I recently attended the European Academy of Management (EURAM) Conference in Reykjavik, Iceland. It was a wonderful experience and one I would strongly urge all PhD students to take advantage of. While it is difficult to capture in so many words how presenting at a conference makes a big difference to one’s PhD journey, I will give it a try…
I always thought that an academic’s life was about sitting at the desk drowned in research and ideas but since actually stepping into the academic world I have realised that academics have to be as much connected with the real world of people and processes if not more than those in the corporate world. Success be it getting a great job or getting published in top journals is not just about how good you are academically but also about the people you know who may for example collaborate with you or mentor you or help you position yourself. And ‘conferences’ as I observed are a rich ground for developing those kinds of fruitful relationships.
Many of the things that academics do such as publishing or acting as editors for major journals requires them to not only be good researchers and good editors, but also to have knowledge about the diverse aims and objectives of various journals, what the editors-in-chief of different journals look for, why certain papers get accepted and why some never see the light of the day (even things such as writing a paper with a specific journal in mind—which is recommended—could mean adopting its style, including references to articles within the same journal stable, or any number of things)…and conferences, it seemed to me, are a platform for exchanging this knowledge. The EURAM conference had workshops for writing papers from journal editors, Meet the Editors sessions with editors from major publications in the management field, symposia featuring renowned authors who talked about their own publishing journey, and so on. The discussions and particularly responses to questions from the audience gave an insight that is otherwise difficult to gain simply by reading papers or the guidelines on journal websites.
I feel that as researchers we tend to accept isolation as part of the package. The feeling is compounded when you realise that no one seems to be interested in or doing exactly the thing that you’re interested in and that it is difficult to find people with whom you can discuss ideas if only for the pleasure of discussing them. But the chances of finding such like-minded people at a conference are a thousand fold more. It is also possible that you might make friendships over 3-4 days that last you a long time. I noticed that many people in the conference knew many others very well because they had been meeting up at conferences all the time. I admit that the realisation of being a part of a large real as opposed to virtual community has its own excitement that adds to the motivation to do great work.
On the subject of meeting people with shared interests, you might even find researchers or academics who are engaged in exactly the topic that you’re interested in. As a PhD student it obviously could be worrying if someone were doing exactly the same thing because then that means the area isn’t as new as you think or that someone will reach the finishing line before you…but that would be the case any way whether you know about it or not. At least this way you have a chance to understand how your research differs from theirs or if there are some points that you haven’t critically thought about. I attended a presentation where the topic seemed similar to mine but it really wasn’t and it made me more confident about what I was doing. The presenter happened to be a fellow Indian girl working as an academic in a university in Spain so I even managed to make a connection there.
I also attended many presentations by academics and PhD students that were not directly related to my research topic but were broadly in the same area. It helped me understand how people were approaching similar topics in the field or what interesting methodologies they were using or even what kind of presentation skills made one presentation stand out from another. Rarely does one get a chance to observe this in a formal environment. My own presentation was of course a big learning experience for me because right from presenting in the tight time frame of 15 minutes to answering questions from a global audience to ensuring that I did a professional job…there was much to learn and much to take away. I believe that after joining the PhD course there have been various moments or experiences or interactions that have helped me grow incrementally from who I was before…and this presentation, or maybe the conference as a whole I should say, was one such notable experience.
Last but not the least, if the conference happens to be in a city that you’ve never been to before, as mine was, it could also prove to be an amazing opportunity to broaden your horizons. A short space of time with bursts of new ideas, new insights, new sights, new sounds, new smells, new people, new food…and how can I forget ‘new climate’, speaking of Iceland!