Top tips for attending a conference for the first time

As a PhD student, it is inevitable that you’ll have opportunities to attend academic conferences. I’m in science (biomedical research specifically), and while the content may differ, all conferences are the same thing really – a chance for people to present current, novel work to people in their field, to network with peers/experts/friends, to make new contacts and discuss potential collaborations, and of course to drink and be merry. It’s a bit like Christmas really…you get to see people you haven’t seen all year and have a good time, and learn about science at the same time!

For some, the prospect of being thrown in front of many people (Daniel in the lions den so to speak (rich coming from an atheist)), whether it be to present a poster, short talk, or longer talk, or just to attend the conference, can be quite a daunting thought. I’m fortunate enough to have been to many conferences in my time as a PhD student, and I thoroughly enjoy going to them!

I’ve put together a list of what I consider top tips for attending your first conference (or any subsequent conference if you aren’t a big fan of them or people!).

    1. Enjoy it. Enjoying the experience is by far one of the most important factors of attending a conference. You are there, of course, primarily to gain knowledge from presentations by experts and peers in your field of research, but having a good time while you’re there is a must. There is no easier way to learn so much, in such a short space of time, than attending a conference, but with that said, it is not necessarily the be all and end all of the event. There are endless opportunities to network, to engage, and to really get to know the people that you may very well hold in high regard (and they will probably turn out to be (quite) human after all!). Of course, conferences can feel very formal, particularly, for example, gala dinner events where the heading ‘black tie’ can be very off putting, but most are friendly, relatively low key and really supportive environments. If you are presenting, I know it can be a nerve-wracking experience, but once the presentation is over you will feel so much more relaxed…so just go and enjoy yourself!
    2. Talk to people. Ok, for some people, this is easier said than done, but for me it is one of the most important things (apart from enjoying the whole thing of course, hence why it’s number 2). Conferences are a prime opportunity to get yourself known by face. It is all well and good knowing people by name, but there is nothing like being able to stand face to face and have even a small chat with them. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of making yourself known to people, as this will come back on you positively for sure. If you’re a bit nervous, and you’re attending the conference with your supervisor, or colleague, then taking them with you is not a bad move, but don’t just let the opportunity slip to introduce yourself. Make sure to shake hands (even if they don’t offer to first!), and get some contact details if you think they could be useful for the future. Business cards are a great opportunity to make another mark for yourself here – why not design your own, and give them to people while you’re there. It isn’t something commonly done by PhD students, but makes you stand out and gives them a reason to remember you.
    3. Go to the talks/posters and engage. The main advantage of going to a conference is to broaden your academic knowledge base of current work in your field, without having to trawl through hundreds of papers. You can just visit the poster/talk and see whats going on. If it is of interest, follow it up with them directly, or in the literature. If it isn’t, then nothing lost! Talking to the poster presenters is a great way to quickly get some inside info on the project/area, and you’d be surprised at how open people and projects really are (unless there are IP issues of course). The main thing here is not to come across as the arrogant, over confident, uninterested person, there only to be super critical of their work. Don’t forget that most poster presenters are students, and/or early career researchers, and could probably do without being excessively grilled (they’re there to try and enjoy the conference too!). The good thing with poster sessions is that you can read the title/abstract and then get a gist of whats going on, and if it isn’t of much interest, move on to the next (but be polite and compliment (where appropriate) the presenter on their efforts!). If attending an oral session, engagement is somewhat more formal, and takes the form of a q&a section after the talk. It can be daunting enough asking a question, but if you’re brave enough (and don’t forget, theres no such thing as a stupid question!), ask away and other people may benefit form their answer too! Otherwise, find them after the session and have a chat (see no. 2 above).
    4. Dress for the occasion. It might seem quite a trivial thing, and it is something that I struggle with if I’m honest…even now; more than 3 years into my PhD. I never know whether to wear jeans and a t-shirt, shirt and trousers, suit….and it can be easy to over- or under-dress depending on the conference. For a small meeting, I would suggest smart casual. For a larger conference, or on the day you are presenting irrespective of conference size, I would say dress up a bit. Maybe not necessarily suit and tie, but certainly consider suit without tie, or shirt and tie with no jacket etc. For females, I think it’s somewhat easier – a smart-ish dress, trousers and smart-ish top.. you can’t really go wrong for smart casual! Just be wary not to over or under do it.

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