Academic events’ styles can vary enormously. From huge conferences – involving hundreds of presentations – to small, specialised workshops, where you can expect deep engagement with your work.
I think most of my colleagues prefer small workshops. In fact, after spending months or even years writing a text, it can be very disappointing to present it in a big conference. Being a PhD researcher, chances are that most of the people in such events are not really interested in your work. To be honest, very few people in the audience will have read your paper. In a big conference, if your fellow panellists take the time to read your stuff, you can consider yourself lucky.
Last year I presented a paper in a very big Marxist conference in Brazil (possibly the biggest regular academic conference on Historical Materialism in my country). Despite the limitations of events of that kind, I really enjoyed the experience. A big conference offers a unique space for presentation, inasmuch as you are allowed to be fairly specific, but at the same time you have to be engaging enough to keep your audience interested. Furthermore, these conferences really offer good opportunities to see great names on your field talking about their current researches. At this conference, I saw Marcello Musto and George Comninel.
Despite being preferred by many academicians, small workshops are not exempt from problems. The engagement you will surely get may not be positive. You can expect people to read our paper, but it does not mean that they will like it or even provide you with useful feedback. Actually, if you are not confident enough about our own research, deep and intense feedback may totally derail you, especially when conducted in a confrontational way. Also, it is very likely that you will have to read a lot stuff. In short, small workshops can be quite demanding!
Last year I also went to a small workshop in the Copenhagen. There were only five PhD presenting their researches (including myself), so we got a lot of attention. It was good, I feel that I learned a lot. The most challenging part was defending my research against very intense, although not always constructive engagement. Well, I was prepared and I enjoy strong emotions, so it was OK with me!
In general, I consider my conference experiences of last year as really important for my academic formation. I learned both, to try and communicate with a not very engaged audience; and stand up to the fury of a very engaged audience. I guess you should be able to do that if you want to work in academia. That is why I decided to repeat experience this year. I applied for a very big conference in Canada and for a small workshop in Japan. Fingers crossed, they will accept my papers!