10 ways to make the most of conferences as a PhD student

Ah conferences. Probably held in a relatively picturesque location, full of exciting, cutting edge science and a stressful timesink for anyone unlucky enough to be saddled with the actual organization.

Participants in the "Three Elephants in the Gamma Ray Sky" conference, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, October 2017

Participants in the "Three Elephants in the Gamma Ray Sky" conference, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, October 2017

I've been to a few conferences now as a student, and most of them have been productive and good experiences. Here are 10 things I've learned from by (abeit brief) time attending conferences:

Pre-Post-Script: Thanks to Ángel López-Sánchez on Twitter for reminding me of the thing I forgot to write here. Conferences can be stressful and, depending on the individual, can be quite taxing emotionally. Many, many people (more than you might imagine. Yes, even the individuals who appear gregarious and outgoing) struggle with aspects of the social parts of conferences. Even for extroverts (in so much as people can be divided into those favoring introversion or extroversion) need alone time, which can be a precious commodity at a 5 day conference with constant activities lined up. For those who have met me, it may surprise you that at my first conference, it took me a day and a half to talk to anybody other than my supervisor. I, like many other people I know, cover up any social anxiety by working hard to be outgoing and friendly. 

Nobody should ever be made to feel guilty or like a bad scientist if they need some time to retreat to their hotel room. I'm a big proponent of providing quiet spaces for people to sit in, where there is a rule that you do not approach people sitting in the quiet space. If you need a break at a conference, don't be afraid to say "I need a break, I will be back later", and take some time out for yourself. Constantly pushing yourself to breaking point will a) make the conference less enjoyable and b) possibly put you off conferences. Also, if you're organizing conferences, please reconsider requiring/forcing students (or anybody really) to share rooms. From talking to other students, not having a private refuge can cause excessive stress at conferences.

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Queensland fences off part of the area where tourists can interact with, pet and feed their kangaroos and wallabys, providing a safe area the animals can rest away from humans. Perhaps your next conference should provide a scientist rest area, where individuals can sit and work quietly without being disturbed.

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in Queensland fences off part of the area where tourists can interact with, pet and feed their kangaroos and wallabys, providing a safe area the animals can rest away from humans. Perhaps your next conference should provide a scientist rest area, where individuals can sit and work quietly without being disturbed.


1. Do your research before you arrive

Not your research research (but do that too, science is important), but sit down and have a good look at who is giving talks and who the other conference participants are. Are there any people on the participant list whose work you often cite? People whose ideas complement or clash with your own? Someone you'd like to collaborate with or a future employer? Make a list of people you want to introduce yourself to, and think of some starter questions to ask the  (going through abstracts of their recent papers can be a good start). This eliminates the need to think up awkward small talk on the spot, and also helps with the next point...

2. Make contact before the conference starts

The bigger the name you'd like to talk to at the conference, the more people they will probably have to talk to. If you are interested in talking to someone on your list face to face, it can be a good idea to contact them via email before the conference, briefly introduce yourself and state that you are going to conference x, and would they have some time to set aside during a break to briefly chat. The email should only be a maximum of 2-3 sentences long, polite and not rambling. If you have met someone previously and wish to sit down and discuss science with them again, it's also a good idea to let them know you'll be attending said conference. Planning a meeting before the conference, when people are often busy, gives you a much higher chance of actually having the conversations you want.

3. Try to give a talk

Conferences are for showing off your work, and other than papers are one of the primary ways of disseminating information about your research. Often, people will remember conference talks better than actual papers. Some people have gimmicks they use when giving talks that make them memorable (one friend of mine has a fondness for pink and makes slides that definitely reflect this. Personally, I often include hand drawn illustrations on mine) however, this can't be overdone or it will detract from your science. Put some thought into your presentation. Although many people do it, I don't recommend working on your slides at the conference at the last minute, but more on this in a second. At larger conferences, it may be harder to secure a talk slot, especially if you are earlier in your PhD. Writing compelling talk abstracts for the selection process is a skill that can be worked on with your supervisor. If you are instead offered a poster slot, there are a few different schools of thought, but I do believe posters are largely a huge waste of time and money. You're better of printing a few A4 handouts that summarize your work and pinning them to the poster board. Focus your time on your 1 minute poster talk/sparkler slot.

4. ... and actually practice it before the last minute

The number one way to test everyone's patience is to have a talk that runs over the allotted time. Because of this, you absolutely must practice your talk, as you intend to give it. This means standing up, talking out loud, preferably in front of a friendly audience who can give constructive feedback. Not sitting behind your computer reading through your slides. While some people think scripts are a terrible idea, I'm a big believer that a well-deployed script is vital. A well-written and rehearsed script should sound as easy as casual conversation, and you should know it so well that, if you are caught by a question in the middle of the talk, you will not be thrown off. Drama/improvisation classes, or specifically classes that teach how to act from a script can be very helpful here (I grew up performing in various theater productions). A good script does not sound wooden, and you can be sure you are delivering all the information you intend. And it can be consistently replicated, which helps with the timing thing. If there's one thing you take away from this, remember that the cardinal sin of any talk is a talk that runs over time.

5. Use your supervisor's network to build your own

Your supervisor has been to many conferences, and possibly worked in a number of different institutions. Consequently, they will have a large network of both collaborators and friends. Discuss with your supervisor whether they are happy to introduce you to these people at a conference if you attending together, or whether they can facilitate an introduction via email before hand if not. Virtually every supervisor I know of is more than happy to help their students network. You're likely to stay in roughly the same field as your supervisor if you go on to work in academia, and you will probably find their network overlapping with your own. This doesn't mean you shouldn't go out and form independent connections with other academics, but it can give you a boost to start with. Thanks to my supervisors, I've managed to build a network of friends and collaborators in academia across the globe.

6. Don't just sit in the corner with the other students

As tempting as it is, and as intimidating as it can seem, you need to go out and talk to people other than your immediate peers. Meeting more senior people at the conference can lead to some pretty amazing opportunities: these are the people with the money and resources to support your work and career going forward. While it's tempting to gravitate toward the student table, and to stay within your comfortable friend group, I do advise going to sit in part of the auditorium with different groups of people, as well as mixing with everyone during breaks, lunches and especially at the conference dinner. I joined the Dark Energy Survey because there weren't enough seats for me to sit with students at my first ever conference dinner, and I ended up sitting beside one of my now-supervisors.

7. But don't forget to talk to other students

Despite the points above, I don't recommend ignoring other students! Other students are likely to be your peers and you will probably be working with some of them for the next 40 years. Students can give you important insights into what it's like to work at other institutions you may be considering for future employment, or what it's like working for certain academics. They also have more of a perspective of the stresses that students currently experience. Networking with other students enables you to build the working relationships that will carry you through your career and give you alternative perspectives. Don't be afraid of talking about future scientific collaborations with other students - I'm currently working together with someone I met when they were a PhD student on a new project mostly independent of our supervisors.

8. Go to the conference dinner

It's probably expensive, but this is a way to get to know more about your colleagues in a slightly more informal setting. I always say you should only work with people you can sit down and have a cup of coffee with without talking about science. The same goes for being able to sit down for dinner. It's a way to get to know people better, not to mention next time you meet up at a conference, someone will probably start to reminisce with a "remember at the last conference dinner we were at..." - the importance of shared experience is understated in building collaborations

9. Get Twitter

"Social media is terrible, it's a distraction" - maybe, but Twitter is also a way of networking. I've lost count of the number of people I have met in person after following them on Twitter, which then becomes a nice talking point. It's also a way of getting your name out if you haven't yet published. When it comes to Twitter, I recommend creating an account where you share predominantly professional information, while still allowing some personal flair to show through (you can look at my Twitter account here). I tend to share interesting science information in general, as well as about my research and what it's like to work in Australia. I avoid sharing and making strong political statements (although there's nothing wrong with this, plenty of successful scientists do). Use replies to others judiciously, and if you use Twitter to send direct messages, I never say anything in a direct message that I would not post publicly (treat it like a less confidential email). There are plenty of articles out there with guides to tweeting as an academic. Used well, it can enhance your profile significantly (which has been my experience) but used badly or, worse, inappropriately, can potentially do damage.

10. Follow up your new connections

So the conference is over, what next? I think it's relatively common, firstly, to have a period of feeling somewhat flat or deflated for a week or so after a conference. You go from having exciting science input constantly, to being back alone in your office faced with the mountain of your PhD. One thing to do to combat this is to begin actively following up your new connections. Follow and tweet to people on Twitter, and send emails to anyone you would like to further collaborate with - something as simple as "Nice to meet you at <conference>, here is the paper I mentioned". Following up your connections relatively soon after the conference is the best way to keep momentum in a new project.