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How to Prepare, Attend and Benefit from Academic Conferences

As a PhD student, attending conferences is one of the ways of disseminating your research findings, network with new people and learn about the state-of-the-art in your field. It is possible to get all three at most conferences, but you have to plan ahead how to achieve your goals before attending any conference. I have been attending conferences in the past without well-defined goals. As a result, I hardly find such conferences useful simply because there was no expectation. Once I learnt the importance of defining expectations for attending any conference, I have begun finding every conference useful. I found this 15 minutes podcast on how to make the best use of academic conferences useful.

Based on my experience in the past, I now use the following checklist to prepare for any conference.


Define your expectations/goals

Before deciding on a particular conference to attend, it is important for me to set clear goals about expectations at a conference. This will enable me to choose the conferences that align with my expectations.

Decide which conference to attend

While this may sound trivial, it is important that you decide ahead, why you want to attend any particular conference. As a PhD student with limited funding, not all conferences are useful. So you have to choose the right conference that will maximize your expectations as set out above. My supervisor has been helpful in helping me to decide the best conference to attend.

Prepare your slides and practise

If you will be presenting at the conference, it is pertinent that you prepare your slides and practise with your peers. The benefits of this are obvious as practice makes one more perfect. It is also advisable that you upload your slides to an online repository such as Figshare, Zenodo (click to open an example) or Open Science Framework, and get a citeable Digital Object Identifier (DOI) for such slides. This will increase the discoverability of your research.

Go through the programme and decide the panels to attend

Before you leave for the conference, go through the programme and select the sessions to attend. It would be nice if you use this time to research the authors of the papers that interest you for possible networking/collaboration. You could connect with them on social media and send them emails before the conference. If you are a shy personality like me, this will make the networking meeting easier for you as you won’t be speaking to a total stranger.

Discover your peers attending and connect with them

It is most likely that other people from your department or institution would be attending the same conference. Search and connect with them before the conference and help one another during the conference. You could share accommodation and get some discounts.

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Presenting your paper and getting feedback

If you will be presenting your work at the conference, you ought to have prepared, practised and uploaded your slides to an online repository. Keep your presentation simple and start by introducing yourself. Remember to include a link to your slides and the DOI at the beginning and end of your presentation. After your presentation, pay attention to the feedback from your audience. You can arrange for some of your colleagues that attended to help you in taking notes from the audience while you focus on answering their questions. You can then review the feedback and use it to improve your work. You can read about how to present your research effectively and with confidence. If you are presenting Poster ensure you prepare a 1 minute summary of your research more like the “elevator pitch.”

Attend the selected sessions and take note

One of the reasons for attending a conference is to learn about the latest developments in your area. Attending, listening to and making notes at some of the presentations during the conference is one way of getting this. Ensure the notes are as clear as possible. The notes will help you to review the benefits of attending and follow up appropriately.

Tweet life events and use conference hashtags

One way of immortalising and keep your notes reachable is to share your experiences via Twitter and other social media channels live. In this way, you can find out and connect other people attending the conference and inform those unable to attend live events.

Networking for Collaboration

Who are the people that you would like to network with? Have you researched them online? Have you arranged to meet with them? Deciding ahead of time about those to network with at the conference can be helpful in avoiding the dread of talking to strangers. You can find out about them via Orcid, Google Scholar and connect with them on social media.


Keep in touch with the connections you made

There is no point in networking with people at the conference if you don’t keep in touch thereafter. It is important for you to plan ahead of time how to keep in touch with the people you meet at the conference. If you have done your homework well, you would have identified the people to network with and would have started the discussion before the conference. Taking on a handful of people to connect with will make it easier for you to keep in touch. Network with purpose. Don’t be afraid to approach experts in your field. Most of them are willing to mentor early career researchers. Remember that it is a two-way relationship. Think of what you have to offer to those you are connecting with and what you want from them.

Reflect and Share your experience with colleagues and on social media

Reflect on your experience and share it with others. Sharing your experiences is one way of maximizing the benefits of every conference you attend. You could share this on LinkedIn, Medium, Twitter and other social media channels.




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