How to excel at academic conferences in 5 steps

Academic conferences have been the biggest joy of my PhD and so I want to share with others how to excel at this academic tradition. 

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The author (second from right, with can) at his first music cognition conference (SMPC 2013 in Toronto) which – despite appearances – he attended by himself.

1) Socialising

A conference is not all about getting to know facts. It’s all about getting to know people. Go to a conference where you feel you can approach people. Attend every single preparatory excursion/workshop/symposium, every social event, every networking lunch. Sit at a table where you know no-one at all. Talk to the person next to you in every queue. At first, you will have only tiny chats. Later, these first contacts can develop over lunch. Still later you publish a paper together (Kunert & Slevc, 2015). The peer-review process might make you think that academics are awful know-it-alls. At a conference you will discover that they are actually interesting, intelligent and sociable people. Meet them!

2) Honesty

The conference bar is a mythical place where researchers talk about their actual findings, their actual doubts, their actual thoughts. If you want to get rid of the nagging feeling that you are an academic failure, talk to researchers at a conference. You will see that the published literature is a very polished version of what is really going on in research groups. It will help you put your own findings into perspective.

3) Openness

You can get even more out of a conference if you let go of your fear of being scooped and answer other people’s honesty with being open about what you do. I personally felt somewhat isolated with my research project at my institute. Conferences were more or less the only place to meet people with shared academic interests. Being open there didn’t just improve the bond with other academics, it led to concrete improvements of my research (Kunert et al., 2016).

4) Tourism

Get out of the conference hotel and explore the city. More often than not conferences are held in suspiciously nice places. Come a few days early, get rid of your jet-lag while exploring the local sights. Stay a few days longer and gather your thoughts before heading back to normal life. You might never again have an excuse to go to so many nice places so easily.

5) Spontaneity

The most important answer is yes. You might get asked for all sorts of things to do during the conference. Just say yes. I attended the Gran’ Ol Opry in Nashville. I found myself in a jacuzzi in Redwood, CA. I attended a transvestite bar in Toronto. All with people I barely knew. All with little to no information on what the invitation entailed. Just say yes and see what happens.

It might sound terribly intimidating to go to an academic conference if you just started your PhD. In this case a national or student only conference might be a good first step into the academic conference tradition.

Conferences are the absolute highlight of academia. Don’t miss out on them.

— — —

Kunert R, & Slevc LR (2015). A Commentary on: “Neural overlap in processing music and speech”. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9 PMID: 26089792

Kunert R, Willems RM, & Hagoort P (2016). Language influences music harmony perception: effects of shared syntactic integration resources beyond attention. Royal Society open science, 3 (2) PMID: 26998339

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