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Guest Blog

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The PhD's Guide to Academic Conferences


Last week I got back from the joint Animal Behaviour Society and Human Behaviour and Evolution Society (HBES) conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It had a good mix of good, bad and ugly (well, awkward) presentations, but one thing that struck me in particular was the sheer number of early career researchers (even undergrads) that were there. Has it always been the case the undergrads go to conferences? Anyway, given that I’ve been lucky enough to go to at least one major international conference each year since the start of my PhD, I thought I’d try and impart some light-hearted words of wisdom about getting through a conference unscathed.

1. Talk or Poster?

Conference season always kicks off about 3 months before the conference itself, with the dreaded abstract deadline. This is the point in time when people start to decide whether they want to go to a conference location or not, and whether 3 months is enough time to collect/analyse/write up (pick as many as you like) any data. I was in a better position this year, as our data had been collected and analysed already by an undergrad for their final year project. But do you go for a talk, or a poster presentation? Well, there are pros and cons to both. Talks are good for getting your name out there - chances are, more people will come to a talk than a poster, and even though you might not get to talk to people individually, you might generate a substantial amount of interest in your work. Talks are bad because, well, they’re terrifying to give - I’m not sure if standing up in front of a room of your peers and putting your work on a platter for them to chew through is anybody’s idea of a good time. Moreover, stressing out prior to giving a talk can be a huge time sink that could be otherwise spent getting to know new people or see new research. Which leads me to my handy, 3-step guide to giving a good talk:

1. Practice

2. Practice

3. Freak out Practice

Notice that nowhere in that list are things like “flashy swooshing slide transitions” or “as many colours as the projector bulb can handle”. Just try and get your point across in the simplest and neatest way possible, and spend time practicing your talk before you go away, so you know that you can nail it (and any follow-up questions) when crunch time comes. Thankfully, the quality of talks at HBES this year was generally really high - Prof. Robert Kurzban has a nice overview of the conference itself here. I saw a couple of talks in which people clearly hadn’t practiced, and the speakers had to go back to reading from a script. In some cases, this is a real shame, because the research itself is pretty interesting - it’s just that the speaker has had a bit of a failure in self-confidence. I know it’s easier said than done, but do try to avoid this if at all possible. During the early stages of my PhD, I gave a number of talks where I thought I was ‘getting round the system’ using Presenter View in PowerPoint a little too heavily, but most people can tell when you’re reading from a script, and makes it that much harder to connect with your audience.

Posters are a slightly different sort of beast. They can be great for getting to know more people on an individual basis - it’s kinda like giving a talk every ten minutes for the duration of the session, but to a single-person audience. It’s a good chance to get some (hopefully) constructive feedback on your work, and to engage with potential future employers. Poster sessions are bad because, in general, they’re not as highly publicised as the talks, which means that fewer people are likely to come round to your stand. I really think that HBES got it wrong this year - we had to put our posters up at 6:30pm on the Friday evening, with the session lasting from 7:30pm-10pm. They then had to be taken down first thing on Saturday morning. The fact that there was so little time to look at them wouldn’t have been so bad, except that the conference organisers also got the inimitable Baba Brinkman, evolution rapper extraordinaire, to do a show starting at 9pm. And it was awesome, which is why loads of people went to that instead of looking ‘round the posters. Ideally, it would have been nice for them to stay up for the entire conference, but I'm sure there were reasons as to why this couldn't happen. Maybe next year.

2. How to get there?

Once you’ve decided you’re off to a conference, you need to get the funds together to pay for it all. Some of you might be lucky and be employed on a hefty grant that you can claim it back from. Others might not be so lucky. To everyone though, I’d really recommend applying for as much travel funding as you can - first off, it can save money out of your grant or personal PhD budget for research purposes, and second, it looks really good to future employers if you can show that you’re capable of bringing in money (such is the world we live and work in). Check the conference organisers - they sometimes award a limited number of travel prizes. In general, learned societies tend to have some form of travel award that you might be eligible for too; how easy these are to get will depend on your area of research (one example from Psychology in the UK is the EPS Grindley Grant). Check with your institution, too - some, like the University of Bristol, have alumni foundation awards that you can apply to. My PhD was in vision psychology, and and its associated mailing lists were a great way to find out about potential travel funding. It's well worth a look round to see if there's anything similar in your area, too.

3. What to do once you’re there?

Even if you went to every single talk that you could possibly go to, the existence of parallel sessions means that you’re going to miss a ton of stuff anyway. HBES had four parallel sessions, which means that even with the best will in the world, you can only catch 25% of the stuff that’s on offer. One way to get around this is to use twitter to see if anyone’s live-tweeting through other sessions, but my PhD supervisor also had some really good advice about how much to go to at a conference. He always went to the stuff that was relevant to his area, or that he found interesting, and then picked one new thing to learn every year. That might mean that you only go to a single session, or only a few disparate talks, per day. But that’s absolutely fine - if you burn yourself out by trying to go to everything, you’re not going to take any new information in (and it’ll look really rude to fall asleep and start snoring in someone’s talk).

And finally… a little advice on ‘the Glance’

One of the first things you’ll need to do when you get to the conference is master the dark art of the ‘Nametag Glance’. It’s really handy for those awkward situations where someone you have no recollection of ever meeting comes up to you and says something like “Pete! Hi! Long time no see, how are you doing?” Becoming an expert in subtly glancing down at their nametag can save face, but if you get caught looking, you’re in trouble:

Alongside practicing your talk, you should also spend at least 5 hours a day in the run-up to the conference practicing the Glance. One thing you have to watch out for, though, is where people actually put their nametags. This in and of itself should probably have its own area of psychological research, but for now, I’ll outline the 3 main configurations:

1. Most sensible people tend to have their nametags either clipped to a shirt pocket (the safe option), or attached to a lanyard (the more risqué option). Beware the lanyard - while it seems like a sensible way forward, they have a habit of flipping over, so no one can see your name at all. Very dangerous. In situations where a flip has occurred, you can enter the conversation with a light-hearted quip pointing out this fact, in the hopes that they correct it and you can see their name before you need to use it.

2. The ‘cool guy’ approach is to clip it to a front pocket on your trousers (usually jeans). People who go for this approach think they look awesome, but never seem to realise how acutely irritating this configuration is - it increases Glance time, and therefore increases the chances of an awkward encounter - especially if it looks like you’re staring at someone’s crotch. Of course, some people may choose this option because they’re not wearing a shirt. These people should probably be avoided.

3. The invisible nametag. This is the most dangerous configuration of all - for you, the observer. People who don’t wear nametags can fall into one of three categories:

A) They’re a super-famous professor or leading researcher, and they don’t need a nametag because everyone knows who they are. Awkwardness potential = very high.

B) They *think* they’re a super-duper famous researcher, who thinks everyone *should* know who they are. Awkwardness potential = higher for them than for you, but still high for you.

C) They just forgot their nametag. Usually a PhD student or hapless post-doc (hello!), who wouldn’t mind that you don’t know their name. Awkwardness potential = low.

Once you’ve mastered the Glance, you’re good to go - don’t be afraid to go and talk to people, that’s what everyone’s there for! And don’t get too worked up about going over to talk to that amazing professor who’s leading the field you work in. If you’ve got an honest and interesting question, go and ask it. Don’t go over just to schmooze them though; chances are they won’t care/notice, and you might irritate other PhDs/post-docs that are around who do notice. And let’s face it, it’s the other researchers there who are at the same career stage as you that you want to be creating networks with, because one day, you’re going to be the ones leading the field.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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