The pros and cons of conferences

July 2, 2019

If you’re a graduate student, particularly one in the latter half of your degree program, you’re no stranger to conferences. Yes I am talking about those events where a hundred people sit in a lecture hall pretending to listen to a boring presentation, all dressed in their best, then try to network with a bunch of people whom they have never met before and will probably never see again. Well, what is a conference really like and should you go to them? Let me tell you about my experiences.


As a PhD student, I have only been to conferences where I am presenting my work, like a paper or a poster. This makes you a ‘presenter’. In other words, you are contributing to the efforts on display at the conference. It goes without saying that publishing papers is a good (and necessary) thing for researchers. If you’ll be presenting, try to make your presentation (or poster or demo) look good and attractive. The people sitting in the auditorium have been listening to presentations all day and yours is just one of the many on the schedule. The least you can do to engage their attention is to make your presentation stand out. There are plenty of excellent style and conversational guides on the internet related to giving a good presentation, so I won’t go into those details. But here’s one tip which has helped me a lot – do not show a lot of details of your work. Chances are you have already published a paper with a ton of details. You can give extra-interested viewers a link to the paper. But don’t go into the gory details in your presentation, make it nice and crisp and adhere to the time limit.

Other activities:

You might also be visiting a conference simply as an ‘attendee’, i.e. without any contribution. Or your presentation may have been in the first session on the first day, in which case you start wondering what to do for the rest of the conference. For one, try to sit through as many sessions as you can. You (or someone, maybe your advisor) has paid quite a lot in registration and hotel and travel expenses to send yourself to the conference, so you might as well sit through the sessions. Be warned, they can get really boring. At such times, it helps to let your concentration flicker at times, but then re-focus during the beginning and end of each presentation so that you get a general idea of what is being presented. Apart from sessions, conferences also have sessions to socialize with other people. Even if you don’t know anybody, just go out there and start talking to people. You will be surprised to discover that a lot of people have come to the conference without any companions, and would like the opportunity to talk to someone. Even if there’s nothing ostensibly to talk about, you can always talk about the common field which brings you both to the conference. Like if it’s a conference on studying insects, you can always talk insects (okay, bad example!).

The place:

Conferences are often held in places which offer a lot of value to a tourist. My first conference was held in Alghero, Italy, at a location right next to the Mediterranean (see pic). Sometimes the conference organizers will plan a touristy trip. If not, you can always plan your own if you get some extra time. Chances are you have travelled to a location where you may not get the chance to go again. So make the most of your spare time by roaming around.

The ICANN 2017 conference was held in the building on the far right (right next to the ocean) in Alghero, Italy

In a nutshell, conferences are a great place to showcase your research and have a good time. They can be boring, but only if you feel that way. So make them fun and worthwhile!

Published on July 2nd, 2019

Last updated on April 1st, 2021