Career AdviceCareer Advice - PhD Students

How many conferences postgrads should attend

Conferences are important events in every postgraduate’s career. Therefore, it makes sense that many postgraduate students ask themselves how many conferences they should ideally attend. While the exact number of conferences that a PhD student should (or can) go to depends on several factors, there is a common average.


Why postgraduate students should attend academic conferences

Academic conferences play an important role in a postgraduate’s academic and professional development. While the thought of presenting one’s research in front of a largely academic audience can be nerve-wracking, it is usually worth it!

A key benefit of attending academic conferences is learning about other people’s research in a specific field. Attending different sessions, listening to keynote speeches, and following presentations is a great way to learn about the newest developments and discussions within a research area.

Being exposed to the work of many different scholars can also provide a lot of inspiration. In terms of content, but also in terms of methodologies and research approaches.

Furthermore, conferences provide a lot of networking opportunities. A lot of networking happens outside of the formal programme: during coffee breaks, in the hallway and during conference dinners.

Are you attending an online conference? Don’t worry. While it is different, networking is also possible in online conferences.

And lastly, conferences can provide valuable opportunities for PhD researchers to receive feedback from scholars other than their supervisors. What do other people from your field think about your research? What questions do they have? What do they recommend? Knowing and addressing these questions in your work will improve it considerably.

Factors influencing the number of conferences a postgraduate student should (and can) attend

Disciplinary standards, the availability of relevant conferences, funding opportunities and individual agreements made with PhD supervisors all influence the number of conferences that postgraduate students should go to:

Disciplinary standards

Disciplinary standards play a role in the number of conferences that a postgraduate student should attend. There are differences between the hard sciences, the social sciences and the arts and humanities. And differences between different disciplines within these fields.

Furthermore, there may be context-specific disciplinary standards. Maybe postgraduate students in physics in Canada go on average to two conferences per year, while postgraduate students in physics in New Zealand attend on average four.

To find out the expectations in your specific discipline and context, make sure to talk to your supervisor and colleagues. Ask them about their conference experiences, and their suggestions for the recommended amount of conferences to attend annually.

Availability of relevant conferences

Many academic disciplines have one key conference per year, which attracts international scholars. Then, there are often smaller, or regionally-focused conferences.

The number of available conferences not only differs from discipline to discipline but also across research fields.

Sometimes, it can be useful to attend a conference that is not directly connected to your research, to receive new input and inspiration from a different field.

However, there is a limit to the usefulness of attending ‘unrelated’ conferences. Imagine you are doing very specific research on a narrow topic. It can be a waste of precious time to attend several conferences per year which are unrelated to your work.

Better focus on the few conferences that are relevant to your research topic, and use the rest of your time for other networking activities.

Budgetary constraints and funding opportunities

If postgraduate students have access to a generous conference budget, it may be possible to travel and attend several conferences per year. Even overseas.

Many postgraduate students, however, have to work with limited conference budgets. Or they do not have any conference budget at all.

Some conferences (particularly the larger ones) offer bursaries for postgraduate students that cover fees and sometimes accommodation costs.

Next to enabling a conference visit, applying to conference bursaries is a good practice to write grant applications, and successful bursary applications improve a postgraduate’s academic CV.

However, dependency on external grants of course limits the choices and often the number of conferences that can be attended. Paying out of pocket for conferences is not recommended, unless in exceptional cases following a detailed cost-benefit analysis.

Individual agreements with PhD supervisor/s

Last but not least, it should not be forgotten that every PhD journey is unique. Therefore, conference planning should also be a unique process for postgraduate students.

Some supervisors may actively push postgraduate students to attend at least two conferences every single year.

Other supervisors may agree with the postgraduate student not to attend any conferences in a year, to focus solely on – for instance – writing.

Thus, ultimately the amount of conferences that a postgraduate student should attend depends on his or her journey, and the agreements made with his or her PhD supervisor/s.

The average amount of conferences postgraduate students go to

Considering the different factors that can influence the number of conferences a postgraduate student should (and can) attend, it is hard to provide any concrete recommendations.

Based on my personal experience in academia, most postgraduate students (in the social sciences) attend between one and three conferences per year.

However, this does not mean that postgraduate students attend the same amount of conferences every year.

Instead, PhD students often attend only one, or no conference, at the beginning of their journey. And once they have conducted more research and have more results to share, they sometimes attend many conferences toward the end of their PhD.

Another important difference should be made between ‘attending’ and ‘presenting’ at an academic conference.

Attending a conference, for instance at the beginning of a PhD, can be a great experience. By simply attending a conference, postgraduate students can learn how things work. This can take away some of their fears.

Ultimately, however, it is more important for a postgraduate student to actively present at conferences. This can be in the form of a poster presentation or an oral presentation as part of a conference session.

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