Surviving your First Academic Conference (Interview)

4 minute read

Attending your first conference as a PhD student can be daunting for anyone. Dr. Inger Mewburn, Director of research training at the Australian National University and editor of The Thesis Whisperer, a blog newspaper dedicated to the topic of doing your thesis, has kindly shared some advice on how to approach your first research conference.

The Thesis Whisperer

The idea of a blog newspaper for PhD’s doing their thesis is a fantastic idea – we asked Dr. Mewburn how this idea came to light.

“It was actually my Brother-in-Law Mark Nottingham who inspired me. When I first met him he was a photo-journalist, segued into web design and now does international web standards work. He’s famous on the internet, which means you’ve probably never heard of him unless you need to. He’s currently collaborating with Tim Berners Lee (yes – the man who ‘invented’ the www) on http 5 protocols. Whatever that means. All I know is that he once had Tim over to his house and didn’t invite me.

After I finished my Phd I fell into a bit of a slump. I assumed it was my job that needed to change, but there aren’t many jobs like mine. You never see them in the newspaper. I had no idea how to segue my weird bag of skills ‘outside’ so I took Mark out to lunch. Mark listened to me whinge and then said:

“You have a similar problem to me and all other advanced knowledge workers. Your job is so complicated and variable that you have trouble telling people what you do. You can only show them”.

Mark had correctly diagnosed my problem: no one understood what I did. Not even other academics. They thought my background was strange and found it difficult to accept that I could teach effectively outside of a discipline. I asked Mark what I should do. He said I needed a mission statement. I laughed, but he stayed completely serious about it. He encouraged me to think big. To think about what I really cared about. This took a couple of white wines because I am generation X and uncomfortable with anything but sarcasm when it comes to my career. I finally came up with this:

“I think the world is kind of screwed up. PhD students are incredibly smart people who can make a difference, but often they are stuck doing their PhD. My job is to help them finish, get out there and save the world.”

I still believe this mission – deeply.

And who knew, but it actually helps. Mark was right. Being guided by an over-arching mission gives my work life focus and meaning. It’s a test against which I pass through every work opportunity.

After he got me to articulate the mission he said: “Now start a blog, because your next job will come via the internet”. He then gave me some brief advice about blogging:

Publish regularly: you don’t have to publish everyday, but whatever you decide your schedule is, just stick to it. Being regular sends a message that you are serious, that people can depend on you to keep delivering. This means they are more likely to follow you.

Keep it short: People have a lot to read and reading on the web is different. They will probably only read the first couple of paragraphs (we know that most people will watch only 90 seconds of video). Mark suggested 700 words, but I regularly write up to 1200. 700 words suits technical subjects or marketing fluff, but academic work needs more space (at least that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it).

Be useful: this was the very best advice of all. I’m glad he told me this. I notice how often people miss the mark with blogging because they write for and about themselves, not for others. The trick is to think deeply about what kinds of problems your readers have and in what way your expertise might help them solve these problems.”

Attending my first Research Conference

As well as running the Thesis Whisperer, Dr. Mewburn writes papers and books about research student experiences. Attending research conferences as a PhD student is important but can be daunting, especially your first one. We asked Dr. Mewburn what are the typical challenges that face PhD students attending research conferences for the first time.

“Oh the horror of having no one to talk to at the tea table and being seated at a table of strangers at the conference dinner! The biggest challenge is the social situation you find yourself in – meeting a lot of strangers is daunting at any time, but worse if they are all terribly clever and you are tired. I have three key pieces of advice:

  1. Target people standing on their own and just start a conversation. A good question is: “so, have you seen any really interesting papers?”.
  2. You can only say about 100 words a minute clearly. Write your presentation as a script and do a word count. It’s unprofessional (and the sign of a newbie) to run over your allotted time.
  3. Make sure you have headache pills (they are good way of bonding with other people in bathrooms too).”

Focus of my first conference

We asked Dr. Mewburn what should be the primary focus for PhD students attending their first research conference – is it simply a networking opportunity or are there/should there be more definitive reasons for attending a conference?

“It’s networking mostly, so try to choose a conference with a history. If you go to the first ever meetup you may never see all those people together again. If you only have limited dollars, don’t blow it on a one off event, even if it sounds perfect.

Don’t be afraid to talk to the keynote! I’ve done 17 of these and I know that it’s hard to stand around afterwards with everyone too intimidated to talk to you. This goes for all the ‘high profile’ speakers – especially if they are international guests. Go up to them, tell them what you liked. Ask a question. If the conference is in your hometown, you have an edge over all the other people there. Ask the guest if they have plans for the evenings of their visit and, if they don’t, ask them out to dinner. Honestly – I’ve had some of the best nights of my academic life and made great friends with people who have bothered to do this.”

We’d like to thank Dr. Mewburn for such valuable insight into research conferences from a PhD’s point of view. You can follow her on Twitter here.

Happy Conferencing!