How To Make The Most Of Conferences

George provides some of his top tips for making the most out of conferences.

View from apartment window in Stockholm

Speaking at conferences can be an incredibly enriching experience. It’s a chance to present your work to other philosophers in your area, hear valuable feedback about your ideas, and learn about fascinating research being done by other cool people. Also, you often get a free dinner! In this post, I offer some tips for how to get the most out of conferences, and revisit  some of my most memorable experiences of the conference circuit. 

Tip 1: Apply Early

The first tip is that, if you are starting a PhD in philosophy, don’t be afraid to start applying for conferences right away. In my case, I didn’t apply to any during my first year, and put it off for much of my second. This is now something I regret. Honestly, I think I was just afraid of getting rejected; I was also intimidated by the prospect of travelling to a new city to present my work to total strangers. While these are understandable fears - you might feel them yourself - I encourage you not to be swayed by them.

Regarding the first fear - well - I was rejected the first time I applied, and I’ve been rejected since. I can say categorically that it is not the worst thing in the world. Further, the more you apply, the more you increase your odds of getting accepted, and the better you get at putting together conference submissions. Thankfully, I can now say that I’ve been accepted far more times than rejected, and each conference has been a very valuable experience. 

Regarding the second fear, speaking at conferences certainly is a little nerve-wracking the first time you do it, but once you get the first one out the way, you often realise its nothing to be frightened of. I’ve only gotten more comfortable with the process each time I’ve done it. Plus, until you do it, you don’t realise what a fun and rewarding experience it can be. 

I should add that conferences are not just for people on PhD courses. I’ve known a few people who have presented at conferences during their masters. I even met one undergrad from India speaking at the Applied Ethics Graduate Conference at The University of Nottingham. While this is less common, I can say that his talk was very interesting and I greatly enjoyed seeing photos of his family’s elephants! So if you’re not yet doing a PhD and unsure about applying, I strongly suggest talking to any lecturer you are close to who can advise you on the process (my supervisor still reads through my submissions for me before I send them off). 

Tip 2. Do Social Things!

Conferences are officially about networking and exchanging your research with other PhD students and lecturers working in similar areas. Unofficially, they are about making friends, having fun, and getting to do cool things in places you may well not have travelled to otherwise.

For example, when I spoke at the International Social Ontology Conference in Stockholm in 2023, my friend Tom Moore (another PhD student in the Sheffield Philosophy department) and I met up with a couple of lecturers speaking at the conference from the US for drinks. One of them, Tim Aylsworth, mentioned he had found a chess bar nearby with nice wine and a cool ambiance. Now, I hadn’t played chess much before, as everyone who watched me attempt it soon discovered. But I had a great time being beaten by Tom (pictured below) and bonding with Tim over our mutual love of British comedy TV and shared belief that libertarians don’t understand the politics of Rage Against The Machine. We’re still in touch and I always appreciate his Peep Show Memes.  

Also how cool was this view from my hotel room?

Tom and Rosa Vince (friend, and former PhD student in the department, turned lecturer) both spoke at the conference as well. I’ll also never forget how nice it was to sit down with them after a day of travelling from Sheffield to Stockholm and enjoy some delicious Vietnamese food. The restaurant we went to was right next to my hotel and I enjoyed their vegan tofu broth with spring rolls so much I went back and ordered exactly the same thing the next day. Sometimes memories like this stay with you even more than any of the particular talks you may have seen during the conference schedule. 

Please also enjoy Rosa receiving the earrings I gave them as a belated birthday present before the food arrived.

Tip 3. Go With Friends (If You Can!)

The anecdotes above hopefully illustrate my next point: go with friends! Conferences can be intimidating partly because they often involve you travelling alone to somewhere you’ve never been before, in order to socialse with a bunch of strangers. Of course, if all goes well, they won’t be strangers by the time the conference is over. But one way to make this process easier is to go to the conference with friends. 

This may be more or less feasible depending on how many other PhD students in the department share your research interests: while there are many general conferences, often conferences are organised around a particular theme or sub-field of philosophy. At Sheffield, I’m lucky enough to have a number of fellow Philosophy PhD students I’m friends with, with similar research interests. The advantage of this is that we can apply to the same conferences and - if we all get accepted - go together. 

I’ve been joined by my close friend Rae Fielding to the MANCEPT Conference on Equality in Intimate Life at the University of Manchester in 2021. As her PhD is in feminist philosophy, she spoke about how the popular understanding of men doing the housework suffers a number of conceptual and empirical problems. As she argued, they often regard it as ‘helping women’ and, epistemically, are poor judges of how much work they actually do (as a man, I diligently took notes…). I spoke about how testimonial injustice can be especially harmful in friendship (I may write a more detailed post about this in future). 

I’m also looking forward to speaking at the Social and Political Philosophy Conference at The University of Swansea with both Rosa and Rae this summer. I’ll be speaking about the advantages of forming a diverse friendship group, and the potential challenges of pursuing this too directly. Rosa will be telling us about ethical arguments against making pornography more ‘authentic’. And Rae will be discussing the relationship between power dynamics and sexual consent. As the Sheffield Alumnus Anna Klieber is involved in the conference, we will also get to reconnect with an old friend. It should be a fun time!

Another benefit of going to many conferences is that friends you make at one conference are likely to resurface at another conference when the time comes. As you’ll discover, the world of philosophy researchers in your area is often a small one; if there’s a conference on your specific subfield, you can often expect to bump into familiar faces. I met Ruby Hornsby at the MANCEPT Conference, where she gave a talk about whether we can be friends with robots. We then got to hang out again when we both attended a conference on relationships at the University of Leeds, where she is studying for her PhD. I met Rory Wilson when we both spoke at the Understanding Value Conference 10 in Sheffield, and then had the pleasure of his company once again when we both spoke at the conference in Stockholm. Experiences like this make me more comfortable attending new conferences even when I’m alone, because I know there’s a good chance I’ll be able to catch up with old friends, in addition to making new ones. 

Tip 4: Take Breaks!

Sticking to a conference schedule can be a pretty jam-packed affair. Usually, they’ll be a meet-and-greet on the first day, followed by a series of talks (with some small breaks in-between), a lunch, more talks, a keynote, drinks, and a dinner. And that’s just day one! It’s common to feel frazzled before the first day is even out; and most conferences take place over two or three days. Add the general weariness that can come with travelling to the new city (or country), potential jetlag, and you have a pretty exhausting brew on your hands. That’s why it’s good to take breaks - even if it means ducking out of some of the talks. 

This last trick has been a life-saver for me. The fact is, some talks will be more interesting or relevant to you than others, and you shouldn’t feel sheepish about skipping the not-so-relevant ones to recuperate in your hotel room. Indeed, I would encourage you to do this even if all the talks on the programme look utterly fascinating. You are going to struggle to go to all of them and you are better off not over-stretching yourself.

When I attended the Stockholm conference, this was really what helped me make the most of my time there. This conference in particular is huge - I was told there were about two hundred attendees in total! It goes on for four days, and the schedule is pretty chockablock. By day two, I felt no shame about missing the odd chunk of talks to wander back to my hotel room and have a nap (or, to skip the early morning keynote lecturer in favour of a lie in). 

Okay, so skipping the keynote talk might sound like sacrilege - keynotes are, after all, the ‘headline acts’ - talks given by prestigious lecturers in the field. But, fascinating as they often are, they are usually twice as long as the PhD talks. If you’re like me - an introvert with limited concentration and a rumbling stomach - sometimes you just can’t always concentrate for that long. And that’s fine!    

Equally, I’ve found skipping the drinks in between the final lecture of the day and the evening meal to be another trick that works wonders to restore my energy. When I was at the Applied Ethics Conference at The University of Nottingham in January of this year, I noticed there was a drinks scheduled between the final lecture and the dinner. I was excited for the dinner and couldn’t wait to chat to all the various interesting, thoughtful people I had met that day. But I had also got up very early to get a train from Sheffield to Nottingham and I was zonked. 

Thankfully, the conference organisers had paid for me to stay in Nottingham’s very own hotel, The Orchard (I said going to conferences has its perks…). As this was only a few minutes walk from the Humanities Department where the conference was taking place, I wandered back to my hotel, dumped my luggage, had a nap, showered and got dressed up for the dinner. I cannot tell you how much of a difference this made to my mood and energy levels. I still remember the pleasure of introducing one of the lecturers there to the Off Menu Podcast; I really hope he is now a fan (Also, look how nice the hotel was)

…For contrast, when I went to the Annual BIPPA Conference on Race, Gender and Identity, organised by University College Dublin, I stayed in an Air BnB in a tiny room with an even tinier en suite bathroom, within the home of a kindly, eccentric Irish lady. I’m not sure her husband knew I was there; he once came out into the hallway without wearing a t shirt, saw me, looked embarrassed, and disappeared again…Anyway, her Air BnB review says I was a ‘delightful young man’, so that’s nice!   

Tip 5: Take Lots of Snacks and Water

Okay, so this tip is especially relevant for me. I am a petite, hungry vegan, with a small stomach and a fast metabolism. I also eat incredibly slowly. I’ll leave you to do the maths on where that leaves me when it comes to conferences, but the short answer is: hungry. There are breaks during conferences, but they are often short and mainly spent socialising. There is a longer lunch break, but this too can be short, and I find that, between queuing for food, tracking down various speakers I want to chat to, and finding where to go for the next talk, there is precious little time left for my endless, endless chewing. A conference in York left us with only one hour for lunch, but also didn’t provide any lunch, so we were left to fend for ourselves in York’s busy city centre. This resulted in me having to eat a Thai takeaway during that afternoon’s talk…which wasn’t ideal.

This is why it’s important to bring lots of snacks. I’ve long been an advocate for Huel, but I won’t ride that particular hobby horse here…That said, it is mightily convenient, and name another food/drink you can make in your hotel bathroom?! 

Anyway, have lots of snacks that you can eat with minimal embarrassment during someone else’s talk, because you will probably get hungry and have to. Also take lots of water. Keynote talks can last an hour, with an hour’s Q&A and you may not be able to get a drink in between. Realising I needed twice as many water bottles than I thought was a revelation for times like these. 

(…That said, it’s possible I am particularly unique in this regard. When I did sit down with Tom and Rosa for that meal in Stockholm I remember saying ‘God, I’ve barely eaten today. All I’ve had is a Huel, a wrap, a croissant, a baguette and another Huel’. Apparently this counts as having eaten…to some people, at least).

Tip 6: Network

Networking is a bit of a cringey concept and one needs only to look at Linkedin to see how it can produce some truly frightening personalities. However, even as someone British and basically quite hostile to the entire concept, I can say that conferences do present some very valuable opportunities for networking. That is, meeting other people who work in your field, getting to know their research and, often, staying in touch after the conference is over. 

In my experience this is not a very formal process. Certainly, I’m yet to be given a philosopher’s business card. It’s usually indistinguishable from the kind of socialising that happens naturally when you throw people with shared interests together. You talk about your work, they talk about theirs, you ask questions about each other's talks etc. Out of this can come friendships, ideas for collaborations on papers and - potentially - the chance at future job opportunities. Certainly, people are more likely to think of you when considering who to hire, or who to involve on some exciting new project, if they remember meeting you and having a cool chat. 

You don’t have to force anything; but don’t be afraid to ask for peoples’ emails before you leave or to give them yours, so you can stay in touch. If you don’t get the chance to do this, you can also ask the organisers for one of the speaker’s emails (these are usually shared by the organisers anyway when the conference is finished). Also, don’t feel like you have to chat about philosophy the whole time. Some of the best conversations I have had have been about totally random things! And don’t feel like you have to talk to the biggest name at the conference. They will usually be inundated by others trying to talk their ear off. Plus, you can often form more productive connections with people who are earlier in their careers. Other PhD students or more junior lecturers are often going to be more on the look out for others to collaborate with. Of course, if you end up sat next to the big name in your field at dinner, by all means, chat away! 

Above all: be friendly! Conferences can be a daunting experience for everyone and a little friendliness goes a long way. Apart from making it more likely that people will want to work with you in future, it also makes the conference a nicer experience for everyone, including you. 

Further resources

I remember finding this podcast quite a helpful primer when I was planning to start attending conferences. The hosts are psychologists but much of what they say applies to Philosophy just as well.

George Surtees.

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