What are conferences really about? Is it about impressing everyone with your paper, getting feedback, or establishing new connections? The world of academic conferences could seem complex and overwhelming for newcomers. That is why the ESHCC PhD Club recently organized a workshop on how to get the most out of conferences. Mariangela Lavanga (A&C), Simone Driessen (M&C), and Sarah Bertrand (H) shared their experiences and tips on how to navigate the labyrinths of presentations, talks and networking.
Which conference and which panel to attend?
When choosing a conference, consider the specifics of academic disciplines and assess where your current paper fits best. In some disciplines, academics value the general (i.e., big claims and revolutionizing the discipline) over the particular. In other disciplines, academics have more interest in the details.
PhD candidates can also check where their academic ‘idols’ usually go to present papers or ask colleagues for recommendations to make a list of the ‘top’ conferences in the field. It is important to note that the top, big conferences might be overwhelming, and smaller events like pre-conferences, summer/winter schools, mid-term workshops can make it easier to connect with others.
When it comes to panel options, usually conference participants are assigned to a random panel by the organizers of the conference. If you are not happy with the panel, you can always try to reach out to the organizers and ask to be changed to a more suitable panel. However, it is not a big problem if your topic differs from the rest of the panel.
If you have a network (or the beginnings of one) already, you can join a panel organized by someone you already know. And even if you don’t have a network yet, it is still possible to set up your own panel with panel members, discussant, and chair. This can be the best way to meet relevant people you would want to talk to and exchange ideas with. To create a panel, you need to select a theme, find relevant potential participants, and send out the invitations. Even the big shots might say ‘yes’ as you would be taking up all the organizing work and they will enjoy being connected to the right community. If a well-known scholar says ‘no’, you can still ask them to recommend other suitable people for the panel. It is also possible to invite people from outside academia if that suits your interests and the conference.
Mariangela, Simone, and Sarah recommended not to focus too much on creating a perfect paper as the basis for your conference presentation. It is important to keep the presentation short (as people’s attention spans are short) and lively – don’t sit down and read the paper. PhD candidates are also advised to make the talk accessible by providing examples relatable to the audience and keeping the message clear. It might be useful to ask more experienced colleagues for more insights about particular conferences and adjust your presentation accordingly. It’s not unusual to present the same paper at different conferences – just make sure you focus on different aspects of your paper (e.g., methodology, discipline-based theory, etc.).
It might be disappointing when you don’t get a lot of feedback or engagement when you present, but that is something to expect. PhD candidates can stimulate the discussion by ending their presentations with questions, such as: “How can I improve this paper in terms of X? Should I use method X?”
If you do get challenging questions, don’t panic! Either filter the question and pick the part you want to talk about; or try to pinpoint the overarching theme (methods, conceptual, etc.). Then you can discuss the choices you made for the paper. Every choice has good and bad consequences; own them! If more in-depth discussion is needed, just mention that and use it as a networking opportunity.
All speakers agree that the presentation itself is really just the tip of the iceberg. The main objective is to meet academic friends, make new connections, follow up with people you know, and to enjoy the local area if the conference is in person.
Who should PhD candidates pursue when networking at a conference? First, don’t get disappointed if you don’t manage to get the attention of the established scholars, as they are there to meet their friends and networks. Make friends with fellow PhDs and ECRs, who can later introduce you to their supervisors and colleagues. They might even invite you to secret parties...!
Networking doesn’t happen only in the coffee breaks and lunch time. PhD candidates can network effectively by asking questions to the panel members. For example, you can follow up on other people’s presentation or discuss the overarching theme of your panel. Try to enjoy what the other panelists are saying as this way you connect to other scholars and the discipline or theme. Another option is to check the panel member list in advance and contact a few people that you would like to talk to.
Our speakers recommend not to over-plan conference participation: pick a few panels a day (max. 3) and focus on what interests you. Eventually the goal is to build your tribe as you meet the same people over time at the annual conferences. The so-called status game is not played around your paper, it’s more about connecting to other panel members and creating a community of people.
But most of all: enjoy the experience!
Olga Vincent, chair ESHCC PhD Club