Attending international conferences as a PhD student

Pre Conference Event, on the screen to the right Dr. Rebecca Oxford being interviewed

Attending conferences is a great way to share your research with a wider audience, meet other researchers and PhD students, and learn scientific discussion. That is what I learned this week while attending my first international conference! For a video, click here for my YouTube channel.

Plenary speech by Dr. Gary Barkhuizen on emotional rexlexivity

Submitting an abstract

Each conference has its requirements, so check them carefully before preparing, and submitting your abstract. As a PhD student, you can usually give a paper presentation (a talk with presentation slides) or a poster presentation (introducing a printed poster and discussing it with others). The following details are according to my experience at the PLL5 conference.

  • A paper presentation is a 15-minute talk with PowerPoint slides to introduce your ongoing or finished research paper. I saw presenters presenting already published papers, almost published papers, and even ongoing work. Some PhD students presented their research plans and future plans (though many conferences require you to already have data and results). With a paper presentation, you can introduce your paper to a wider audience at once (though attendance might depend on your topic, the location, the timing, and luck) and if the schedule is not too tight, there is usually time for questions as well.
  • A poster presentation means that you design a research poster and stand in front of it introducing it to those coming to see it. Poster presentation is a great opportunity to get feedback and have discussions about your research. It is very interactive and you can ask the audience questions as well.

You usually submit a short abstract and based on that, the organizing committee will choose who are invited to the conference to present their work. How easy it is to be chosen, depends a lot on the conference, some are more competitive than others. You can try to apply to a few conferences and then decide which one(s) to attend when you get the news.

In the abstract I believe it is important to show the importance of your search, how it matches the conference, and interesting aspects of the research. Requirements of the abstract might vary, so be sure to follow the requirements carefully.

Dr. Ali H. Al-Hoorie giving a speech on metamotivation

Attending the conference

Once you get food news, you can register for the conference, and start planning your trip. Check if you can or should apply for funding from your university or private foundations. Be sure to register on time and ask the conference organizers if there is anything unclear.

Tips regarding the conference program and attending presentations

  • Check when you are presenting and mark it in your calendar. Keep an eye on the program if there are any changes, and check it again right before the conference, and also during the conference if needed.
  • When you are not presenting, you can attend the other presentations. Often there are many presentations happening at the same time and you need to choose which ones to attend. Take a look at the program in advance and highlight the ones you think are most important for you.
  • Attend the talks that are most closely related to your topic, you can get many ideas for your research and perhaps connect with the speaker as well.
  • Also, attend the presentations of those key figures in your field, with their research experience often spanning decades, you are sure to learn a lot about your field.
  • Take notes, not to copy what is on the PowerPoint, but to jot down your reflections, and ideas that come to you during the speeches. I got so many new ideas for substudies when listening to the talks, and if I didn’t write them down right away, they might be forgotten later.
Plenary speech by Dr. Peter MacIntyre at the end of the conference, on the left Dr. Sarah Mercer giving an introduction

Conference expenses

Conference expenses can vary a lot depending on the conference fees, flight tickets, accommodation, and expenses during the conference. To give you just some idea of what to expect, I have listed below my expenses during a conference in Madrid.

I got a partial travel grant from the Turku University Foundation I am very grateful for. As you can see from the table above, it covered almost exactly half of the expenses. I tried to keep expenses low by buying simple lunch from the supermarket when possible, and avoiding expensive restaurants. I always took public transportation or walked to locations. For accommodation in Madrid, I chose a simple hostel with a private room close to a metro station.

As many attendees were also PhD students or attending the conference with their own money, it was also natural to discuss the expenses, and choose restaurants that matched everyone’s budget. As my university department usually only gives travel grants to those close to graduation, I will most likely have to rely on other types of funding next year as well. Often funding results come after everything is already paid, so I can realistically only plan one international conference per year.

Having lunch with new friends

Making connections

I am an introvert, and not the first one to raise my hand, but I found it easy to connect with others during the conference. Now it has been said that PLL is the friendliest conference there is, and I have yet to have experiences from other conferences, but I hope these few tips can be helpful.

  • Attend poster presentation to chat with other researchers, posters are often presented by PhD students so this is a great opportunity to connect with those similar to you.
  • Ask questions at the paper presentations or if there is time, thank the speaker after the talk, including what you learned from it.
  • Join evening events if possible, they are a great way to get to know others. Check if there is a specific event for PhD students and early career researchers. Don’t be afraid to attend alone.
  • Offer help if you see someone struggling to find the right room or needing a photo taken of them, and their poster. These are easy situations to strike up a conversation.
  • Be your genuine self, think about what you want to get out of the conference, and don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone just a little bit.
  • Relax and make new friends! Follow up afterward on social media and send an email.

I was honored to meet so many distinguished scholars, researchers, and other PhD students at the conference. We had lunch together, chatted during coffee breaks, and navigated the local public transportation together. One of the best parts of the conference was truly the people. I am amazed how welcoming everyone was, and how the more experienced scholars were genuinely willing to help us PhD students by inviting us to the community.

In conclusion, international conferences are an amazing opportunity to showcase your research, and to connect with the research community in your field. Above are the tips I wish I had before I attended, I hope they can be helpful for other PhD students attending conferences for the first time as well. Already looking forward to the next conference!

Video about the conference, click to my YouTube!