Attending a conference as a postgraduate student
At some point in your postgrad life you’re going to have to start going to conferences, particularly if you’d like a career in academia after your degree. Here’s a few pointers on how/when/which ones.
Before the conference
You need to present at a conference. Sorry. You just do. It’s an academic “thing”. Even if your work is a very small corner of a wider discipline, somewhere out there there’s a conference for you. Once you’re there, it’s your job to make everyone else interested in your research. There’s a lot of conferences out there. Start with the ones that someone else in your group wants to go to, because that’ll make getting funding and permission easier, and you’ll have someone to hide in a corner with when you get a little overawed by how smart everyone there is. Then move onto the conferences that are relevant to your subject and that you might want to present at. If you’re going to a faraway conference, or one that has a high registration fee, you need to present at it, otherwise it’s not worth your supervisor’s money to send you. Local conferences (pretty much anything in the UK) will be easy to get permission for, but if you want anything further afield, be prepared to be told to do a poster for it, at the very least.
Try looking on the events page of any important publications in your field, for starters.
It’s important to note that your supervisor is NOT on top of things. If you want to go to a conference, find one and tell your supervisor you’re applying to it. They’ll be fine with it. Unless it’s in San Francisco, in which case you’re going to need a lot of good reasons why you want to go to this one.
At the conference
So you’re now at a conference. You’re surrounded by a lot of very very clever people and you feel a little overwhelmed. This is completely natural. Do not attempt to compensate by getting drunk on all the free conference booze. This will not help. If you are presenting (either a poster or a talk), know that it doesn’t have to be perfect. However, you need to avoid looking either arrogant or massively underconfident. Arrogance makes everyone in the room (and they’re all smarter than you) want to knock you down a few pegs, and under-confidence tells everyone that you don’t believe or know what you’re talking about. Try and aim for the middle ground. And don’t worry too much if you think you miss it, everyone messes up sometimes, and no-one actually likes giving presentations.
If there’s a very smart person giving a talk on something similar to your research topic, go talk to them. Yes, it’s scary. Go do it anyway. They will probably be interested, as academia in general is full of very niche topics, and academics are usually gratified when someone thinks their research area is interesting enough to do a PhD in. Go have a chat.
Make sure you take the opportunity to explore the town or city you’re in for the conference. There’ll be at least one afternoon that’s completely free of lectures and presentations for you to go have a wander. Your brain needs a break from all the concentrating. Go for a walk.
Also, make friends! Keep in contact with the person you got drunk with at the conference dinner (look, I’m just being realistic, alright?). Add people on Facebook even if you’ll probably never see them again. They may be useful in the future, you never now. Above all, try and enjoy it. Use it as a way to meet professors you might want to work with, sure, but also just enjoy having a couple of days break from your own research in a new place.