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Tips on Attending Conferences from a PhD Student in Psychology

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Conferences are often deemed an essential part of academic life, yet due to the ongoing pressures of conducting innovative research, writing interesting papers, and completing teaching hours during one’s PhD journey, the stress of presenting or giving talks at conferences can sometimes feel like an overwhelming, daunting, or unnecessary experience. But attending and presenting at conferences afford a range of benefits, not only for personal growth but also for academic development.

After attending multiple conferences this summer, such as the British Psychological Society’s Division of Health Psychology Conference in Bristol (UK)  and the FEPSAC Conference in Padova (Italy), I hope to impart learned knowledge of the advantages of attending conferences during one’s PhD journey and provide helpful tips for those wishing to attend upcoming conferences. 

Benefits of attending conferences

  • Get to meet and know people in your field. Conferences are an ideal place to network and provide an opportunity for open discussions around relevant topics. There is also the added benefit of interacting with a variety of individuals, all with different ideas and beliefs from various inter-related fields. Conversing with people from varying backgrounds can provide a refreshingly different insight; helping to educate you on areas that may be slightly outside the scope of your PhD but still be relevant to your ongoing research.
  • Improve your presentation skills. Conferences provide the opportunity to practise presentation and communication skills. Rehearsing and giving a talk or poster presentation will help you to feel more comfortable in front of audiences; understanding the correct rate to talk at and the level of detail needed in the information you provide. You will learn how to captivate and engage with your audience; confidently disseminating your work. 
  • Welcome questions and discussions about your ongoing work. Conferences present the chance to see a room full of experts in your particular field; people you may cite and people you may follow on LinkedIn or Twitter, so there really is no better time to invite questions at the end of your talk or poster presentation to learn what others think of your work. Questions can be thought-provoking and cause you to think about your research from different angles; providing for a better and more well-rounded line of enquiry. Furthermore, you too can ask questions at the end of other presenters’ talks; answers are often useful, simulating, and provide a more in-depth discussion of a point raised during the talk.
  • Hear about the latest research. Often at conferences, attendees present their latest work, preliminary findings, or work that has not yet been published. As a result, a conference is an ideal place to ‘sneak a peek’ at what other people are working on currently and the direction research is travelling. Conferences may inspire your ongoing work and deliver helpful tips about how a presenter has carried out a certain methodology for example. 
  • Add to your CV. Attending a conference is something that will improve your CV, especially if you have given a talk or poster presentation. It demonstrates to potential employers or those awarding grants that you are pursuing continuous personal development, engaging with your relevant field, and actively communicating with peers and academics from similar research areas. 

Top 10 tips for attending a conference

  • Be confident, friendly, and smile. Attending a conference alone can be a really intimidating experience. But there are going to be many other individuals in the same situation as yourself. If you do not fancy going up to a big group, start a conversation with another conference-goer who appears to be by themselves. Be confident, friendly, and smile; ask them how their day has been so far.
  • Keep your phone in your pocket. When you’re alone, it can be so tempting to scroll through your phone for comfort. But this can deter people from coming up and speaking to you. If you’re there to meet new and like-minded people, it’s best to keep the scrolling on Instagram to a minimum. 
  • Small talk is absolutely fine. People have a misconception of conferences that you can only talk about the field or research. Talking about where you live or what you had for dinner last night is absolutely fine. These conversations can often lead to more comfortable and organic discussions concerning the field or research. 
  • Meet and thank the people who run the conference. Often the organisers are ‘big names’ in the field. A simple thanks can lead to interesting discussions about their work or your own. They may also point you in the direction of people who they feel may be beneficial for you to talk to. 
  • Plan what sessions you would like to go to ahead of time. Often conferences have parallel talks, always look at the talks you would like to go to and what rooms they are in ahead of time to avoid clashes and running late into a room.
  • Use the conference hashtag. With the power of social media, you can engage with people before, during, and after the conference. You can share what you have learned, talks you found interesting, or your experience so far. 
  • Go to social events. Often conferences will host a dinner or social activities for their attendees. These are brilliant opportunities to ‘let your hair down’ and have a fun time at the conference with your peers. 
  • Talk a notebook with you. Technology can be unpredictable. Taking a notebook is often easier to get out and pack away quickly. Notebooks do not require a charger and do not bring with them the distractions of emails, texts, etc. 
  • Remember to eat and drink. Socialising, presenting, and maintaining the ‘best version’ of yourself can be exhausting. Be sure to stay well-fuelled and hydrated. 
  • Have fun. Academia is hard, but you know the saying ‘work hard, play harder’. Conferences are fun: have fun talking to new people; have fun sharing your work; have fun at the conference dinner; have fun at the social activities; have fun exploring a new city; have fun learning new ideas or concepts; and finally have fun being yourself.

Phoebe Olivia Morris is a postgraduate researcher at the University of Essex interested in neurodevelopmental disorders. You can connect with her on Twitter @po_morris.

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