The Scientific Conference

Thought a PhD was all about sitting at you desk? Working in the lab?

Think again.

Part of your job, as a scientist, is to branch out into the big wide world and present your work to other people. Other scientists.
Scary huh?

In the beginning…yes, probably. I had very little experience giving presentations on my work at undergraduate level and despite one successful experience during my masters, would have classified myself a novice at the beginning of my PhD. But after attending a few conferences now, maybe I can shed a little light on these gatherings.

For a start, what are conferences? They come in all forms and sizes. It is where academics, students and often professionals come together to share knowledge. Some conferences have a very broad subject, such as….geoscience. These meeting are often huge. The European Geosciences Union (EGU) Meeting in Vienna, for example, hosted 13,650 scientists in 2016. I was one of them, a drop in the ocean, so to speak. Others are more specialist.

Some of the ArcTrain students and principal investigators at EGU 2016 in Vienna

Some of the ArcTrain students and principal investigators at EGU 2016 in Vienna

So how do you pick which conference suits your work? Funding and location aside, this really depends on what you want to present. They all post session lists on their websites, so have a browse and see if there is session on a topic that suits your work. The classic concept ‘target audience’ applies here. I am an Arctic paleoceanographer. Talks from astrobiologists and people who study leaf wax in the Amazon rainforest are probably incredibly interesting. But they potentially cannot a) gain any useful knowledge from me, b) give me any feedback on my work specifically and c) the knowledge they share is not really relevant for my topic. Which leads me conveniently to….

Why should you attend a conference? Hint: the answer was in the previous paragraph.

Feedback. People who can help you with your work. Fresh ideas and interpretations. A lot of students (myself included, but I am getting over it) have the fear of hearing from their peers about their work. That Professor, who published that seminal paper on your topic, they are looking at your poster or listening to your talk. Eeeekkk. What if they think your work is rubbish/disagree with your method/interpretation/your shirt choice that day…STOP. They are more than likely interested in your work and are reasonable human beings, just like you. A (potentially long) time ago, they were you. Students.

Human beings bring me to the second reason why you should jump at the chance to attend scientific conferences. Networking. Another buzzword. You could be the next Einstein. But if you sit at your desk and don’t tell anyone who you are and what you are doing, no one will know you are the next Einstein. Simple. Get out there and spread the word. Talk to that Professor, talk with that student. People will more quickly associate your work with you if they can put a face to a name. Maybe if they have a relevant project they will think of you as a potential collaborator or co-author. And maybe, just maybe, they can provide that stepping stone to the next phase of your career.

Presenting a poster at the joint AGU meeting, Montreal, in May 2015

Presenting a poster at the joint AGU meeting, Montreal, in May 2015

It is your duty as a scientist to report your findings and conferences are both a fundamental platform for communication and an integral part of your work. They are often a little stressful to prepare for; presentation and poster-making skills require blog-posts of their own. They are sometimes overwhelming…13,560 scientists in the same place at the same time?! But the people that you meet, the knowledge you gain and the skills you acquire and practice are things that cannot be gained sitting at your desk. Or working in the lab…

Rebecca Jackson

About Rebecca Jackson

Rebecca is a 4th year ArcTrain PhD student studying the link between ice sheets and ocean dynamics in the Baffin Bay over the last 50,000 years

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