Could someone please tell me what to do during conferences?

Attending conferences can be an overwhelming event for many PhD students. Chengcheng Kang offers us a brave and honest account of some of the thoughts and questions she experienced at a recent conference…


Sometimes I wish someone could tell me exactly what to do in each aspect of my PhD. However, every journey is unique and different. Much like every conference presentation and conference participant.

My first year of the PhD just flew by, it feels unreal but so real. I’ve taken some time to reflect back and have noticed how many unbelievable things I’ve achieved, but also how far I still need to go. I’m hoping that by sharing some of my thoughts with you, I’ll make some sense of what I’m supposed to do when attending a conference. Maybe even some of you will be able to provide some advice!

The first conference I attended as a first year PhD student was the Social Study of IT Open Research Forum Conference at LSE. There were many professors, students and people from various industries. One of my constant thoughts was this: “I hope I’m not the only one getting a little nervous around these amazing human beings who all happen to be in the same room!” It was a fascinating conference: people presented their ideas, received comments and questions, and I got to listen to arguments from different perspectives.

Yet, I started to notice that I was doing a lot of thinking, but not a lot of talking. I think I’m the kind of person who really likes to think before I speak, but conferences don’t allow for a lot of waiting-time as there are many sessions to get through and only limited days when all those researchers are around. But I couldn’t muster the courage to ask the questions that kept popping up in my mind. So, here’s my question for you: When you have a question, do you ask it straight away or do you wait until break time to ask the presenter? And if you wait, how do you approach the presenter? I feel a little concern over expressing my thoughts so publicly: will the presenter think my question was good or not? Or maybe the presenter has actually addressed my question and I didn’t hear it clearly – that probably would be worse! But wouldn’t it be fair to ask for a clarification if this is the case, anyway?

As I’ve hinted at, between presentations there is always time for tea and coffee. But this is when I worry the most during a conference! A simple yet overwhelming question comes to my mind: Who should I talk to? My preference would be to talk to someone I already know, like my colleagues in WBS or my supervisors. Yet one of the points of a conference is to expand my network. So, this is the system that works for me: the first step is to talk to those I already know, then talk to PhD students from other universities, then move on to established academics. Of course, this is easier said than done and most of the time I felt like I ended up talking with whomever was willing to talk to me, and these people felt like my personal heroes!

In reality, I’ve come to realise that I enjoy talking with PhD students within my field about their research topics as we’re able to share different perspectives about similar research questions. However, I wish I could be just as comfortable talking about my research with some of the long-standing academics. I think one of the aspects that make it so intimidating is that just like I was a PhD student talking to other PhD students, professors seem to be comfortable talking to other professors. How could I dare interrupt their conversations so I could ask the questions I had during their presentations? It really made me wonder: How do other PhD students join in a conversation between professors?

And let’s say I managed to join in their circle, the final question is always this: What should I talk to them about? The one good thing about the UK weather is that it’s often a friendly conversation starter. Also great: my name, which year I’m at, the supervisors I’m working with. After that, though, it always seems hard to remember the last paper I recently read or the reflection I had upon listening to the keynote speaker. The one thing I know is that I will keep trying, hopefully by the end of my PhD I will have the answer to all these questions.


Have you overcome your nervousness around conference attendance? What tricks of the trade could you share with other PhD students? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at, or leave a comment below.


Chengcheng Kang is a PhD candidate from Beijing, China in Group of Information System Management at the Warwick Business School. You may contact her on Twitter at @cckkcc29 She would love to receive your direct answers to the questions she listed!


Image: international-conference-forum-1597529 / crystal710 / CCO 1.0

2 thoughts on “Could someone please tell me what to do during conferences?

  1. I get the exact same feeling when I first attended a conference or attend research seminars. Often I feel that I have a small/silly question and don’t want to waste the presenters time as I’m sure there are other more intelligent questions out there in the audience. Hence I usually write down all my questions on paper and if I ever muster up the courage I speak to presenter during the tea break. The only exception is if it was my own area of research and I know they’ve done something wrong or it is a question that would really help with my own research.

    1. Hi Peter! Thanks for your comments. I’m glad that this blog post resonated with you, I think we have received a few online nods and yes with this one. I like your idea about writing down your questions as you think them and find the appropriate time to address them with the speaker. Also, it’s absolutely fair to keep your own research and expertise at the front of any of your questions. The whole point of conferences is to create immediate academic dialogue and we need to do our part – Sofia

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