Most of us who pursue a graduate level degree know that attending an academic conference is a worthwhile opportunity. Why? An obvious reason is we get to learn new knowledge in the field. From my experience, going to conferences benefits me far beyond this answer.
I do believe that attending a conference provides an excellent platform for professional development. First and for most, it allows us to put ourselves out there and present interesting findings from our research. This can lead to further thought-provoking discussion among us and other scientists in the field. Most of the time, we think and work on our own and it is always productive to have someone with fresh eyes critically share their thoughts on our work as well as what we could do to improve it. In some case, we might interact with someone who is working on a specific area that complements our work. In that case, the discussion can lead to potential future collaborations.
As a young scientist, I found both oral and poster presentation to be very challenging in different ways. An oral presentation is usually 12 minutes long. You have a 10-minute period to tell your story and another 2 minutes to answer questions from the audience.
From my experience, you can excel the presentation part by practicing and putting a lot of thoughts on the flow of the presentation and limit the contents to where your target audience can follow easily in 10 minutes. Knowing your audience is always the most important key to success in a presentation. This is because you would cater the information, details to be included and words you use to suit your audience.
The more difficult part for me is when you need to respond to questions from the audience. Given that I am already nervous to speak in public, I need to think on my feet in order to provide a sound answer to a question which I might not have thought about before. It is definitely challenging, yet helpful for developing my skills in communicating science. And remember, to master a skill, you need to keep practicing it. You might fail many times before you start to feel like you are getting better, BUT that’s a required step of growth 🙂
Apart from the opportunity to present your research, you would get to expand your circle of people who work in the same field and have similar research interests as you. As you can imagine, this is very useful and necessary especially when you are graduating and hoping to secure a job in the near future. Many people, myself included, dread the idea of networking. However, if you see it as an opportunity to getting better at networking (again practice makes perfect!) and you have nothing lose (since you might meet that person only that one time anyway lol). This helps put you in a productive mindset and might boost your confidence to go for it.
Also, networking can be very fruitful at times. Many times I heard stories of people who got their job because a friend of their colleague knew someone that can link that person to his or her future boss. Therefore, it is worth keeping your eyes opened and get to know new people. A couple of times I have met people who have become my good friends until now.
Another thing I appreciated from my experiences going to scientific meetings is I get to learn about a life story of thought leaders in my research area or their path to becoming a great scientist. I found this to be very inspiring and encouraging. Working in research requires a perseverance both mentally and physically. Therefore, it is very easy to fall for failures or failed experiments and feel bad for yourself in the course of Ph.D. study. Hearing how senior successful scientists overcome these challenges and thrive in this type of environment definitely help open my perspective and encourage me to keep working hard and determine to my goal rather than focusing on small setbacks that we inevitably cannot avoid.
In addition to all the skills I earned from attending conferences, it is an opportunity for me to apply for financial support. Most research societies provide a travel grant for graduate students who have outstanding research work to present their work at the meeting. Applying for this type of sponsorship not only will you receive monetary support to attend a meeting, but also get a recognition for your research work which subsequently would enhance your profile in the long run. Besides an external support from meeting organization, I sometimes apply for a financial support from my college. Given that you presenting your work which has been conducted on campus, you help publicize the research quality at your university at the same time. Therefore, you are likely to get a fund from your university to go to a meeting.
Lastly, I enjoyed traveling to a new city as a way to broaden my horizons. Besides that, I get to meet new people as well as reunite with my old friends/colleagues. So I always have a wonderful experience attending a meeting both for my professional development and for my personal fulfillment.