Conference survival guide for students

You’re off to your first conference as a postgraduate student, and it suddenly dawns on you that you have no idea what to expect and that no one has prepared you for this. Let alone the thought of that first lonely coffee break…

You might be going alone, or you might be with your supervisor or fellow graduate students. Either way, there are some practical things you can do that can help you to get the most out of what should be a really engaging, inspiring and fruitful experience.

I learnt some of these the hard way – so here’s 10 top tips to save you the trauma!


  1. Do some name-to-face stalking before you go

Work out who you are particularly interested in meeting from the attendee list and look them up online so that you know what they look like – this is much easier than squinting at their name badges.


2.  Ask your supervisor who they know on the attendee list

This can be a great conversation starter when you’re meeting new people – if they know your supervisor they’ll likely be interested in how they’re doing and what you’re working on with them.


  1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

It can be daunting asking a question during a talk in front of the entire conference, so if you don’t feel up to that, try and catch the speaker in the coffee break or at lunch. Speakers want to be asked questions, because it shows that the audience was listening and are interested! It’s a good way of introducing yourself and your work to someone too, and they’ll almost certainly then have questions for you.


  1. Try and attend the evening or social events if you can

There is often a conference dinner mid-way through, or a reception on the first day. Again, these are good opportunities to meet people in a less formal setting. There’ll probably be a bunch of graduate students who you can bond with (tip no. 4.5 it’s always good to seek out some graduate students who you can relax around rather than worrying about whether you’re saying the right thing), and you’ll likely bump into them again at future conferences. Conferences are often held in really cool settings – so it’s great to make the most of the perks of the job! (See figure 1)


Figure 1. Enjoying the social activities at the Tonale Winter School in Cosmology

  1. Keep a record of the people you meet

When you meet someone who you think you might meet again, want to work with, or who could be a possible future employer, try and write down their name, broadly what they do, and one important thing that you talked about. This will be good to look back on if you ever cross paths again. You might also be able to contact them after the conference about a future project, or ask to give a talk at their institution.


  1. Don’t drop your laptop and break it on the eve of your first international conference

Been there done that.


  1. Do try and get a poster or a short talk

This is the best way of telling people about your work and introducing yourself on a mass-scale. There’s often a poster session where people will walk around the posters and you’ll get to give mini presentations to a long stream of people. It’s also great practice at answering questions on your project (thinking viva practice here). If you can also get a talk, your name will be on the programme and people will recognise you for the rest of the conference, meaning that they can come and ask you questions and find out more about what you’re doing. If you’ve got presentation slides or a physical poster – bring a back-up! (Also been there and not done that.)


  1. Introduce people you know to each other if you can

If you’ve met someone who would be useful for someone else you know to talk to, introduce them! Good deeds come back around.


  1. Do a bit of background reading on the talks that look relevant

The talk titles are usually published before the conference begins, so take a look and have a read through recent papers by the speakers. This will help you to keep up with what are often very time-limited talks, packed very densely with information.


  1. Enjoy it!

Conferences are an amazing opportunity to travel, meet new people, and spend the week being inspired by new ideas and people working in the same field as you. They can be scary, but the more you throw yourself in, the more you will gain from the experience. At the same time, try not to stress too much – every conference is different and you’ll gain more from some than others.

The talks are an important part of conferences for learning about the latest work in the field, but being able to talk directly with students and faculty working on similar topics to you is what you really can’t do from the comfort of your own home. New projects can begin to form, jobs can be found, and new people and places can be explored. Conferences and workshops are some of my favourite experiences from my PhD so far, and I would encourage everyone who has the opportunity to dive in.

Here is a regularly updated list of astronomy conferences to give you some inspiration and something to nag your supervisor about.

See here for another bite on this topic from 7 years ago for more ideas.


About Philippa Cole

I am a second year PhD student in the Cosmology group at the University of Sussex in the UK. I work on really early universe Cosmology and have a particular interest in primordial black holes and testing models of inflation.

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