PhD Tales: First Conference Experience

Back to blogging. I have recently read a post on Medium about how smart people should not fall in the trap of mistaking “motion” with “action ”  (here is a link).  Well, it seems that many of us (smart people :P) do fall into that trap judging by the number of times I saw this post being shared on Facebook. Anyhow as an attempt to commit myself to being in action here I promise writing the three posts I have been feeling I want to write for quite some time but always being in “motion” doing other things, I have deliberately not written a word 🙂 So, here is to commitment. Await my friends, 3 consecutive posts about three totally different topics!

With that brief introduction said and done. I leave you with a little PhD tale, for all of you newbies in academia, a firsthand first conference experience.

I started my PhD 5  months ago, in the Institute of Human Computer Interaction. Putting aside the details of what I particularily do, what I want to do, the bigger goals of my PhD and the intrinsic details of my field, I want to talk about the PhD journey itself. I do wish to complete my PhD, but of course no one knows from the beginning how things will go.

There are always moments in this journey that I feel are worth sharing or keeping. Before I started the PhD everyone who was already in there or has been there told me that it is totally ok to be lost in the beginning. Well that is true but it does not make it feel any easier to be lost 🙂 so it is OK to feel lost, and it is also OK to feel bad about it, for some time.. just do not let it get to you to the extent that you do not do any work at all.

Four months into my PhD I got the chance to take part in a workshop adjunct to one of the top conferences in my field. The workshop was conducted by some of my colleagues and I was going to take part in a workshop presentation. For those who have already been in the academia business, workshops are rather informal and more on the friendlier side. They include a lot of discussions and often demos. So luckily, to participate in a workshop on your first ever conference is kind of a “gentle” introduction into this world.

I had a ton of expectations, a ton of fears, and a whole lot of negative emotions mixed with bits of excitment here and there depending on the time of the day. I did not really know what to expect and talking a little bit with my colleagues made me realize that it might not be the most comfortable experience ever on many levels. However, everyone kept saying that it is ok to panic a bit, and it is ok to feel this way, just enjoy the experience because a first will always be a first anyhow.

The rest of this post will be some random notes and tips here and there if you are a newbie like me 🙂


As per my academia-newbie mate and best friend, Ghada, who has just attended her first conference right before me, paying particular attention to stuff you pack is quite a crucial task that is worth spending some time on. The most important items to pack with you other than the clothes you will wear on your presentation day are:

  • VERY comfortable shoes
  • Your Business cards
  • A boost of over-confidence, yes, OVER confidence, you will need it.
  • A boost of good spirits, i.e. do NOT get offended or feel bad if you find yourself standing alone surrounded by people who know one another, or get asked a question you did not understand, or find yourself lost not knowing what to say.

Really, that is all you really need, the rest is a piece of cake.

DURING THE CONFERENCE, Before the big talk:

I got lucky here again, since my talk was during the workshops and the workshops are typically at the very beginning of a conference, I got it over and done with fast. However, that is not always the case and maybe your talk would be right in the middle or at the very very end of the conference, in that case you will keep worrying about it the whole time.. that is just natural. It should not stop you from enjoying your time and attending other talks not immersed in your own world where you are stumbling off stage or stuttering while answering questions (remember, OVER confidence). Just talk to yourself positively about it, there are so many other people who are in your shoes or who were in your shoes before and they have lived another day. Really, it is not worth all the madness and the worry, you will miss out on a lot if you do that especially if it is a good conference.


Well, you are prepared, right? I think over preparation is just as bad as under preparation. Sometimes if I practice a presentation too many times it looks to me like I am robotically reciting it. It is neither exciting nor interesting to me anymore and oh God if I make a mistake in the middle or stutter, I keep trying to remember what was the word I use everytime and then.. well that is not too good. Do not get me wrong, I am not saying do not practice;  the art of presentation and presentation preparation is a very personal one, every person does it in their own way.


Ok, it is over, you can breathe out now 🙂 It is time to NETWORK. Right after your talk, no matter how large  or small the audience was, there are some people who actually know you now )especially if you are a female in a male-dominated field , oh and, with a veil/Kopftuch/headscarf  😀 )  Or are familar with the face. GRAB THE CHANCE and network with them. Business cards in hand/bag/pocket? Over confidence? Know how you are going to present yourself? GO!

Ah by the way.. it is ok to present yourself differently each time till you find something you are comfortable with 🙂 I mean if you are only 4 or 5 months into your PhD you probably do not really entirely know what you are doing yet, so it means that everytime you present yourself you may say a slightly different thing.. it is fine 🙂 Or I think it is fine? 😀


Before I flew to the conference, I got warned that the worst part of it, or rather the hardest, in which you need the boost of good spirits, is the conference dinner. That was entirely ENTIRELY true. The conference dinner in my case was held in a cool setting in a contemporary music and movie museum. There were buffets of food and people just went around meeting at high tables and discussing stuff. I went alone, befriended a 2nd year PhD student on the way to the place but once we reached there he went away to find other colleagues, I stood there with my plate of food and welcoming smile feeling like crap not knowing anyone. The place had over 800 people so it was not really easy to find the familar faces of my colleagues and each of them had gone separately. I went and joined a party of 3 people who looked friendly and interesting on one of the high tables. They were discussing something that I really cannot remember now, asked if I can join them and just stood there. Over confidence failed me miserably when they got along with their conversation after giving the stranger, aka me, a look of pity 😀 . I tried to join in the conversation but they were not interested.

It got a bit better afterwards, was not all negative. I went to an empty high table (claiming territory so I can eat in peace at least), and then I was joined by 2 Italians (thank you guys wherever you are, see it is not too hard to be friendly if you are Italian) and another PhD student studying in the US (thank you too). The two Italiens were well into their PhDs but they were kind of like me because they usually do not publish in this field and it was their first conference in this kind of field hence they also hardly knew anyone. We discussed stuff and small talk  about their research and my research was easy and interesting. The US student then joined and  that was good too.. then right out of nowhere, my colleagues appeared, I spent a bit more time with them then bam the night was over!

Conference dinner is over, I SURVIVED it 🙂

Moral of the story of the conference dinner –> good spirits, over confidence, and … smile and wave 🙂


So, with that all said, after the conference you are free to relax and reflect. Oh and here are a couple of tips:

  • Update your Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+,, Google Scholar profiles. People WILL be checking you out. YES they will, no matter how you think of yourself or your performance.
  • Check them out too 🙂 You got business cards, you got contacts, you got the conference proceedings, go ahead. Networking is a really vital part of academia, and life in general.
  • Discover the city the conference is in 🙂 That is one perk of academia you might not get otherwise!

To sum up, the experience all in all is not as bad or as scary as I thought it may be. Nor half as embarrassing (only sometimes 🙂 ) It has its perks. So just embrace and enjoy the ride of the PhD world!


2 thoughts on “PhD Tales: First Conference Experience

  1. mfgpcm says:

    Hi Mariam,
    being a PhD student myself, I really enjoyed reading your post! Many points you mention seem very familiar. Wish you all the best for your future studies.


    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks 🙂 I wish you all the best too! The hazards and experiences of being a PhD student are always utterly rich and common. I think I will have a lot more to share as time goes by 🙂


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