How to Prepare for Academic Conferences
Following up on David’s great article on why you should attend conferences, I will be focusing on how to choose which conferences to attend and how to prepare for them. If you are hoping to go to a conference, first discuss with your supervisor about which ones they think are appropriate. If they give you a blank slate, then consider the following factors: your purpose for going to the conference, and then size, budget, and location of the conference.
First, it is important to determine why you want to go to a conference. Are you hoping to present your research? If so, you will need to submit an abstract well in advance. Do you want to soak up all the talks and posters and learn about the field? Do you prefer a broader topic conference or a more niche-subject conference? Are you hoping to meet new people/ potential collaborators? Or perhaps you are in your final year, and you are hoping to find your next job? All of these considerations come into play as you try to choose your conference.
Besides different research topics, conferences also vary in format and size. At larger conferences, you often have more “famous” researchers presenting keynotes; however, it is much harder to meet other people. At smaller conferences, it tends to be easier to chat with everyone including the professors. Typically, conferences will have a list of confirmed key speakers well in advance, so you have a good idea of the topics that will be presented prior to registration.
Budget and location often comes hand in hand. The major costs of going to a conference include the registration fee (this can range from $0 – $800), accommodation, and travel costs. Depending on the conference, it may be worthwhile to stay close to the conference site so that you can easily meet other people. Other minor costs include food and any transportation required during your stay. It is important to register for conferences early to take advantage of any early bird discounts and travel grant scholarships. It may also be worthwhile to sign up for your field’s national society to get further discounts on their conferences, and to attain eligibility for scholarships. Some research labs have allocated conference funds, and they are happy to pay for all your conference costs; however, it is important to check what your lab’s policy is.
Besides travel costs, other considerations for location include travel time. If you have an extremely busy month and you want to go to a conference in Australia, you will need to plan some time to get over your jet lag. Often, students will add a day or two before/after the conference to explore the city. While this should not be the reason you choose to attend a certain conference, consider this when booking your travel plans.
After choosing and registering for your conference, it is important to prepare appropriately to make the most out of this experience. If you are giving an oral or poster presentation, you will need to ensure you follow the conference guidelines carefully. Always have an extra copy of your presentation handy. If you are flying with your poster, consider a cloth poster that can be easily transported. For all conference participants, it is important to determine what sessions you will want to go to. Often, during the conference, it is quite hectic and you won’t have time to figure out which session to go to next. If there is a particular speaker you are interested in, it might be worthwhile to read their latest papers before the conference. If you have questions for them, you can email them prior to the conference and ask to grab coffee with them at some point.
During the conference, make an effort to network. It is tempting to stick with members from your research group or university, but this is your chance to meet other people and learn from them. While the big-name professors can be stars of the conference, your peers are the people who you will be collaborating with for the rest of your career if you stay in academia. If you are feeling shy and do not want to join a conversation, find ways for other people to approach you. For instance, you could be one of the first in the room, linger near the coffee/ food table, or even suggest places to grab dinner after. After the conference, it is important to follow up with the people you met by sending a quick email.
Hopefully, this article gave you a taste of how to choose and prepare for a conference. Conferences celebrate the current state of your research field. There is no correct method to enjoy a conference, so try things out and see what works for you!
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