How to Survive and Thrive at your first Academic Conference

How to Survive and Thrive at your first Academic Conference

I first started attending conferences when I first began my PhD back in 2010. Academics attend conferences for a multitude of reasons:

  • They are an excellent platform from which to share your research with your peers.
  • Conference offer an opportunity to test out new ideas and obtain feedback from one’s peers.
  • Depending upon your field of research, giving papers at conferences is sometimes essential to future employment, or at least will increase your job prospects.
  • Fellow researchers in your chosen specialism will also be in attendance, this is a perfect opportunity to so some networking.
  • Listening to research conducted by others gives you an opportunity to inform your own research and identify gaps in your knowledge.
  • Breaks in your research can sometimes be filled with the assistance of fellow attendees, especially if they are a leading expert in the field.
  • PhD students, early careerists and those more establishment are given the perfect setting in which to meet leading specialists and big names in the field.

Conferences can be anything for one-day events to covering a whole week. Different events also cater for different speakers and audiences. For instance, some conferences may be labelled ‘Postgraduate Conferences’. These primarily focus upon individuals who are working towards, or perhaps have just obtained either a Masters or a PhD. The audience members also tend to be postgraduate students. These conferences create a welcoming relaxed atmosphere encouraging networking amongst postgraduates and are usually one or perhaps even two-day events.

I organised a postgraduate conference as a PhD student; students from 9 different countries replied to my call for papers. This gave me an excellent opportunity to make new contacts with people from all over the world who I otherwise would never have met.

The larger conferences attract scholars in all stages in their careers and quite often attract an international audience. Those delivering papers may be predominantly those already established in their careers yet also welcome postgraduate speakers. In my field, there are a number of annual ‘must go to’ events. The largest of which is the International Medieval Congress held at the University of Leeds each July. This is a four-day event and is a wonderful opportunity to meet up with my fellow researchers from all over the world.

What to wear

When I was preparing to attend my first conference I was fanatically asking my friends what I should wear and I didn’t really get a straight answer. All I wanted to know was is it a formal occasion or a smart-casual affair. After being somewhat of a conference veteran, I have reached the conclusion that it depends upon whether you are giving a paper or not. When giving a paper I always wear something smart, e.g. skirt and blouse. However, when I am attending as an audience member, I always dress smart – causal, e.g. chinos and a smart top, or a summer (appropriate length) dress. I want to be comfortable but also remain aware that I will be conversing with some of the big names in my field and potential employers and publishers. Also ask people who work within your field, there may be a particular dress code you are expected to adhere to.


Look at the programme before you go; at the bigger events, sessions overlap so you will need to choose in advance which one you will want to go to. In which case, you won’t be able to attend everything, don’t feel bad, just prioritise. Locate the rooms in which the sessions will be held in in advance; as a speaker, it is off putting when someone walks into a room late when you’re half-way through your paper. If the session is popular you may also find you need to get there early to grab a seat.

It is really important to pace yourself. Attending conferences is exhausting, try not to do too much, if your body needs a rest you must listen to it.

Social Media

I always see people tweeting during papers and this has become socially acceptable. It also promotes the speakers as well as the person tweeting. Twitter is an excellent platform on which to make contact with others in your specialism and keep abreast with new research and publications. Make sure your twitter account is up-to-date before you attend so you can participate in this trend as well.



Do not be afraid to ask questions. This quite often gets you noticed and at the end of the session you might find other audience members or indeed the speaker may approach you for further discussion. However, it is important not to be insulting towards the speaker or ask them a question that is intended to confuse or overly challenge them. Some audience members ask questions as a veiled attempt to talk about their own research; this is not polite. The questions should be direct, short and about the paper or the research conducted by the individual speaker.


Top tips:

  • Always be ready to say something about your own research; at some point, someone will ask you about it.
  • Bring snacks and water – it will be a long day.
  • Make travel arrangements well in advance, check the institution’s website for travel information.
  • Make plenty of notes – if a paper is relevant to your own research you might find something that someone said useful, even if it’s months later. Which brings me on to my next point:
  • Always make a note of contact details. Sometimes speakers will provide these on a handout or on a PowerPoint slide, they want you to contact them, this is called networking and it’s extremely useful. You may find their research fascinating or similar to your own and can continue to discuss it over email after the conference.
  • Be confident, no matter what stage you are in your career.
  • Above all enjoy the experience! Make new contacts with people in your field.

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