My PhD supervisor was very supportive of conference attendance. She funded all of her students to attend conferences every single year.
Although not everyone will have a supportive supervisor, or the funds to go to every single conference, I think there are 5 types of conference every single PhD student should aim to attend during their candidature regardless of their goal beyond their PhD.
Leading international conference
Seeing the best work in the world in your topic area should be the highest priority. International conferences are not cheap. And if you’re located in Australia they are even more expensive – simply by virtue of the travel costs to Europe, and north America where most international conferences have historically been held.
COVID has made attendance harder, and easier. Some conferences got cancelled, but others went online. And, as parts of the world progress to COVID normal conference organisers have realised they can make conferences more accessible by making them blended – online, and in-person.
So, definitely target an international conference as part of your candidature. Find the best one you can possibly attend. Work hard to get funding to attend. Even if you don’t want to become an academic, the networking, and personal connections you can develop will be worth it.
In many cases, these large international conferences are held every few years – maybe even as (infrequently) as every 4 years. So, bear that in mind. You might be in year 1 now, and plan to attend your first international conference in 3 years….
If you can tee up an international conference towards the end of your PhD, you might also have enough data to be competitive in submitting a talk. But you should certainly be submitting a poster.
Leading national conference
International conferences will expose you to the best in the world. That is great. But COVID and day-to-day limits mean getting to meet with these leading researchers can be hard. So, you should also expose yourself to the best in your country. The leading national conference. These kinds of conferences are generally held more frequently – every year or two. Meaning you can meet someone once, and perhaps see them again at a conference as part of your PhD. The leading national conference will also give you exposure in your field. You might even find some industry participants attend the conference, helping you identify industry partners, organisations or people who might be interested in funding your research.
For a PhD student, it might be possible to submit a talk to a national conference earlier in your candidature. And you can expect a lot of PhD students to be submitting posters.
If you stay in academia beyond your PhD, many of these people will be your academic peers. Some could be future industry collaborators.
If you decide to leave, the attendees could be your future collaborators or maybe even hiring managers (having left academia sooner than you). And don’t forget to chat with people in the various sponsor booths. Yes, you might get some free stuff, but you will learn so much about non-academic career pathways.
Local special interest group
Chances are, the leading international conference and leading national conference cover your field in a broad sense. So, to get more detailed support, more detailed review, more detailed understanding, it is important to find and attend a conference that is local, and special interest. Special interest to something you are focused on or are going. It might be a technique. A region. A data collection process. Data analysis process. Where you could attend a session or read a poster and pretty much take that straight back to your program and apply it. Or reach out and start a collaboration.
It is likely these interest groups will have more informal gatherings. Some might be paid. Others free. Few, if any, sponsors. That’s okay. The informality allows for freer and easier interactions. And the proximity allows you to easily develop a collaboration outside the conference.
Universities are increasingly aware of the plight of PhD students, and ECRs. One of the ways PhD students and ECRs are being support is through conferences aimed at bringing this cohort (ECRs and PhDs) together.
These conferences tend to be less about the research or data, and more about professional development. Skills that are universally useful in research and beyond. The program might provide support writing grants, publications, social media, resumes, data analysis, as well as accessing and using university infrastructure.
Attending these types of conferences is important to build your support network. These people will help you be aware of what is possible. What is right. What is wrong. How to get help. When to stay. When to go.
Of course, there are also opportunities to develop research collaborations. But in many cases, these interactions are secondary or tertiary goals.
Local Industry Conference
If you want to take your research into practice, find an industry conference.
Try to find something that is large enough to include several participants from the same sector. Organisations you might consider competitors. But don’t go too large. You also need to have the conference be local enough that you could contact and work with a potential partner outside the conference.Bear in mind an industry conference won’t look the same as an academic one. It might even be, what you consider to be, a bunch of sales pitches. That’s okay. The point is to learn what industry are talking about. To learn what questions they are asking. To learn what questions they are answering. To find out what isn’t being covered. To find out what isn’t being talked about. Just like an academic conference doesn’t cover everything, don’t expect an industry conference to cover everything. And just because you are an academic (in training) don’t assume industry needs or even wants your solution.
Dr Richard Huysmans is the author of Connect the Docs: A Guide to getting industry partners for academics. He specialises in delivering high quality strategic advice to the education, research, and government sectors. He is driven by the challenge of helping researchers be commercially smart, making academic ideas practical; the art of the #pracademic. Richard’s clients appreciate his cut-through approach. He knows the sector and how to turn ideas into reality.
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