Towards the end of June I set off to my first ever conference as a PhD student. I am a 2nd year PhD student in Biomedical Sciences and have spent the last (nearly) 2 years researching all about Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), which is also known as Motor Neuron Disease. Therefore when I saw that the European Network to Cure ALS (ENCALS) conference was happening in June I thought I would sign up.
When researching different conferences I never realised how far ahead in time you needed to look. Most conferences advertise 6-12 months prior to the event with registration opening at a similar time. Lots of conferences have limited places so you need to be organised to make sure you get your place. I have already signed up to another conference in December and that’s over 6 months away.
There are also quite early deadlines for abstract submissions. If you want to present your work at the conference, you normally have to submit an abstract. This is a 250-400 word paragraph explaining all about your work and your results to date, basically an advertisement of yourself! The conference organisers will then read through all of the abstracts and decide if they are of high enough quality for the work to be presented. At most conferences, you can present your work in either a poster format, similar to the Faculty of Science Postgraduate Poster Day held in April this year, or in a short talk, normally 15 minutes long. This is a great chance for you to show your work to other people in your field as well as get feedback and ideas on what to do next. That’s why it is a good idea to attend at least one conference during your PhD.
Conferences are also great places to network. Particularly if you are approaching the latter half of your PhD, conferences are a great place to meet potential future employers and show your face and your work to them. It is always handy to have met your potential future boss before an interview or job application and a conference is a perfect place to do this. The conference I attended also had a conference dinner included in the price; this is another great way to interact with new people and talk a bit more informally with them.
In terms of paying for conferences, they can be quite expensive, but every lab or research group has different funding sources. I got my funding from my department’s Learned Society fund, designed to help people attend conferences. There are also loads of research societies that have travel grants. For the majority of them you need to have been a member for at least 1 year so again you may need to plan ahead of time, but they are normally quite generous with their funding for your travel, accommodation and registration fees.
Another great opportunity when attending conferences is the fact you get your travel funded so you can make the most of attending some new and exciting cities across the world. My conference was in Oxford, so not overly exotic, but it was still a lovely place to visit and be a tourist for a while. Most conferences have packed schedules so I recommend arriving a day or two before the conference or having a couple of extra days afterwards. This is especially the case if your conference is abroad as this gives you a chance to acclimatise/overcome any potential jetlag before the conference starts, as well as to do some sightseeing.
So conferences may be a bit scary but it’s definitely worthwhile attending at least one during your PhD. I learnt a lot during my 3 day conference, met loads of new people, made some friends and even if I was exhausted by the end of it, it was a great experience.