As a PhD student, you’ve probably received plenty of advice about what to do and how to behave at academic conferences. However, it’s likely that sometimes that advice hasn’t actually been very helpful in practice. Here, Sophie shares four common pieces of bad conference advice…
Before we talk about the perils and pitfalls of the academic conference let me clarify: I love academic conferences. The talks, the chat… the coffee. I always come away stimulated, inspired and ready to crack on with the PhD, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend attending plenty to anyone on their PhD journey. But how do you know whether you’re getting the most out of them?
Making connections at academic conferences is, of course, very personal, and depends almost entirely on your social style. Some people prefer to go out of their way to talk to everyone, others will find a few people they connect with and mainly chat with them. No social style is better than another, but everyone has an opinion on the best way to behave at academic conferences. The below lists some advice I’ve personally found to be unhelpful!
Bad Advice #1: “The sessions aren’t important.”
I understand where people are coming from when they give this advice, because usually they’re trying to emphasise how important the breaks between sessions are. And breaks are important! As is the pub/dinner at the end of the day. For longer, bigger conferences especially, sitting out a few sessions might help a) restore your mental sanity, and b) give you a chance to have a quieter, longer discussion than is sometimes possible during a short break. I even developed a book project from one such incident. But in my experience of conferences, a lot of the chat during the breaks revolves around what has been discussed in the sessions, and it’s much easier to approach a room full of strangers if you can talk intelligently (or ask intelligent questions) about their talks.
Bad Advice #2: “We’re academics. It doesn’t matter how you dress.”
Maybe it shouldn’t – this is the subject of a whole other blog and controversy, but personally I always feel more comfortable looking smart. How you come across to others is often very dependent on how you feel. Scientific conferences seem to be a different ball game, but in my discipline (Literature/History/Art History), almost no one wears jeans to a conference. If I started rocking up in ripped denim, I’d feel horribly out of place and want to hide behind a pot plant rather than actually talk to anyone. That doesn’t mean I’m out there presenting in a three-piece suit, just something smart and comfortable.
Bad Advice #3: “Research attendees before you go, and plan who to connect with.”
This could be helpful for some people but, particularly as you approach the end of the PhD, this kind of advice can create a lot of pressure to network, network, network, while ignoring the necessary human connection that makes networking successful. I prefer arriving without an agenda, and seeing where conversations take themselves. Something might come of it, and it might not. Knowing who is attending can be useful, but going with the intention of asking someone for something can backfire.
Bad Advice #4: “Follow up via email afterwards.”
If we discussed a project, book recommendation or future meeting, I wouldn’t hesitate to contact another academic, but have never quite worked up the courage to send a vague email that doesn’t have a clear purpose. However, writing down names and keeping any business cards is always a good idea. I’d be interested to find out in the comments if any readers do send lots of post-conference emails, and how they frame them.
What advice (helpful or unhelpful) have you been given about attending academic conferences? Has anyone benefitted from the advice that I’ve found unhelpful? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave a comment below.
Sophie is a PhD candidate working on Early Modern Literature at the University of Warwick. She’s interested in Shakespeare, celebrity culture and early modern women’s writing. You can find her on twitter @sophie_shorland.
Image: classroom-lecture-hall-college-1699745 / Wokandapix / CC0 1.0
I like this post! Some views from me, a fellow PhD student (in Maths):
Ad. 1) Sessions are important and, as you said, sometimes it’s good to skip them as well. And pick them wisely. I usually go to most sessions and if I find the talk very boring, I just take out my laptop and do some work.
Ad. 2) I believe it’s enough to look in a nice way. To be honest, in the beginning I would take my best dress to conferences. Now jeans and a nice shirt are totally fine.
Ad. 3) It’s good to know who’s going to be there for at least two reasons. First, I can make sure to say hi to all friends and people I’ve met at previous events. Second, it would be a shame to miss some famous researchers or people doing stuff very relevant to our own research. I wouldn’t advise to plan networking though, I just start talking to random people in the queue for coffee 🙂
Ad. 4) I think it’s good to send e-mails to people who we’d like to connect with. You can’t go wrong with something like: “I found your talk very interesting. Would you find a moment to answer a few questions/recommend some sources for further reading/…?”.
Interesting advice Paula! It’s really interesting to get perspectives from a variety of different disciplines and how conferences may vary between them. -Jessica