Surviving Your First Conference

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Fredrick Blanc

Postgraduate research is, more often than not, a rather solitary activity. Whether you are reading on a particular topic, your desk increasingly becoming an impregnable castle the fortifications of which are constructed from countless books, articles and scribbled-in notebooks, or writing up a given section or chapter of your thesis in a caffeine-fuelled daze, you might find yourself doing so alone. Maybe. This rather hyperbolic description notwithstanding, academic research is not always synonymous with seclusion. Indeed, one of the important staples of academic life is the academic conference, that bubble of networking frenzy where early-career researchers and veteran scholars gather together to showcase their research and findings. 

Spanning from a single day symposium to a full-week extravaganza, these conferences can be quite intimidating to new PhD students who find themselves thrust into new, unfamiliar territories. Between meeting and interacting with new people, some of whom may be significant academics in your field, taking in all the interesting presentations and plenaries, as well as the simple logistics of getting there in the first place, conferences can be a LOT. Yet, fear not, dear reader, here are a few advice to help you survive these strange waters.

1. Go to a small conference first

Depending on your field, there are a lot of conferences happening throughout the year, both within and without the United Kingdom. For your first one, don’t feel like you need to attend the big biennale conference on the other side of the globe, with its 500+ attendees and 100£ entry fee. Smaller symposia, often organised by fellow postgraduate students, can be equally rewarding and the smaller scale means more informal interaction and discussion. It’s a great way to start meeting like-minded scholars in your field and to build the first nodes of your network. Moreover, these will likely be closer to your university as well as significantly cheaper.

2. Don’t present a paper at your first conference (or do if you feel confident about it!)

Publish or Perish is, sadly, a real thing in contemporary academia and, in the years to come, you will increasingly feel the pressure to present at a number of conferences every year as well as write articles or reviews for their corresponding journals. But for your first one, it’s better to just come and observe, take in your new surroundings without the mounting pressure of your presentation. Indeed, especially at first, you’ll probably find yourself distracted by your own impeding presentation and will have little mental space to properly listen to the presentations of others. So, think of your first conference as a first contact with the larger field of academic practices, as a way to get into the rhythm of panels and keynotes and coffee breaks. Pay attention to the way these are organised and when you finally get to deliver a paper, you’ll be in familiar waters.

3. Prepare for the conference

As soon as you receive the schedule for the conference, make a list of the panels you wish to attend. Have a good look at the abstracts and start thinking of some questions in advance. That way when you arrive at the conference you’ll know exactly where you need to go and you can devote yourself to listening to the talks you are really interested in. Take notes and remember to look at them again when you come back from the conference. Pay particular attention to the presenter’s sources and bibliographies as these might prove invaluable later on. Finally, and this may increasingly prove itself an unpopular opinion in academic circles, don’t live-tweet. More on this in a later article, but suffice to say that, while some say it makes you more attentive, I rather think it distracts you from the actual presentation. Just listen to the presenter, they deserve your full attention.

4. Don’t be afraid to mingle (but don’t feel pressured to talk to everyone)!

As I said, conferences can be a daunting affair for new researchers. With lots of new people to introduce yourself to, many of them established academics with whom you really want the first impression to be a good one, it can get a little scary. The reality is a lot more nuanced. For most academics, these conferences represent a breath fresh air in the solitude of research where they can meet up their stranded colleagues. They are all rather eager to discuss their area of interest in a warm and informal atmosphere. Scholars are people too, you know? So, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself, ask them about their research and, most importantly stay for drinks at the end of the day. Indeed, most conferences will have social events at the end of every day. These will usually involve a fair bit of wine or beer and the best opportunity to really engage in meaningful conversations with the people you met during the day. It’s a great moment to network in an informal fashion and cool off after a long day of listening and note-taking.

5. Don’t be afraid, you have every right to be there

Finally, the imposter syndrome is a real thing too and you might find yourself unsure about going to a conference in the first place. Lay these fears aside, you have every right to be there, for the academics you will encounter are your peers. Simply put, if you are a postgraduate student, then you have already earned your seat at the table. You have survived your undergraduate and your taught postgraduate degrees and have found your way to the PhD. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise and don’t be afraid.

Conferences, then, are a great way to reinforce your confidence and be inspired by the work and words of others, as well as share your own views with other academics. They are a great way of meeting fellow scholars and break with the solitude of research and, finally, they are fun. Now sit back and enjoy the panel, as well as the ale at the end!