10 reasons why academic conferences are a must!

Catarina M. Liberato |

If you are a PhD candidate, you might have heard at some point that it would be good for you to attend an academic conference. Well, I would say that you must! As a final year PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of Kent, I have attended international conferences since 2021, the second year of my PhD. It can be hard to keep up with the vast number of opportunities and it can be also hard to get the funding for it, but I believe that no PhD journey should end without a conferencing experience.

At the beginning of April, more than 6,000 academics worldwide travelled to San Francisco (US) to attend the International Studies Association (ISA) 2024 Annual Convention. I was one of them, thanks to having been awarded the UACES Microgrant that covered my flights between London and San Francisco. After long days listening to all my favourite authors, I had the chance to present my original research. I was part of a panel on Ideas, Identity and Foreign Policy organised by the Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA) section. Alongside colleagues from the US, Canada, France, and Australia, I was honoured to represent the UK and the University of Kent. Dr Falk Ostermann chaired the session and provided valuable feedback on my paper “Make the Special Relationship Great Again: Brexit Implications and the US Influence on the Global Britain Strategy”.

However, international academic conferences are much more than just presenting our research. A typical day for me at ISA would be to get to the conference venue at 8 a.m. to attend two panels in the morning where I listen to other researchers presenting their papers. The afternoon would be filled with two other research panels or a roundtable that could discuss a new book, foreign policy careers, or publication-related topics. Between the panels, I would use the pauses for coffee or the lunch break to catch up with other PhDs and Early Career Researchers (ECRs). After 6 p.m., I would usually attend a reception organised by different journals or academic associations and enjoy a glass of wine while networking.

Even though I have attended many conferences throughout my PhD years, I do not believe you need to go to all of them. But there are many reasons and benefits why you must attend international academic conferences and, based on my experience, I can think of at least 10.

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1 – Get expert feedback on your research

Many times, we tend to get feedback from our supervisors and other researchers in our institution. But other experts on our specific topic are based at different ones. Conferences allow us to be in panels with other researchers working on our specific topic, theoretical framework or methodology which leads to a more detailed and useful discussion. Also, you are usually assigned an expert discussant for your paper that will provide objective feedback as an external reviewer. It is an extra opinion on your research that will always make you think about your work from a different angle.

 

2 – Meet the researchers you are citing

If you are like me, every time you cite a new author for the first time you go online and search for them on social platforms so you can get a sense of who the person is that you are citing. Well, nothing is better than associating ideas with a face and getting to know your favourite authors. Even if you disagree with their arguments, they are usually very happy to know that someone reads their work and is building on their contribution to knowledge. If you intend to stay in academia, these are the colleagues with whom you will be working and with whom you will be engaging intellectually.

 

3 – Meet peers who are going through the same PhD journey as you

Doing a PhD can be a very lonely journey and we might sometimes feel we are going through it alone. There are many people in the same situation as we are and going through the same struggles as we are, whether it is perfectionism, desk rejections or teaching struggles. Meeting and talking with other PhDs candidates and validating that we are all going through the same challenges can provide extra motivation and peer support to keep going strong.

 

4 – Meet your future colleagues

Alongside the peer support, many of the people you meet at academic conferences are going to be your future colleagues. This is valid whether you want to stay an academic or not. If you can make a good impression and start building your network, it will be easier for them to think of you in the future when they are looking for someone to collaborate with them or to apply for an academic position.

 

5 – Start to build your network

Building your network with academic colleagues is important, but you should remember that academic conferences are not only for academics. There are many people with policy positions who work in the sector and might attend the conference too. To name an example, this year I had the chance to meet analysts from the US State Department who work on foreign policy issues and advise the President. These contacts might be valuable whether you want to pursue a policy career or also to help you build your future impact as a researcher.

 

6 – Get insights into the publication process

A big part of academic life is, without question, the publication process. Whether you are critical of the publication system or not, you might need to learn how to play the game of publishing. There are usually roundtables on how to publish your first journal article, how to deal with rejection, how to deal with reviewers’ comments and many more discussions that can help you with creating a publication strategy.

 

7 – Learn how editors and reviewers think

Some of the publication roundtables provide the reviewer’s perspective and provide insights on how to write a review or how to provide constructive feedback when reviewing a paper. These are extremely useful since you can understand the editors’ and reviewers’ side and build your strategy accordingly. Additionally, book publishers and editors are present at the conference so you can request a meeting and discuss the opportunity of publishing your dissertation as a book!

 

8 – Use the opportunity to think about collaborative projects

One of the pieces of advice for you to start navigating the publication world is not to do it alone. Everything is easier if you go through this process with a like-minded colleague. As it might be hard to find senior researchers who work directly on our topic in our home institution, it might also be hard to find PhD/ECR colleagues with whom we would like to publish together. Conferences are amazing opportunities to get together in person with people working on a similar topic and sometimes ideas that are discussed over a random Mexican lunch might become a paper.

 

9 – Decide whether academia is for you or not

If you are still wondering if academic is for you or not, I would advise you to leave the bubble of your institution and look for other examples. You can seek advice from senior colleagues and ECRs on their career and their daily responsibilities while learning about the different elements that are included in having an academic career and trying to get as much feedback as you can. Academic jobs and experiences may vary from institution to institution but also from country to country and conferences are a fantastic way to get to know different perspectives.

 

10 – Get inspired!

If you are a PhD candidate who is getting to the end of your project, I am sure you have concluded that you cannot wait for inspiration to come for writing your research. But listening to other people’s research, even if they are not linked with your topic, might also inspire you and give you ideas on your project or even future ones. Exploring different ideas and avenues of thought is one of my favourite aspects of discussing research. Getting to the room after a long day and putting all the ideas on paper is one of my favourite moments of conference days.

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Attending academic conferences is sometimes not only a personal choice but is also a question of funding. For many PhD candidates, it might be difficult to get funds to attend these international events and that is why the UACES Microgrant and other funding initiatives are so vital for us starting our academic careers. There are many funding opportunities available for ECRs, so make sure you look them up when submitting your abstract to a conference.

If you do not feel comfortable presenting your research just yet, my advice would be that you attend a conference as a listener only. A wonderful opportunity would be the 54th UACES Annual Conference which will be held in September, in Trento (Italy). The UACES network is always a safe space for PhD candidates and ECRs to engage with academic research.

If you have enjoyed reading this blog post, or if you would like to catch up about this topic, please reach out via email. I would love to get your feedback!

Catarina M. Liberato

11th of April 2024

X: @CataMLiberato

Website: https://catarinamliberato.wixsite.com/website