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Why academic conferences are essential

Academic conferences may seem daunting, but they are a vital part of any research degree. Federica Mirra, postgraduate researcher and seasoned research conference attendee, tells all.

An academic giving a conference

Why attend academic conferences?

As a third-year PhD student, I have been accepted to and attended a few international research conferences. To me, they act as platforms to:

  •         Update my knowledge in a quick and effective way;
  •         Test my arguments and receive constructive feedback;
  •         Have fun creating a paper that won’t feature in my thesis.

Furthermore, you will gain the kind of experience that will make your CV stand out in a very competitive job market. They also help build your transferrable skills, again boosting your chances of employment.

Academic conferences also provide you with the opportunity to make connections.

It can be overwhelming to get to know people, especially at bigger conferences, but all you need is a bit of perseverance.

If you feel like you have not sparked much interest in the other person, send an email and suggest working on something together.

It’s not just about networking for your work, though. After a day of workshops and scholarly exchanges, it’s nice to chat over a drink and switch to different topics.

In my experience, collaborations and dialogues emerge more easily from common life experiences and goals.

How do I find out about academic conferences?

Whether you want to attend a symposium, a workshop or a general conference, word of mouth is the best way.

Subscribing to the mailing list of academic journals, research clusters and universities, as well as Twitter, are very useful tools.

Moreover, when you need to select research conferences, it is worth checking whether they might lead into publication. This would be really great for you and for your chances to obtain funding from your institution or other funding schemes.

What’s the best way to approach these conferences?

Academic events are scary. My first experience came at Trinity College in Dublin. To say I was nervous would be an understatement.

When your research is interdisciplinary and cuts across different fields, it is relatively easy to make your proposal fit and even stand out amongst other more traditional abstracts.

However, once the conference approaches, the originality and versatility of your research seems to fade away against the increasing and irrational sensation of not fitting in.

What you need in these occasions are faith and a scrupulous preparation.  

I have tried many different approaches. I’ve read a paper, performed a presentation, used audio. One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to prepare meticulously.

At a recent academic event I attended, I created a PowerPoint presentation, memorised the key points, rehearsed in front of my partner, and even recorded it to check what I sounded and looked like.

Talking at a conference is like a performance – you want to have a presence through your voice, posture, gesture and overall confidence.

If you feel concerned about your presentation skills or feel anxious, look for online workshops on presenting skills, managing anxiety and breathing techniques. It can really help.

The PGR Studio also offer great workshops on writing abstracts, among other topics.

What is the future of research conferences?

Thanks to Covid-19, conferences and symposiums aren’t happening in person. However, I have found the new virtual format fun and stress-free.

I recently ‘attended’ the Midlands4Cities Research Festival, my first online conference where I gave a virtual presentation.

Thanks to technology, I could upload an animated PowerPoint with audio without having to stress or even appear on the camera.

It resembled the format of the traditional conference and even accentuated some of the benefits, such as the easy and quick access to updated and relevant knowledge in a very concentrated timeframe.

This new format for conferences finally allows everyone to participate and access information. There is no need to travel, meaning that one does not have to be physically there or secure funding (or even self-fund the trip). And it is environmental-friendly!

And finally…

Don’t be afraid to experiment! Dare to apply to that conference that it is not in your field and have trust in your presentation skills. What makes the real difference are rehearsal and enthusiasm.