Prepare for your first academic conference

13 min read

So, you are aware of the “publish or perish” credo in academia and have gone ahead and thoroughly prepared a research proposal to conduct your research. Now, it so happens that you have submitted your manuscript to a reputable academic conference for a possible publication and it gets accepted. Now what?! Are you wondering what happens at an academic conference? How to prepare for your first academic conference presentation? And, everything else there is to know about the academic conference you are going to attend for the first time? Great, because these are exactly the kinds of queries we are going to address in this post.

What is an academic conference?

An academic conference is a gathering of academics pertaining to a particular area of research wherein recently accepted works are presented to the audience. The great thing about attending an academic conference is the ability to present your ideas to the audience who are broadly interested in the topic and gather real-time feedback. These events typically span a day to multiple days and are also a great networking opportunity to connect with like-minded folks ranging from peers, Professors and even industrial partners.

A good academic conference has a detailed and balanced program, attracts the leading researchers in a given field, is peer-reviewed, and provides ample opportunities for peer networking. But, as a first time attendee, there is a lot you wouldn’t know about an academic conference so this post aims to demystify the various facets of an academic conference to help you make the most of it. Now, that you briefly know what an academic conference is, let us help you plan for attending one in the near future.

How to prepare for your first academic conference presentation?

Here is the framework which I typically follow and have improved over the years since my first academic conference.

  • Read guidelines about presentation style: Author guidelines are something very crucial not only for preparing the camera-ready manuscripts but they also contain information about the author presentation at the conference. During the Covid-19 pandemic, conferences switched over to webinars but are gradually moving back to hybrid systems so the presentation styles are being adapted accordingly. For instance, I recently had a manuscript accepted for presentation at IEEE IROS 2022 to be held at Kyoto, Japan and it is a hybrid conference. So, for the in-person presenters, the guidelines show the typical arrangement of the room. Additionally, we were also required to pre-record a video while we present with subtitles for those attending remotely. So, it helps to carefully read the author guidelines and get familiar with the format.

  • Read guidelines about presentation format: Typically, the conferences allow a certain amount of time to the speaker after which there is a Q&A session. The conference chair keeps track of the time and usually interjects so, again, read the presentation guidelines to understand how much time you have available for speaking.

  • Prepare your academic conference deck: So, now that you know how much time you have for the presentation, it’s time to prepare your academic conference slide deck. First things first, look around on your conference website to see if there is already a template provided. For the IROS 2022, we were given a ready-to-use PowerPoint template which saved a lot of time. I normally, start by preparing an outline (I did the same for this post too). Basically, aim for about a minute of dwell time per slide on average and create a slide with a slide title. Then move the slides around to make a coherent order before populating them.

  • Get comfortable with the contents of your deck: Once you are done preparing your academic conference deck, do a dry run to time yourself. Don’t worry this is mostly for the first few conferences after which you should get the hang of it naturally. The aim here is to keep some buffer for yourself to not go over the allocated time limit.

  • Get comfortable with facing an audience: If you are very conversant with presenting in public, ideally, you could ask your peers and even the Supervisor, to organize a mock presentation where you present your deck. The aim here is to simulate you presenting to an audience starting with a friendly bunch of known faces to get you comfortable.

  • Prepare back slides: During the Q&A or while networking, someone might ask you a query that needs some evidence as backup. Try to pre-empt such queries and prepare to back up slides which you can pull up when the time comes.

While the above framework will help you prepare your academic conference slide deck, there is one crucial thing to keep in mind- who is the target audience? I never assume the audience to know it all and to keep my presentation self-contained, I include a lot of visuals, real-life examples and preliminaries. You could try do the same but remember to account for the time you dwell on these slides to keep within limits. Also, be mindful of the cognitive load for the audience- basically, don’t fill your slides with a wall of text. Keep it sparse and use more visual wherever possible.

How to plan logistics for attending your first academic conference?

Preparing your academic conference presentation deck is one thing, but you actually need to be able to make it to the conference venue to be able to present your work. This calls for planning and logistics following the guidelines set aside by your University. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

  • Budget for travel: Often times, you might to propose a budget for the trip and seek pre-approval. Learn about the various reimbursable costs and add a buffer while proposing a budget. Typically, reimbursements happens upon your return so you can attest receipts and things can get ugly if you go (significantly) over the pre-approved budget so be mindful of the anticipated expenses.

  • Travel documents: Carefully read about the conference venue and understand what all travel documents you would need to attend the conference, if you are attending in-person. These could include things like- flight tickets, train tickets, buses, visa, etc. so be sure to account for such expenses when planning your travel budget.

  • Start booking the trip: Once you get the travel budget approved by the concerned authorities, start making necessary bookings for the trip and apply for travel documents, if you have to. Be sure to keep all receipts for reimbursement purposes.

  • Plan your stay: you should carefully check the conference program and bookmark the sessions/talks that are of interest to you. Normally at an academic conference, sessions are packed back-to-back and if you don’t have a plan in mind and have filtered through them already, you are likely going to miss out. Knowing what happens when at the conference venue, gives you a chance to plan your lunch and coffee breaks and even keep some time for sightseeing.

How to network at an academic conference?

Back when I first went abroad to attend an academic conference, I was told to bring some business cards and exchange them with people I network with. While it made a lot of sense back then, by the time I came back, I had given away a handful of my cards and gotten some others in exchange but it didn’t quite feel like I made a tangible gain or an actionable connect, to be honest. So, I adapted my strategy and especially during the pandemic when everything went online, here is what I started doing instead:

  • Identify people of interest ahead of time: A crucial step to networking is to know who you want to network with ahead of time. Like this, you are not caught off guard and hope to run into right people, magically. So, the best place to look for potential people to approach is the conference program which shows all the accepted papers and the authors arranged per session. Start curating a list of people- peers, postdocs, Professors, industrial partners, basically a mix of seniors and juniors in and out of academic you really want to connect with.

  • Start reaching out ahead of time: Once you have shortlisted the people to connect with, drop them a one-liner email mentioning who you are, what you do and why you wish to connect. Like this, if there is synergy, you can pre-book a meeting which is especially useful if you want to spend some time with the busy Professors. Connecting with a Professor in person at a conference is a great way to make an introduction and explore future possibilities, if you want to work with them down the line.

How to attend an academic conference without feeling overwhelmed?

If you have never attended an academic conference in person before and your very first one happens to be both- overseas and one of the bigger ones in your area, you are likely going to get overwhelmed. But, here are some tips to help avoid the academic conference overwhelm:

  • Master your content well so that you know what you are doing and are going to say. This will comfort your nerves to some extent.

  • Attending the talks by fellow speakers so you don’t have any surprises waiting for you when it’s your turn. The more familiar you get with the venue, the more comfortable you will be.

  • Know and embrace your personality. If you want to spend time on your own, do it. If you need to join a group of researchers for dining so you are not left alone, do so. Know what works for you and make the most of it.

  • If you begin to feel overwhelmed, take a break. Go walk in the corridor, drink some water or grab a muffin. 

Typical blunders at an academic conference

There is a lot that can deviate from your plans especially if you are attending your first academic conference. So, it helps know some of the common blunders ahead of time and prepare to avoid them:

 

  • Presenting with a jetlag: Conferences are held around the globs and typically rotate around continents depending on who is hosting them. This means that some conferences might be overseas for you, and even in a different time zone. You would want to show up fresh when it is your turn to present so that you can be quick to respond to queries. If you are terribly jetlagged, you can try chug coffee or Energy drinks but that’s not a very healthy approach.

 

  • Forgetting travel converters: Sometimes, you are required to plug in your own laptop to present and depending on which country you are presenting in, they might have different plug points and your laptop charger might need a travel converter. So, remember to always carry one just in case.

 

  • Messed up slides: Sometimes presenters directly pull up their PowerPoint slides, especially if they some animations to play. Know that there can be technical glitches making your mathematical symbols turn to jibberish, slides showing up blank and what not. If possible, try convert your slides to PDF to be safe and avoid such unforeseen and changes.

 

  • Technical issues: Needless to say, there can be numerous technical issues which is why I normally get into the normally a couple of minutes before the start of the session in which I am presenting. There would be volunteers around so you can always ask them to pull up your slide deck so you can cross check everything is working as it should.

 

    • Fumbling while presenting: There is a lot going on especially if you are attending an academic conference for the first time and are not used to such fast paced environments. Some speakers, especially non-native speakers presenting in English, will try to make some Speaker’s notes on cue cards. Often times, I’ve seen that they get nervous and drop the cards and lose the order of cards. Or, just fumble and can’t recover because they verbatim memorized the notes. Try and be flexible and if something like this does happen, be calm and adapt to the situation.

 

  • Incorrect registration: Note that on-site registration at the conference venue itself is often quite expensive and limited. Often, the participants are expected to register ahead of time. While doing so, there are some early bird deals but sometimes it so happens that not all conference features are available for registration especially during the early-bird period. For instance, workshop registration might open at a much later date. So, thoroughly check your registration information to ensure it includes the meals and the sessions that require signup ahead of time so you don’t miss out.

Key takeaways

The aim of this post was to demystify the academic conferences and to help you prepare for your first academic conference. Hopefully, this post gave you some insights about what to expect at an academic conference and how to make the most of it while you are there.

Attending a conference, that too in person, is a golden opportunity not only to gather feedback on your current work but also to explore potential future possibilities and build your network. As a cherry on the top, you might also be able to squeeze out some time for sightseeing and exploring foreign countries as a win-win.

Also, one tip to improve your presentation over time- attend the keynote (or plenary) talks at the academic conferences. These talks are often given by academic and industrial stalwarts and you can make note of what you like and dislike about their presentation style to incorporate them accordingly.