Wow. This was such a great experience!
This is the second post of my blog series The first time a graduate student… and, as I anticipated here, it is going to be on my first conference experience, here. Well, technically I already had some little experience of this kind, but this was my first “serious” conference experience: I presented my work all alone in front of people I didn’t know, answered questions, listened to comments, enjoyed the other presentations, asked questions, voted for my favourite presenter, and attended almost every activity, from the plenary sessions, to the parallel ones, to the cocktails… not to mention that my research partnership was among the organizers, and this gave me the opportunity to have a glimpse of what stood behind the scenes. I did not just participate in a conference: I let it invade every neuron of my brain for several days… I really, deeply lived it. And I couldn’t help feeling somewhat abandoned when it eventually ended.
As I did in my previous post, I will try to write down what I learnt, aware that the future experiences will probably teach me much more, and even refute some of my first impressions.
My first finding was that presenting at a conference is, most of the time, less scary than presenting your work in a regular university class. There is no grade, and no real risk to fail. You might get harsh, even nasty questions (not at this conference, but I heard it can happen), but in any case you are there, with your dignity, your work, and your position on the topic you are talking about, supported but a certain level of expertise. I admit I was very nervous during my first presentation, but then I understood these things, and managed to be more relaxed during the second one.
My second finding is that people are somehow more accessible during the conferences. In the past, the idea of approaching someone smiling and saying “I liked your presentation, I’m working on something similar, we need to talk” seemed well beyond my comfort zone, and also beyond my maybe-I-might-dare-to-do-it zone. At a conference it’s different: I was pleased when similar words were said to me, and I found myself surprisingly comfortable while telling some presenters the same thing. And in both cases, these words were followed by interesting discussions and zero regrets.
The third finding is that even plenary sessions can be friendly. The idea of one–usually relatively famous–speaker in front of around 200 people may sound cold and intimidating, and you may think that after all you can avoid asking any question you might have in mind. Luckily, things are a bit different: We could write our questions on a card, and volunteers were gathering the cards and bringing them to the presenter, who was reading them to the speaker and the audience. With this system, even the shyest person would dare to ask anything. And that’s what I did: I had this crazy question, and decided that after all I could ask it. I even dared to sign it with my first name (the last name would have been too brave). I was super-afraid that my question would have caused a general, huge laugh… or maybe a disgusted wave of disappointment… and instead it was taken seriously, respected, even appreciated. I just loved those 200 people, in that moment. We were all studying similar things, allowing ourselves to think outside the box, concerned by the same problems.
Last but not least, networking. Networking is important for a graduate student, both in terms of quantity and in terms of quality. Indeed, academia seems to me like a global stage, in which you have to play your own role in adding something unique to the pre-existing knowledge, and in which you must be updated on what happens around you, in order not to miss any news that is relevant to your research, and make the dialogue on your subject more meaningful. And conferences are the ideal place to find many people with interests similar to yours, who want to be in touch with you as much as you are enthusiastic to be in touch with them.
In the end, conferences are at least as inspiring as the other grad school activities, but with less pressure, and the power to make you feel connected to your field and your fellows more than anything else.
Banner photo by @gradlifemcgill blogger @aliceintheanthropocene // personal photo: View from the ninth floor of the John Molson School of Business, Concordia University, where the CANSEE-E4A conference took place.