Experiencing your first international conference

VICentrancehall

Entrance hall to the Vienna International Centre


For any PhD student, their first conference is always going to be daunting. The fear of the unknown is what many people are afraid of and I certainly count myself as one of those. I attended my first conference in September 2014, which just so happened to be the BSG annual meeting at my home institution. Therefore this didn’t feel like the true experience to me as I was very comfortable; I was in a city that I walk around every day, with people that I knew well and had plenty of insider knowledge of how things were going to run.

At my first international conference (EGU, April 2015) this feeling was very different and I was apprehensive about finding my way around Vienna, the conference centre and generally how my research would be received. The BSG kindly provided me with a substantial sum of money to be able to attend the conference after applying for a Postgraduate Conference Attendance Grant.

I decided to present two pieces of research that I had been working on through the first half of my PhD. I hadn’t originally even considered going to the conference, as I felt like my results were not substantial enough to present. However, a colleague convinced me that this would be an excellent opportunity to experience the conference environment, before what I perceive as the ultimate goal of presenting orally in future years. I found that by knowing that I was going to the conference, I had additional motivation to complete the appropriate work before going.

My first impression was utter bewilderment at how many geoscientists you could pack into a conference centre, although it is an extremely impressive venue. From the Geography department at the University of Manchester, only 5 people attended this year, out of a possible 15-20. I extrapolated this number in my head across the various universities of Europe and was amazed at how many geoscientists there possibly are in Europe!

2015internationalyearofthesoilsexhibition

 2015- International Year of Soil exhibition

I got lost quite a few times on the first day, but the centre was well sign-posted and by the second day I was fairly confident in finding my way to the different talks and poster sessions that I wanted to go to; albeit, occasionally using the long way round! It is worth saying that the EGU General Assembly is incredibly well organised, with many volunteers who dedicate vast quantities of time to make the event run smoothly, with every detail catered for. Young scientists are well considered at EGU with plenty of events solely for early career researchers and even a Young Scientists lounge which provided an opportunity to relax away from the chaos of the conference. This was also an excellent place to meet people with free hot and fizzy drinks available throughout the day, for when you needed a caffeine/sugar hit!

I found that before going it was useful to use the EGU website to organise an approximate schedule for each day. You can save this information, print it off, or transfer it to your smartphone so you can keep it updated whilst you are at the conference.

redposterhall

Red poster hall

I was actually fairly nervous about my first poster session, with questions running through my head such as: Is my research in the right session?; Am I even qualified to talk about my project?; What about if nobody is interested in my work?; What do I do if someone openly criticises or completely disagrees with my approach? Imposter syndrome was certainly in full force on that day!

Both of my poster sessions actually went very well. As colleagues have told me many times (I might finally be starting to believe them), you know more than you think you do. It is important to remember that you are the one who has actually conducted the research, not the observer, who has only had a few minutes to look at your poster (unless they were very organised and looked at the abstract beforehand!) Be positive and honest, if there is more work to do, then you can tell the reader what you intend to do next and give them more details of what did and didn’t work that you perhaps did not put on your poster. People understand the problems associated with scientific research and with my particular techniques I received plenty of sympathy from others who had similar issues.

EGUpostersession

My PhD research poster- make it stand out

I made sure to try and write down the name and institution of everyone I had a productive discussion with, and when I got back from Vienna I searched these people and their research using their home institution websites and other useful websites such as researchgate.net or acadaemia.edu. This opened my eyes to literature that I had not previously considered.

PICOarea

One of the PICO areas with an area for the ‘2 minute madness’ and interactive screens for further discussions

I would fully recommend attending the conference as a PhD student and presenting a poster or PICO (Presenting Interactive COntent™) during your first international conference. I received some useful feedback and interest that I hope I will be able to use in the future when I begin to publish my research.

On the Wednesday evening I had advertised a BSG early career meet up on twitter and facebook after the ‘How to write a paper in Geomorphology session’. This was useful to a range of people, including those who have the intention to submit papers or even those that have already been through the process, and allowed attendees to ask questions of two high profile researchers with current or former editor roles; Professor Tom Coulthard and Professor Stephen Rice. After this session, the BSG attendees combined with the Young Geomorphologists who were having a dinner that same evening. This was an extremely fun evening and allowed discussions outside of academia, as well as a chance to network!

On the Thursday I attended the Geomorphology division meeting which was useful in gaining an insight into how the structure of the organisation at this level worked. It was also a great opportunity to have a look around the room and identify fellow geomorphologists from different organisations. On an aside, the division meetings also provide an opportunity to obtain a free lunch!

I would like to take this opportunity to say another congratulations to my colleague and friend Emma Shuttleworth (a former BSG postgrad forum chair) who was elected the young scientist representative for the Geomorphology division at EGU, succeeding Lucy Clarke who did a fantastic job during her time as the representative.

Mineralexhibition

Mineral exhibition at EGU

Overall I had an amazing trip and came back motivated to continue my research. Conferences provide the opportunity to meet people with similar interests who may provide a new perspective on our research.  Often we may become so involved in the detail that we cannot see the big picture. Presenting to an unfamiliar audience makes you consider your research from a different angle and may help identify the strengths and weaknesses of your project.

Top tips:

  • Be creative beforehand: Don’t get lost in the crowd; make your work stand out in the poster sessions by using interesting colour schemes, producing diagrams and minimising text.
  • Ask questions: the volunteers are very friendly and you can save precious time this way.
  • Pace yourself: try and make use of the opportunity and go to events that are relevant, but the experience can be extremely tiring if you engage with everything.
  • Meet people: visiting the young scientists lounge or connecting with BSG reps who may be in attendance is a great place to start as well as using the pre-existing networks of your colleagues to meet new people.
  • Network socially: This can be a great way to interact in a more casual environment.
  • Variety: Don’t just attend oral and poster sessions related to your research, take the opportunity to learn something new or go to workshops or alternative sessions that discuss outreach and communication.
  • Use social media: to keep updated with clashing sessions and to advertise your own work.

Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions about the experience that I haven’t managed to answer here…

Danielle Alderson, University of Manchester (danielle.alderson@manchester.ac.uk; @DanielleAldo)


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