Conferencing Toolkit for Postgrads

Are you ready to conquer your fears?

Covid-19 robbed me of my most favourite part of postgrad life: Conferencing. The lockdown regulations came with strict restrictions on all local and international travel; this meant that for the first time in a very long time, I was not going to attend any local or international conference. All I could do is reminisce of the good all times when I was booked into fancy hotels and fed all in the name of conferencing! Jokes aside, attending conferences has been one of the key aspects that shaped my career outlook and my perception of academia on a global scale. 

At my first conference, it felt like I was thrown in the deep end and left to drown. It was intimidating! But with the right mindset and preparations, I am now a conference wizard (yes I’m blowing my own horn). In this blog, I will share useful tips on how to gain the most from attending conferences.

PRE-TRAVEL PREPARATIONS

Step 0 of the pre-travel preparations is choosing a conference that is relevant to your field, and that will positively impact your research. To gain maximum impact from the conference, presenting your research findings is highly recommended. The conference organisers select presenters based on an abstract submitted during registration, so the abstract has to standout if one wishes to present. These are the key ingredients for a brilliant abstract: Give motivation on why your research is relevant to the field. Highlight the methodologies you used. Emphasise the results you obtained. Then, outline what you have concluded from your study.

If you have a poster presentation, it is best to print your poster before travelling. For oral presentations, one can always neaten up the presentation during the conference. However, knowing your audience in advance will help you structure your presentation so that it speaks to the audience (e.g. if the audience is well informed about your topic then you won’t spend a lot of time on the introduction). Finally, prepare a two-minute elevator pitch which is a summary that highlights the importance of your research; this comes in handy for the brief coffee break encounters.

Many conferences offer travelling or registration funding for students, be sure to apply early. Once you are registered, keep check of the list of attendees and invited speakers. Knowing your attendees is advantageous because you can have a strategy for your networking engagements and you might find a student from your country or is also attending and hence might be a potential conference buddy. Brief research on the invited speakers will help with planning which sessions to attend if the conference has plenary sessions and who to approach during the breaks.

LOGISTICS

Sharing basic logistic information might sound tedious for frequent travellers, but my first international conference was my first international travel experience, and there are a few things I wish I knew before boarding the plane. Different international border gates require various documents upon arrival, ensure that all these documents are printed (Invitation letter, hotel reservation, a letter from your institution, etc.). It is always a good idea to have some cash with you, if you plan to change currencies at the airport they will require proof of residence so carry that with you. A student’s life is dependent on having a functioning laptop so when travelling note that various countries have different charging ports and adaptors be sure to pack the correct charger/adaptor (I’ve learnt this the hard way). Always check if the conference provides transfer from the airport, if not book a cab in advance. Lastly, download or save a map in your phone that you will be able to use even without data so that you don’t get lost.

AT THE CONFERENCE

As much as there is pressure to be seen and heard, always relax and be yourself. Conferences are the best places to find potential collaborators and supervisors, so all the preparation is worth doing. The elevator pitch will be essential on the first day of the conference as everyone is getting to know each other. The following days should be used for networking and putting your research out there. Don’t be intimidated in the coffee and lunch breaks. Speak to people and initiate discussions; not all conversations have to be based on your research interests. Be open with everyone and don’t shy away from making (appropriate) jokes or hopping onto discussions you are passionate about. You also have the chance to meet researchers that you have been referencing in your papers. It is not always about telling them about your current article, maybe just introducing yourself and make a comment that they will remember you when you send them an email afterwards.

In preparation for your presentation day, ensure that you have an early night, wear comfortable clothes and thoroughly go over your slides/ poster (try to prepare for possible questions). For oral presentations, check your slides at the presentation venue to see if they are clear and compatible with the venue systems.

Unfortunately, not all people attending conferences have pure intentions, be alert, and if you plan on going out, it is advisable to always have a trusted companion with you. Some attendees (young and old) can behave most inappropriately, don’t be afraid to speak out and report to the relevant committees.Most importantly, have fun! Conferences are a working visit, but they also offer cultural experiences which are first time experiences for many students. For me, each conference has always resulted in friendships that lasted far beyond the academic encounters. Once the conference craze is over, and you are back at work, you should follow up with the people you met at the conference to further cement your engagements and start collaborations.

Preparing For A Virtual Conference

The advise I shared will come in handy when things return to ‘normal’; however, for now, we are stuck with virtual conferences. Although virtual conferences may seem less demanding, one still needs to prepare. Most of the pre-travel preparations I above mentioned still apply; however, the logistics and networking differs slightly for the virtual conference.Before the conference starts, go through all the conference material and ensure that you have successfully downloaded the platform that will be used for the conference. Familiarise yourself with the different functionalities within the platform (e.g. How to raise your hand, how to join breakaway rooms, etc. ). You then need to prepare a suitable work environment that will enable you to fully participate at the conference with minimal disturbances. Ensure that your workstation has relatively reliable internet connection! For networking, don’t be afraid to reach out to participants (through individual chat boxes or emails), engage during breakaway sessions, and spark conversations always ask questions to presenters or panel members.

Of writing

What did I learn about getting a dissertation done?

By the time this piece is published my dissertation will be sitting in the hands of my examiners and I will be moving on to my PhD. The last two and-a-bit years have been the most intense learning experience of my life, professionally and personally, and in the brief moments of peace between franticly making the last few edits of the final draft there has been much reflection about what this degree meant to me. This is a quick reflection about one (significantly important) aspect of that journey: Writing.

I have always been bookish. My childhood was a stark contrast of feral adventures exploring the natural world, and having my nose buried in one of the thousands of imaginary realms hidden behind yellowing pages and rigid text. Reading is, in my opinion, the basis of all writing because it exposes you to different styles. Finding your own style is crucial if you want your work to come across as authentic. My reading has always had a distinct lean towards the natural sciences with significant influence from the recommendations of my Dramatic Arts and AP English teachers (and in more recent years my friends of jurisprudential flavour). This has led to a somewhat unconventional style, particularly for a career in STEM.

Reading widely also exposes you to new ideas. It allows you to blend disciplines and gives opposing thoughts time to marinate in the mind. This is certainly important for developing ideas, but I think it is also largely because of my obsession with reading widely that writing came easily to me. Essays and assignments at school, and well into my undergrad, flowed from pens without much planning and I tended to edit as I write instead of after. Writing a dissertation is, however, an entirely different beast to wrestle with.

Despite writing coming easily to me, I am incredibly critical of what I write and never enjoy actually reading my own work. A dissertation requires you to go back, re-read, reflect, and correct. I’ve had to learn that sometimes it’s better to just write, get some points on paper, and keep it moving even if you’re not entirely happy with the immediate output. I usually prefer to tackle large chunks of writing in one-go, but this isn’t possible every day. Don’t underestimate how quickly daily additions of even short pieces can add up and help you finish a chapter, particularly when you’ve hit a low patch and aren’t feeling productive. A dissertation is also an ever-evolving piece of writing, but it will also never be perfect. As we’ve reached the final stages I’ve had to learn that a dissertation is, after all, just a submission for a degree. It’s never meant to be a career-defining piece of writing, but a step towards a qualification. As much as there is always a better way to structure and word a paragraph, and I’ve had to learn to leave things as I’ve written them if there’s no real reason to change things.

For those of you thinking of doing, or who are just starting, a Masters I think the only real advice I can give you is to read outside your discipline, and to just write. It’s a fine balance between developing your ideas and getting it down on paper, and your approach will be unique to who you are, your style or writing, and the subject of your research. Write in a way that is reflective of who you are, but see the piece for what it is: a stepping-stone.

@HaysHarvest