or ask questions. You may spark a helpful debate or raise an issue that is helpful for them and you will improve your own confidence.
Many conferences now have a team of dedicated ‘tweeters’ who are usually people that are established in the network. Tweeting about sessions you are in serves two purposes. Firstly, it will force you to pay close attention to the message of the session and secondly, it will be a way for you to familiarise yourself with the other ‘tweeters’. Take your professional online persona very seriously, be courteous.
Record, if you haven’t already, details of the conference, your presentation and panel titles, and any funding you secured on your database.
Leave it a couple of days and email the people that you made contact with to follow up. Remind them who you are. Don’t let business cards gather dust.
Networking at academic conferences
Emily Sohn writes for Nature; 'Hello Stranger - Networking at Conferences'