Your first conference

This post is by Kirsty Nash. Kirsty is originally from the UK.  She moved to Townsville in 2002 and completed a MAppSci in Tropical Marine Ecology at James Cook University. She then spent a number of years doing field research in association with Seychelles Marine Park Authority, and teaching college courses in marine biology and oceanography in the Caribbean. In 2009 she returned to Australia, completing a a PhD at James Cook University.  After a 1 year post-doc at James Cook University, she recently moved to the Centre for Marine Socioecology at the University of Tasmania.

Choosing, presenting and networking at your first conference can be a stressful proposition – here are nine tips to negotiating the experience:

Choosing the conference

  1. Good things come in small packages. Choosing the biggest conference isn’t always the best policy, yes all your academic gods may be there, but chances are you won’t meet them. Big conferences can be hard to navigate due to numerous parallel sessions; smaller meetings give you more opportunity to network and attend all the talks you are interested in.
  2. Go it alone. It may seem like a good idea to join up with all your friends and attend the same conference, but often this will inhibit your networking rather than enhance it. When push comes to shove most of us tend to stick with those we know rather than take the leap by approaching new people. Staying at one of the conference recommended hotels will help you meet other people, as will attending events arranged specifically for PhD students.

Preparing for the conference

  1. All the world’s a stage. Presenting at a conference is scary, but if you don’t present anything no one knows who you are or what you do, as a result you will have to initiate every interaction you have with other researchers. So, although it may not seem like it, presenting will make your life less stressful in the long run. As for choosing a poster vs. a talk, the poster may be the less intimidating option but do some research on when/where the poster sessions are likely to be before you go this route; the first conference I attended, my poster languished in an out of the way room with no through traffic, as a result only a few people came to have a look at all my hard work.
  2. Stalking is a good thing. Who do you want to listen to, meet, talk to or get advice from? Spend some time with the conference program choosing the most important people and creating a timetable of their talks. Do some research on them. Chances are when you introduce yourself to people at a conference their time will be limited so prepare and practice a 4 point intro about yourself: who you are, your institution, what you study, and why it is important.  If possible, tailor the importance statement to each person so they immediately know why they should be interested in meeting you.
  3. Set goals. My supervisor gave me this advice before my first conference and it is something I have stuck to ever since – the conference will pass by in a flash of stress, information overload and probably beer, so make sure you have 3-4 goals picked out that you need to achieve during the week. For example: 1) give talk, 2) meet Prof X, and 3) participate in PhD student committee. This will ensure you really get something out of the conference and it will help satisfy whoever funds you that you took the opportunity seriously.

At the conference

  1. Pace yourself. By the end of the conference you will be overwhelmed by new ideas and information. If you are starting to tune out of talks, take a short break.
  2. Tweet it. Tweeting at conferences has multiple benefits: 1) it forces you to pay attention and tease out the key messages of each talk, 2) in following the conference hashtag, you can easily link up with other scientists who are interested in the same research topics as you, and 3) it starts to build an audience for your research.
  3. Question time. Asking a question in front of a room full of people can be daunting, so prepare. Listen to other people’s questions – what makes a good or a bad question? What types of question stimulate discussions? What language are people using that makes a clear, concise question? By learning from others you will be ready to go when you have a question to ask.

After the conference

  1. Follow up. Don’t forget to follow up with new contacts after the conference so they are more likely to remember you in the future, but remember that scientists are generally overwhelmed by emails so don’t fill up their inbox with useless messages.

Related posts

5 ways to poster = fail

5 classic research presentation mistakes

12 thoughts on “Your first conference

  1. Some great nuggets here. I was fortunate enough to present (a poster) at an international conference at the start of my second year as PhD candidate. What Kirsty discusses above were all topics that come up during conversations with my Supervisor. Despite having 20 years industry experience that required speaking to many different (and different types) of people, that occurred in a much more intimate setting. Conferences are a whole different beast. One thing I would like more of them to do is to make available attendee lists, and not just of speakers – tip #4 is key one, and the bigger the conference the harder it will be to just happen to run into someone we hoped we would. And definitely live-tweet. It keeps a record of the important points in sessions and makes us more visible. However, the Europeans have some work to do in this area (ie. have more attendees tweeting and interacting).

    Happy conferencing!

  2. Thank you for this. Like Stephen Porter I have plenty of experience in my former professional setting of giving trainings, seminars and presentations but am about to head to my second ever academic conference and this post is a real boost. Other tips I’ve been given which I think are worth sharing:
    1) Ref tip 4 – you could also contact people you really want/need to meet in advance of the conference to let them know you will be there, are looking forward to their presentation and maybe offer to buy them a coffee/beer!
    2) Get business cards printed so you have something physical to hand to someone you meet – works as a good complement to social media connecting as suggested in the article
    3) Try and attend at least one session on something that’s new to you to get out of your own ‘bubble’ (also known as ‘silo’!)
    4) Support your fellow students/colleagues where possible by attending their sessions, even if they aren’t speaking on your speciality.
    5) Be constructive in the questions you ask/comments you make.

    And the best piece of advice I’ve had so far:
    6) Never apologise about your work! You have as much right to be at that conference as anyone else. Start by saying what you plan to do in your presentation firmly and clearly. Then keep to time. Don’t lose your confidence during the Q&A. And remember: the audience does not know what it is you don’t know!
    (This and some of the points above adapted from a fantastic seminar by Professor Vandra Masemann at the University of Toronto, Sep 2015)

  3. Nice tips, they should be useful to Ph.D. students attending their first conference.

    About halfway through my own Ph.D., I attended two conferences and afterwards decided to summarize what worked well before, during and after a conference – which can be found here:

  4. I went to my first conference between my MSc and my PhD. I was the only person there from my university and I was terrified! My supervisor contacted some of her colleagues/collaborators before the conference, explaining that I would be there to present our work, and would they keep an eye out for me? This made it much less scary for me to approach people at the events, because I knew I was expected, and they were very happy to help introduce me to more people. This might be a good strategy for other overwhelmed and anxious people, especially those attending without supervisors/ more senior colleagues. You can still capitalise on their connections, even if they are not there!

    As an unrelated tip, don’t be so focused on chasing big names that you pass up opportunities to meet and spend time with other PhD students. Especially if you do not have a large research group at your home university, “conference friends” can become a valuable extended peer group. They will also be your colleagues in the future!

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