Thursday, October 1, 2015

PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: How to prepare for your first conference

This post is part of the series PhD Talk for AcademicTransfer: posts written for the Dutch academic career network AcademicTransfer, your go-to resource for all research positions in the Netherlands.

These posts are sponsored by AcademicTransfer, and tailored to those of you interested in pursuing a research position in the Netherlands.

If these posts raise your interest in working as a researcher in the Netherlands, even better - and feel free to fire away any questions you might have on this topic!

Today's post is about preparing yourself to attend and (I am assuming) to present at your first academic conference. I'm assuming you have written your paper (if you haven't done so yet, check out how I write my conclusions), and your request has been approved - now, all that remains to be done, is to "just" go and attend the conference.

1. Request a travel budget

I think it's inherently wrong that we're so often tacitly assumed to be forking out (part of) the money ourselves to attend conferences. Asking an underpaid PhD student to pay a registration fee of 1000 USD at a conference is so far away from the gist of why we are practicing science and want to exchange our ideas. Most universities do have travel budgets you can apply to. Some of these additional scholarships are more unbiased, in other cases you might just need to write a letter to an Important Person and hope he reads this on a good day and helps you with the expenses. By all means, the system at Delft University of Technology is fair and straightforward: if you have the approval to travel, they take care of all your expenses (including the cost of food while you are away).

2. Book in advance

Many conferences have early-bird registration fees. Avoid additional costs by booking as early as possible (by the same token: apply for travel funding as early as possible). Similarly, your flight ticket and hotel registration may be cheaper when you book in advance - and you avoid the unpleasant situation of not finding spots on the flight or in the hotel of your choice anymore as the date of your conference approaches. Booking early is part of being well-prepared.

3. Study the conference schedule

Now that you know that you are going for sure, it is time to outline your itinerary for the days of the conference. Make sure you read all the information of the conference, and know where and when to register (pro tip: try to register as early as possible to avoid unpleasant surprises, such as a payment that did not go through and your registration that did not get processed).
Read the titles of all presentations to familiarize yourself with the topics, and mark which presentations you want to see. Note that sometimes presentations only are remotely related to the topic of the session, so don't let yourself be guided too much by the topic of the session. Plan to ask questions after the presentations as well.

4. Identify who to talk to

From the conference schedule, identify who is carrying out research related to yours, and make sure you attend these presentations. Try to talk with the presenter after his/her presentation, so you can introduce yourself to him/her. Also identify in the scientific committee if there are senior researchers you would like to talk to - often the members of the scientific committee will attend the conference as well.

5. Plan some downtime

Conferences are exhausting, so it is a good ideas, especially for your first conference, to identify when you could have a little bit of downtime. If your conference schedule is packed with dinners until midnight and sessions that start at 8 am, you will be running on -say- 6 hours of sleep, which for many of us is not enough. Factor in the fact that attending conference presentations is like a scaled-up version of attending lectures, and you know you need your full concentration to benefit from attending the sessions. Often as well, you will be jetlagged and tired from traveling to the conference, so that doesn't help either to keep your attention sharp. Don't neglect self-care when traveling.

6. Pack your clothes

When packing your bag, travel light - just take the clothes you are planning to wear for the days of the conference, a spare shirt in case you spill your coffee, workout clothes if you think you can squeeze in some exercise, and comfortable clothes for your flight. You can find an overview of what I typically take to a conference here. Keep in mind as well that sometimes you might be traveling to a warm destination, but the AC in the conference venue might be turned to arctic. Similarly, you might be heading to Snow Capital in January, and find that the heating is set to boil you alive. The solution: take some layers.

7. Explore the city

Plan in advance when you will have time to see something of the city, and what you are going to visit. Keep in mind that the conference is your main goal, but that the chance that you will return to the city of the conference in the next years might be small. A good strategy is to arrive early: you will have a day to see something of the city, register for the conference, and if your flight gets delayed you only miss out on the touristing part and will not have your attendance at the conference in peril.

8. Go with your presentation ready

You will not have time to make your presentation during the conference. Go well-prepared and have your presentation ready, and practiced. I typically make my presentation 2-3 weeks in advance so that I can send it to my co-authors for approval. I also (still, after all these years!) practice my presentation until I have a good feeling for the time I have available. Keep in mind as well that if, for example, your conference has 4 presentations per hour, you will not speak for 15 minutes. You'll need to calculate the time for getting introduced, sometimes the time for getting the computers up and running, and time for questions. For this case, prepare a presentation of 10-12 minutes. You don't want to be the person taking too much time (especially not before the coffee or lunch breaks, when everybody wants to go eat, drink something or just take a break). Many conferences will ask you to send/upload your presentation in advance. By all means, check in the speaker ready room if your presentation is in the system, and if everything comes on the screen as you intended it to (different versions of powerpoint sometimes move things around - correct that before you are up on the stage to present).
If you feel insecure about presenting your (early) work to some of the top researchers in your field, you can practice power-posing to boost your self-confidence.

9. Travel early

I once almost missed the first day of a conference because my first flight was delayed, I missed my connecting flight and then was put onto the waiting list. I was hoping so hard they'd find a spot for me, and just before the flight took off, I heard my name from the standby list as cleared to board. Since then, I've been traveling with a day of extra time for my long flights. I'd rather stay one night extra in the hotel, than miss the entire first day of a conference because of travel problems.

10. Have everything backed-up

Print out your boarding pass, hotel reservations and conference registration confirmation. Figure out how to get from the airport to the hotel to avoid having to pay for a cab. Print out your slides of the presentation to practice. Put all the emails about the conference, your paper, presentation and all relevant documents on a back-up for when you need them. I am not traveling with a laptop anymore, but use a Surface tablet (the device itself is so glitchy that I wouldn't recommend you getting it, but when it works, it is useful for my teaching and for having access to MS Office and the internet when traveling)

11. Plan you time before and after the conference

I once did the math to see how much time a conference really takes me - from the step of finding a suitable conference to present my work to the point of needing some extra time to recover after a conference.
Keep in mind as well that, after the conference, you don't just simply return to your office, park yourself in front of your computer and get going again. You'll need to file for reimbursement and do all the administration work. You will need to send a few emails to catch up with people you met during the conference. Your overflowing mailbox might take a day to get sorted out. You'll need to catch up in the lab to see how things are going. There'll be people who need to talk to you, mail you or phone you. You'll be tired and busy. Plan accordingly.


  1. I want to buy train tickets from inside the Netherlands a week or so before going to Paris (I don't want to buy them online)
    Where in the Netherlands do they sell these types of train tickets?

    1. You want the ticket to go to Paris you mean? Most larger train stations have an international counter. The NS website can show you which is the train station closest to where you will be that sells the tickets.