Academic Conferences: Why PhD Students Should Attend Them

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For new and continuing PhD students questions often arise about Academic Conferences. Just what is an academic conference? Why should I attend such a gathering? With so many researchers, professionals, scholars, leading academics, and fellow students, along with a plethora presentations, sessions and topics, the very environment of an academic conference can feel overwhelming. Obstacles such as travel expense, time commitment, lodging and registration costs along with other considerations can arise between you and an academic conference.

This article will explain why all PhD students should indeed attend academic conferences during their doctoral studies and give some tips about navigating these obstacles. We will also see how academic conferences give PhD students outstanding opportunities that can greatly enhance their current and future research and scholarly careers. So, if you’re a current or future PhD student, or just looking into the lifestyle of the doctoral student, read on to learn more about just what an academic conference is, its purpose, and why it’s important to attend and contribute to academic conferences during your PhD studies.

ACADEMIC CONFERENCES: GETTING OUR BEARINGS

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How this basic question is answered is central, not only in getting a handle on just what such gatherings are, but, more importantly, for framing and laying out the very good reasons, which will be discussed below, for attending academic conferences. It’s all about motivation and the many likely benefits that come as a result of attending and presenting at academic conferences.

Academic conferences don’t have to be simply stuffy gatherings of professors and researchers, coming together to discuss exotic and arcane topics with merely an “academic” interest and relevance. Even if the topics treated at academic conferences often (but certainly not always!) fall out of the “mainstream” range of interests, conference gatherings are predicated upon the conviction that research and scholarship is interdependent with and flows out of the broader social, scientific, economic, religious, etc., contexts in which scholarship is pursued. Thus, organizers and presenters at academic conferences, whether directly or indirectly, see academic conferences as opportunities for scholars to serve the broader community through presenting research that challenges, clarifies, and advances learning and technologies that affect cultural, economic, and scientific development, and many other areas, at home and abroad.

THE BASICS: WHAT IS AN ACADEMIC CONFERENCE?

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So now, just what is an academic conference? A conference is a gathering of researchers and/or professionals in a given field wherein scholars present their ideas and engage in discussion and critical interaction with other experts and peers.

  • The core component of academic conferences is the presentation of new research in the form of papers and/or presentations.
    • It is common for there to be major presentations by “keynote” or “plenary” speakers who are respected experts at the top of their game in the field or discipline. These sessions are designed to draw an audience from the entirety of conference attendees.
      • Often these talks are longer than the rest of the presentations,
      • Keynote speakers often present on the major theme or themes of the conference.
    • Smaller presentations, usually with more specified topics of discussion and smaller audiences, offer other researchers the chance to present and test their discoveries and insights.
      • These sessions often take place concurrently with other presentations
  • Presentations at academic conferences are often followed by questions and discussion between presenters and their audience.
  • Commonly, either a selection of the papers or all the papers of a conference will be edited and published as “Conference Proceedings” subsequent to the conference.

WHEN AND WHERE ARE ACADEMIC CONFERENCES HELD?

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Academic conferences usually meet periodically. Some conferences gather annually, while others meet according to longer or shorter intervals. Often established conferences recur in the same location. However, many academic conferences are held in different locations. The stationary conferences as well as those that travel present positives and negatives to potential participants. Conferences that meet in different locales allow for greater accessibility for those living in a region where the conference is then taking place who would otherwise have to commit to traveling. A downside is that a conference in your neck of the woods one year could just as easily be on the other side of the country the following year. Academic conferences that meet in the same place year to year give organizers and potential participants the knowledge of just what to expect about the style and location of the conference. Such continuity can foster the building up of traditions wherein scholars become friends who are able to reconnect year to year and catch up on research and the experiences of the preceding year. The downside of this kind of stability is that if location creates a travel strain for you, that isn’t going to change.

THE SETTINGS…

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Academic conferences are often hosted by universities, colleges, or think tanks. Naturally this will entail that many conferences will be held on the campuses or grounds of the host institutions. However, academic institutions do not exclusively convene in the hallowed halls of universities and colleges. In fact, many conferences gather at hotels, convention centers and similar venues. This arrangement often means that academic conferences take place in major cities with nearby airports and public transportation. This can also give organizers and presenters greater convenience in getting to and from major transit centers.

… GETTING TO YOUR CONFERENCE

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Academic conferences, as important and enriching as they are for discovering new ideas, making personal connections, and presenting one’s research, can present real challenges when it comes the logistics of simply getting to them. Several factors contribute, which can make conference attendance and participation difficult, especially, for PhD students, Travel and time commitments must be foreseen and coordinated. “Do I have the money for a plane ticket?” If you can travel by car, is your vehicle up to it and can you afford the fuel costs? Or, “Do I have the time and money for bus or train fare.” With the heavy load of courses, research, and writing that any PhD program requires of its students, the immediate question arises: “Is this time away from work and study going to harm my own progress through my doctoral program?” Life as a PhD student requires great sacrifice. Financing and time are key considerations, so one must think carefully about whether a given conference is best suited to help one’s progress through his or her program and/or whether any given conference is a good logistical fit. In short, PhD students will need to plan ahead.

WHAT ABOUT CONFERENCE COSTS?

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On top of questions of time and travel, are the matters of lodging, food, and conference registration costs. Thankfully, many institutions offer funding to PhD students for attending academic conferences, especially, if the student is going to present a paper. So, in addition to saving up and planning ahead, PhD students should look into the conference funding policies and opportunities available through their colleges and universities. Scholarships and other forms of funding for travel, longing and conference costs may be available. Be sure to check with your program advisers about funding avenues as you plan for a conference.

CONFERENCES CAN BE NERVE-WRACKING

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Participating in and presenting at an academic conference has many benefits and provides a range of new possibilities, ideas and important opportunities. But, attending a conference can also be very intimidating, especially, if this is your first academic conference. Questions about your own knowledge and ability as well as how and where you fit into the scholarly and/or professional landscape will arise. You might feel incompetent or even a “fraud” in the presence of so many established researchers who have “been in the game” longer you have. Such apprehensive emotions are totally natural and to be expected. However, you must not let such feelings override the benefits of going to conferences and making the most of them.

ATTEND WITH COLLEAGUES

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A very effective way to help alleviate some of the just-mentioned anxieties, is to not go alone! Find colleagues in your program who are also going to the conference you’re interested in attending. Even better, ask friends within your program or within your field to go with you. Professors and mentors attending a conference with you can also be very powerful supports for managing and overcoming your anxieties. Often, in good PhD programs professors will encourage students to attend and present at conferences they themselves will participate in. In many cases professors and directors of PhD programs will even help students in organizing their travel and lodging arrangements and remain available throughout the conference to provide support and guidance. After all, professors have a vested interest in the success of their students, and the success of their students reflects upon both their own research and the quality of their PhD program. Excellent PhD student presenters reflects an excellent PhD program, which means greater notoriety and prestige to both professors and the programs where they teach.

So, remember, avail yourself of the gifts of colleagues, classmates and teachers. They will provide the right kind of support and direction needed for you to be successful at academic conferences.

BUT I DON’T REALLY NEED TO GO ACADEMIC CONFERENCES, DO I?

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PhD students can often come up with many reasons for why they need not attend academic conferences during their course of studies. These often boil down to three main reasons:

  • Students can’t quite see the benefits of participating in a conference;
  • They feel they’re not ready to present their research;
  • The whole thing would be just too inconvenient.

Let’s look, briefly, at these common reasons students give for passing over academic conference opportunities.

If a student has never participated in a conference, or if prior conferences experiences have not been good, just foregoing academic conferences may seem like a good option. A PhD program with heavy research and writing responsibilities already as well as maintaining a semblance of “normal” everyday life are enough to keep anyone busy. Having to prepare for an academic conference, coming up with something to present, along with all the logistical issues of just making it to and paying for a conference understandably raises the question of just “What good will this conference be for me”? Nerves and anxiety don’t help either.

HOW PHD STUDENTS TALK THEMSELVES OUT OF GOING TO ACADEMIC CONFERENCES

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Every PhD student has experienced the haunting thought: “I’m not ready”! Roadblocks of this sort can evoke a feeling of not having anything “new” to contribute. But you’ve got to find out! Academic conferences all are about presenting and testing lines of research and your own discoveries to a wider academic audience for critical engagement and feedback. Even if you haven’t mastered every aspect of your topic or haven’t fully worked your argument and anticipated all the likely objections, presenting at an academic conference is a great way to test your ideas in academic waters and discover whether they sink or swim.

TESTING AND CRITICISM HELP STRENGTHEN SOUND RESEARCH

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And, even if one believes he or she is really on to something new, a next question arises: “Is my research thesis solid enough and sufficiently complete and coherent to withstand criticisms from other experts in the field”? Researches often feel very protective of their intellectual progeny, and don’t like being told their baby isn’t attractive. First, your academic work must be kept in perspective. It is, indeed, painful to have your brilliant insights tarnished by the solvent of criticism. But, facing fair and searching criticism is part of the job description for researchers and professionals. It’s better to be early on made aware of potential weaknesses in your work by others in the field than to get far down the road in writing an article or working on your dissertation and discover that your thesis has been exploded. On the bright side, if you’ve done your homework, the feedback you receive will be very helpful in clarifying the purpose and scope of your project and in making it more presentable and accessible to others. This only benefits your work!

WHAT IF YOU’RE OVERWHELMED BY IT ALL

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The third common reason PhD students come up with for not participating in academic conferences closely follows and relates to the first two excuses. “It’s just too much”! Academic conferences require diligent study and preparation, which takes time away from life, coursework, and dissertation/thesis research. The inconvenience can seem to outweigh the likely benefits, and, besides, “I can better spend my time actually working directly towards my doctorate”!

Reasons like these often work together as strong demotivators that can tip the scales towards not participating in academic conferences. And, it must be admitted, that these are actually reasonable motivations. In the next section we find that these negative pulls can be re-framed and overcome when some of the benefits of and reasons for why PhD students should attend conferences are presented. If you’ve felt like this about academic conferences and have dismissed their importance for your PhD studies, read on! You may be surprised.

REASONS WHY PH.D. STUDENTS SHOULD ATTEND ACADEMIC CONFERENCES

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Participating in and presenting at academic conferences is worth the effort! Benefits flowing out of one’s involvement at a conference often continue long after the conference has ended. This is the case even if there are difficulties and risks in scouting out and making it to those important conferences. The needed planning and extra research and work it takes make possible the many benefits that can follow from seriously engaging in academic conference. Conferences help teach PhD students as they work towards their degrees how to put their best foot forward as they look towards their future careers.

DELIVER THAT PAPER! GIVE THAT PRESENTATION!

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Personal and professional development is at stake. This is your opportunity to shine! Even if you have doubts and anxieties about presenting at a conference, do it anyway. Prepare your paper/presentation and be ready for criticism as well as, more often, constructive suggestions. After all, no scholar masters every facet a given field. You should go into your presentation with confidence and think of it as your chance to:

  • Showcase your ideas;
  • Get feedback on your project;
  • Gain greater clarity in your own mind about your thesis and how to make it clearer and more interesting and how it links in with related research areas.

Just presenting at a conference and listening to other presenters and engaging in dialogue will broaden your personal vision of the discipline you’ve chosen

  • This will help establish both the relation and context of your field with respect to related and even unrelated topics.
  • You will be introduced to additional figures, texts and topics

Academic conferences both as a presenter and as only a participant will clue PhD students into the latest trends in the field, affecting:

  • Research approach;
  • What questions to ask;
  • Where to look for information;
  • And many other areas of scholarship.

Often papers from a conference will be edited and published, giving a PhD student to produce a publication while still in the doctoral studies phase: big, bright scholarly feather in your thinking cap!

BE PERSONAL AND ENGAGING THROUGHOUT YOUR TIME AT THE CONFERENCE!

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While you’re at a Conference and not presenting your own brilliant work: What to do? Attend other presentations! Listening to an academic or professional paper or presentation is not like reading a book or a scholarly article. Pay attention carefully to the presentation and the ensuing discussion. This may spark new lines of thought in your own mind. If you’re a newbie to academic conferences, you’ll see first-hand how these events work.

  • Select those conferences most interesting and pertinent to your field.
  • Don’t limit yourself, however. Branch out and explore new topics.
  • Try to attend the keynote and plenary sessions, as these will give you an idea of who is at top of the field and how they work and present their research. Just be sure to arrive early for a good seat.

When you’re not in a session in the hallways and at meals approach scholars about your ideas (and theirs, too, of course!).

  • This will help you make your own ideas interesting, as you practice relaying them to new people you meet.
  • You will intersect cross-culturally with other scholars and researchers.
  • New ideas will come across your path.
  • Connections, both scholarly and friendly, will develop

Like-minded and sympathetic collaborators will be gained, which can often.

  • Turn into future projects;
  • Occasion healthy discussion;
  • Help solidify and focus your own research.

TAKE IN MORE THAN JUST THE CONFERENCE

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Remember, participation in academic conferences often requires travel. This can be regional, national, or even international. While at your conference be sure to look beyond the conference and take in some of the local scenery, history, culture, and cuisine. Exploring the local scene can be a nice break from the rigors of the conference and broaden your experience and outlook. If friends and/or colleagues are in attendance at the same conference, site-seeing and getting a bit of the local flavor could become a shared experience that transcends scholarship. Be sure to take a look at online information centers and tourists guides to help you better plan your extra-curricular excursions. Finally, if you know people in the area, you could arrange to reconnect with them. Also, be sure to check with them about “can’t miss” places and restaurants.

Two basic rules for planning your non-conference events while attending an academic conference:

  • Plan ahead. Find out what’s interesting and/or important to take in while you’re in a given city.
  • Make sure you know the conference schedule, so you won’t be missing out when you take your excursion.

JUST THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG!

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Conference participation will also give you as a PhD student greater access, going forward in your research, to personal and scholarly resources, important individuals and topics. Listening and paying attention to other presentations will key you in on current trends and discussions. Discussion with peers and established scholars will guide you to new possibilities and discoveries as well as sharpen your perspective on where your own work fits into the field and where to look for more information.

KNOW WHERE TO JUMP IN!

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Academic conferences will help PhD students recognize and establish scholarly benchmarks in terms of:

  • Cutting edge discoveries and theories;
  • Personal presentation and research;
  • Learning the best practices, methods and resources in research, presentation of your ideas and personal networking.

A final reason why PhD students should go to academic conferences is because their own interests and research will be reinvigorated! The change of pace and scenery combined with interacting with like-minded scholars and professionals with blazing discoveries and a passion for the field can’t help but spark the scholarly excitement of any belabored doctoral student. Interacting with new ideas and vigorous discussion, debate, and dare I say, scholarly competition will fan the smolders of stagnant research into a bright flame of discovery.

BE PREPARED!

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Remember, academics conferences are first and foremost about the opportunity to meet and engage with scholars in the field and to present your own research. You must make a good impression! This takes work beforehand. You must prepare well!

First, carefully check out conference options. Make sure the conference you attend is the right fit. Talk with academic mentors and trusted colleagues. They will help clarify with you whether a given conference is a good fit for you and your research interests.

Second, presenters are often required to provide abstracts of the paper/presentation they hope to give. These are normally reviewed by the experts organizing or assisting with the conference. So, have a clear thesis you’re going to argue! This will help your readers and listening audience follow your argument and will help you better see what you’re actually hoping to argue. Consult your academic mentors in your PhD program. They often provide indispensable guidance in making sure your marvelous discoveries and shimmering argumentation make sense to more people than just yourself. Also, test your thesis before you present with colleagues and peers. Many times, informal discussion with those like-minded will bring out new insights and deeper implications to your own research that you hadn’t yet imagined!

Third, think beyond the actual presentation. You’ll be spending a lot more time at your conference not giving your presentation than giving it. Practice your “elevator pitch”. Be ready to share your ideas in distilled but bubbly form that excites people both attend your presentation as well as follow up with you about after your presentation.

Finally, be confident and remember to enjoy yourself!