#MyPhDStory – Attending my first conference

QFS2010-photo-ENSS_2179Conferences provide a good opportunity for academics –early career researchers in particular – to present their work and develop valuable contacts in their field. Preparing for your first conference can seem daunting as you do not know what to expect, especially if you will be presenting! In today’s Reflections post, Nina, a research assistant at the University of the West of England, shares her experience of attending an international scientific conference for the first time.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present my first poster at the Koninklijke Nederlands Vereniging voor Microbiologie (KNVM) Microbiology Spring Meeting held in Arnhem, Netherlands.  I had never been to a conference before so I hope sharing my experience will help other conference newbies.


Day 1

Monday (AM)

So…I’m not a great sleeper but I woke up quite tired, probably because I was so excited about the trip. It was a short journey from Bristol to Amsterdam – only an hour on plane. When I got to Amsterdam, it took a little while to figure out how the public transport system worked to get to Arnhem. I managed to get on the right train, the right bus and even get off at the right stops. In the end, travelling was easy as everyone spoke English and I arrived in one piece although knowing basic Dutch may have been of some benefit but hindsight is a great thing. The double decker trains blew my mind!

Monday (PM)

The hotel was lovely and I caught up with my industry sponsors and had dinner. This provided a good opportunity to settle in before being swept the official start of the conference. I would highly recommend getting in a day early if you can.

Day 2

Tuesday (PM)

I didn’t sleep terribly well but I think I was just nervous. Breakfast was so good, I forgot about my nerves for a while. I arrived at the conference early to give me enough time to set up my poster. Seeing my poster amongst the others gave me an overwhelming sense of pride and achievement. All the time I spent working on it was so worth it. My sponsors introduced me to a few people after which I attended some plenary sessions. There were about 500 people in the audience and I felt honoured to be among them. I used lunch as an opportunity to mingle with the crowd which was a bit daunting at first as everyone around me was speaking Dutch! I overcame my nerves and introduced myself to people, thankfully, everyone spoke English.

Tuesday (PM) – Poster time

After a few breakout sessions, it was time for the official conference dinner. I was sitting alone at a table and just kept hoping someone would sit with me. Luckily, three lovely Dutch professors sat at my table and we have a very good conversation about our respective countries, academia and loads more. It was so good, I almost forgot that it was time for me to present my poster! In case you were wondering, yes, the poster was presented at night time – after drinks!

I went to stand by my poster and made eye contact with a gentleman whose poster was next to mine. He explained that he was also presenting for the first time and was nervous. It was nice to talk to someone on the same level as I was and this helped me relax. Most attendees just walked by, having had a quick scan, moving on before I could say anything to them. Eventually, one by one, a few people came to ask questions. The questions were not as difficult as I expected e.g. ‘What is your poster about?’, ‘Why is this relevant to us?’ etc. I felt I answered confidently and accurately, overall, it went very well.

Day 3 – Homeward bound

I slept much better as the nerves had finally gone. I attended the morning meetings in the most relaxed state I had been since Monday. Unfortunately, I had to miss the second part of the day’s programme to enable me catch my flight. Overall, it was a great experience and I wondered why I was so nervous in the first place!

I would not call myself an expert on attending conferences but these are a few things I learnt from my experience –

Just be brave and talk to people…it was hard for me at first but I found everyone I spoke to really friendly and engaging.

If presenting a poster, wear something smart but comfortable because you want to be as relaxed as you can be.

Take some work with you, you’ll be amazed how much work you can get done during the commute and with less distractions to boot!

Bring business cards. I didn’t have any but everyone else seemed to. A business card enables people remember you and projects professionalism. If you are going to spend all that time networking, it is important your new contacts can remember your name!

Pace yourself. It can be a long day, especially if you have late night presentations. Try to get settled in a day early to adjust to your new surroundings.

If abroad where English is not the first language, learn basic terminology (Hello, Please, Thank you); it just seems more polite.

Keep your poster, it’s a nice memento of the good work you have done. You can also find somewhere to put it up in your University.

A practical one for the ladies – do not pack new shoes or heels! You’ll be surprised how long you will be on your feet!

As a final thought, just remember that everyone was once in the same boat as you. There is nothing to be afraid of, if anything, this conference proved to me just how fun and relaxed it can be.

Thanks Nina. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. If you would like to share your experience(s) with us, contact us on aspiringprofessionalshub@gmail.com.

#PhDAdvice – So you want to do a PhD? Busting the Myths!

5. PhD Survival 1Our latest addition to the Hub is ‘For PhDs’ – here we will discuss a range of issues regarding the doctoral process. We will be sharing from our personal experiences as well as reflective pieces from current PhD students and graduates. The aim is to provide a realistic picture of the process for prospective students and also to equip current students with tools to enhance their academic experience. In this article, we will be discussing some common misconceptions about the PhD process.

What is a PhD?

Before dealing with the myths about PhDs, we would like to briefly discuss what a PhD actually is. PhD is an abbreviation for Doctor of Philosophy (also shortened to DPhil at some institutions) and is the highest level degree that can be achieved by a student. It is a postgraduate research degree and is awarded for an original and significant contribution to knowledge in a chosen field after an extensive research study. Majority of PhD entrants (UK) possess a postgraduate degree (MA, MSc, MRes) but it is possible to register for a PhD after completing an undergraduate degree with a first class or second class upper. Typically (In the UK), the PhD lasts for three or four years full time and between four to six years part time.

In recent years in our roles as academic advisors and lecturers, we have come across many students who have enquired about applying for PhD opportunities for a variety of reasons. Some people view the PhD as an opportunity to stay back at University and continue studying until they decide what or where they would like to be in their future careers. Others seem to be fulfilling other people’s (e.g. family) ambitions, others see it a required step to get to the next level in their careers. Whatever your reasons are, it is important that you are aware of what you are getting yourself into when you decide to do a PhD.

Let’s discuss some common misconceptions about studying for a PhD…

You should be very knowledgeable about everything – The whole point of a PhD is to discover or learn something new. You will become an expert in your research area but definitely not at everything! It is actually more likely that the more you know about your topic, the less you know about other things, so do not count on us during a pub quiz! If you do not know everything about your topic when you start, welcome to the club! One thing we found humbling was the realisation of how much we did not know at the beginning of our PhDs compared to having spent three years investigating our respective topics. We sincerely believe that successfully completing a PhD is not as much about intelligence as it is tenacity and  perseverance.

It is just another course – To answer this we’ll say NO it is not! During your undergrad and master’s degrees you would have experienced a range of teaching and learning activities including lectures, tutorials, seminars, independent learning and group work. Some people are surprised and often unprepared for the structure of a PhD. Your PhD should be seen as an independent project where you are the Project manager reporting to your superiors (supervisors) about how you manage resources (time, money) to achieve pre-defined objectives (research aims) to a given deadline (thesis submission). Regardless of discipline, studying for a PhD can often be a solitary process. To make an original contribution to your field, you will be carrying out research that has not been done before. While supervisors can support, the day to day management of your project is your responsibility. Approach your PhD like a job as well as studying for a degree.

It is like a 9 – 5 job – Having said to view your PhD like a job, it is much more than your regular 9-5. PhD students often joke about how much I (Emmanuel) call the PhD ‘a life choice’. At a certain point, your PhD will consume your life because not too long after you start your PhD you realise how little time you have for friends, family and personal enjoyment. I (Amara) remember conducting experiments overnight in the lab…asking myself over and over again why I ever thought a PhD was a good thing! Non-laboratory based PhDs are not left out, conducting research and writing it up takes time, especially when you do it well. To this end we say if you are looking for a PhD which is akin to a 9-5 job, whilst it is not impossible, it is very unlikely.

It will automatically lead to a job (or a better job) – Sometimes we have seen many PhDs surprised at what they consider the lack of jobs available to them after graduation. Getting a job after the PhD is not a given and is definitely not automatic. Becoming employed still requires you shine throughout the whole application process – including a strong CV and personal statement etc. Depending on what you want to do next, having a PhD may even be viewed as at best having no benefit and at worst a hindrance! If you are looking at staying in academia, more often than not, everyone else will have a PhD too. If you would like to go into industry or another discipline, it may be even more challenging.  Please look out for future articles on this theme of PhD employment as we discuss these issues in more detail.

PhDs are for nerds and loners – The renowned Liverpool football club theme “You’ll never walk alone” comes to mind at this point. Several PhD candidates have either failed to complete their PhD because they assume doing a PhD does not require other interpersonal skills such as the ability to communicate and interact with others, be it supervisors or other researchers in their field of study. Yes, a PhD can have solitary moments but see yourself as an ‘independent, team player.’ Many UK institutions have structured processes which allow for regular interaction with supervisors and other academics and co researchers such as recorded supervisor meetings, researcher’s conferences and other graduate school events. You can have fun during your PhD, just probably in small doses. Ensure you network effectively, even if just within your research group, sometimes an encouraging word can go a long way when things are not going well.

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