Conferences: why, when and how to apply.

One of the first things that struck me when I started my PhD was how many times I heard my colleagues talking about this and/or that conference. I thought there was some kind of aura around these academics presenting their work around the world, and who are actually paid to travel around and discuss their research interests. Now, that I write it down: what a great job we will all have one day (hopefully)!

I always thought that I was years away from actually being at the stage to try to apply to one. That day came earlier than I thought a couple of weeks back and caught me fairly unprepared (as it often happens to a lot of researchers starting their career). The first three questions that came to my mind when I saw an email calling for applications were:

  1. Why should I go to this conference?
  2. Given the funding constraint, when is it optimal to go to conferences?
  3. What do I write in the application?

Talking to some of my PhD friends and to my supervisors, I partly have an answer to these questions. So, why not sharing ?

Why should you apply for a conference ?

First, the conference should interest you. It seems obvious, but you actually have to feel like going to this conference is going to help your career and help the development of your thesis. So, nope: the fact that is in New York or Hawaii is not a good enough reason.

Second, and less obvious, the reason depends on the stage of your research. If you are just starting your second year and have a draft of your first paper/chapter: you are not going to a conference to show how good you are. Does this mean that you should hide in your room and cry? Not at all. The main reason to attend conferences and present your work is to receive feedback.

Thirdly, you should go to a conference to do some healthy networking! Go, talk about your research, share ideas and make connections. Who knows one day you might be co-authoring with that guy and you get published in the top field journal, or she turns out to be a genius and helps you finishing up that chapter.

  When is it optimal to go to a conference?

This really depends on the stage of your PhD. In my case, I do not think it would have made sense to present in a conference during my first year: I couldn’t even explain the topic of my paper without stumbling on my own words. Present your paper when you have done a consistent amount of research and you can make the best out of any comment you receive. Also, the more you present the better. If you are about to finish the PhD you might consider going around and present your papers as a preparation for your job market presentation (if you are an economist) which translates in: finding a job. This is a great opportunity to network and tell everyone “Hey, I’m an expert on this. Listen to how good I am”. The timing of the conference and the amount of conferences you can afford to attend is often limited: so think carefully about when and where you want to present. At the same time, though, you can try for more options once you are in the application process and be picky once you actually get accepted!

What do I write in the application?

Last, but not least. The application process might be long and boring. Usually you need to submit an abstract of your paper and the paper itself. Does it mean that your paper has to be perfect and ready? Well, if you are just starting obviously not: otherwise you’d already had a PhD. This doesn’t mean that the competition is low, so still try to do your best. In my case the paper looks like a good draft and outlines a clear research question, a methodology and some consistent results of my analysis. Make sure to always state that the paper is a draft and the results are preliminary, i.e. people should not cite it cause it might all be changed in a couple of months. As I’m editing my paper these days, I found that what I really want the committee to get out of it is:

  1. That my research question is interesting and relevant
  2. That my analysis is accurate and I’m trying to innovate the current literature
  3. That my preliminary results are consistent and promising

All of these points, at least for what concerns economic papers, should be clear and well structured in your introduction and motivation sections. Most of the times we get bored of an article after the first pages, why wouldn’t an academic committee reading thousands of papers?

Lastly, spend some time proof-reading and editing your paper. Committees do not like to waste their time reading something you wouldn’t read twice.

So, I hope all of this is useful! You can read some more here:

If you are in the process of applying for a conference and need to write up your paper in a short amount of time … why not joining our Shut Up and Write session this month? Marian will be waiting for you on the 21st Feb at 9.30 in the Library Café and she’ll even offer you a coffee 🙂

Good luck and thanks for reading!



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