So you’re going to a conference…

University of BristolJames Hickey is a final year PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences. His research is focused on unravelling the mechanisms that cause volcanoes to become restless prior to eruptions. Ultimately, the aim is to improve our understanding of precursory signals to enhance forecasting and mitigation efforts.

Throughout the course of a PhD, it’s highly likely you’ll have the chance to present your research at a conference. The lead-up to a conference can be a little stressful as you (probably) rush to get your poster or presentation finished. This is especially true if the abstract deadline was 6 months before the actual conference and you ambitiously included work that wasn’t quite finished (or even started) yet (I may or may not be speaking from experience here…).

As I’m now reaching the end of my PhD journey I thought I would share some hints and tips that may be useful for new (or experienced) PhD students facing up to an imminent conference.

So, in no particular order, and with the proviso that I am certainly no conference-specialist:

1. Plan!

This is a bit boring, but it definitely helps. Before you go, search through the sessions and work out what talks and posters you want to visit. Start by targeting specific sessions and then go into the details. Getting this stuff done early will help you to identify times when you’re going to be most busy with science, and the other times where you can be open to other opportunities.

2. Who else is going?

A second part of the planning stage should be to work out who else is going to the conference. Maybe the person you’ve been citing repeatedly in a literature review is going to be there, or perhaps you’ve been using a method developed by someone who is also going to be there. Figure this stuff out and make an effort to speak to them. Then, on a more social side, if any of your friends from undergraduate studies (or otherwise) are also going, it’s the perfect chance to catch up over dinner while your supervisor (hopefully) foots the bill.

3. Network!

This point also links to the one above, and is extremely important. Meeting new people and expanding your network is key. Speak to students and professors alike, within and around your specialised field. The advantages are numerous: new working collaborations, contacts for future jobs, contacts to provide references, people to review your publications, people to chat about your results with… The list could go on… University Careers Services often offer workshops to improve your networking skills.

4. Name tag visibility is key!

Simple, really. Make sure your name tag is visible at all times so people know who you are and where you’re from. This may mean shortening a neck tie if you’re somewhat vertically challenged and don’t want the name tag hanging around your belly-button…

Name tag

Sort out your name tag, and please don’t be that guy(#3)! Image credit: Pete Etchells.

5. Non-specialist sessions.

Many conferences offer a myriad of extra sessions. Search these out and see if anything takes your fancy. For example, there are often talks and workshops related to things like science communication, science policy, careers in academia, careers outside of academia, getting a postdoc, and such like. These can all be very useful.

6. Get away for a bit.

Leave yourself some time to take a step-back and get away from the intensity of the conference. Your plan from number one will help with this. If you have a spare afternoon or two, explore the city you’re in, go shopping, visit a tourist hot-spot, go for a run, or whatever is going to give you a chance to chill out and recharge your batteries.

7. Student events.

Any student-organised or student-only events are a great way to make new friends who know exactly the same struggles you’re likely to be going through, or about to go through. Free food and beer is also a usual double bonus!

8. Make second base…

I’m talking about following up on your new networking activities here. In the evening if you have time, or after the conference if you’re rushed, drop an email to the interesting people you’ve met and chatted with. This gives them your contact details if they didn’t already have them and will help no end if later down the line you want to contact them about something more important.

9. What to wear?

A complicated one for so many reasons… My PhD is geology related so it’s no surprise to see people walking around in hiking boots and trekking trousers! Personally, I stay as far away from this fashion debacle as possible. But what to wear depends a lot on the nature and topic of the conference. I usually err on the side of caution and lean towards the smarter side of things(*), as I don’t know who I’m going to meet on the day – this figurative person may just happen to have the perfect job opportunity I’m looking for… Alternatively, you could ask someone who’s been to the conference before, or search for photos, to see what the general dress code is.

(*)P.S. For me this means a shirt, smart jeans or chinos and a nice pair of shoes.

10. It’s impossible do everything.

Don’t get high hopes of being able to do everything – it won’t work out. Curb your expectations and prevent disappointment. Equally, however, be prepared and adaptable to do stuff you didn’t plan on.

11. Free Stuff!

Everything’s better when it’s free. If you’re down a pen, or need a USB memory stick, you’re likely to be able to pick one up from conference sponsors or exhibitors.

12. Post-conference travel!

My personal favourite! If you’re lucky enough to go to conferences in new countries, then take full advantage of it. Your flights are likely to be paid for, so if you can, give yourself at least a few extra days after the conference has finished to travel around your new surroundings and take in as much of the local culture as possible. These opportunities won’t be as readily available in the future, especially if you leave academia!

13. Branch out…

Time may not allow this, but if it does, then try and take in some sessions that may not be related to your own studies. You may find some overlap you didn’t know about, or learn about new techniques that could be applicable to your own work with a slight modification.

14. Business cards?

Some do, some don’t. They’re not hugely common in science but they have their advantages (e.g., networking). Maybe this one will just come down to personal preference.

15. Save your slides as a PDF!

Computer compatibility can still be an issue, even in this day and age. Regardless of what program you use to make your presentation slides, if pays to save them as a PDF so when you open them on the other side of the world, on some one else’s computer, everything still looks the same.

16. Back-ups!

Have back-ups of your talk in case you lose a memory stick (or similar). It’s also useful to carry copies of your recent work and results in case you want to show them to someone you get chatting to.

Backups

Be prepared, and try not to worry. Image credit: Jorge Cham, PhD comics.

17. Bring spare posters.

If you’re presenting a poster then it can be handy to print out a bunch of spare posters in A4 and pin them beside your actual poster. This way people can take away a copy of your work if they’re interested.

18. Eat and drink!

Carry some water and snacks with you. You never know how long you might go without food if you get chatting to someone about your work or otherwise. Keeping hydrated and fed will ensure you have the energy to last the day.