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Research postgraduates

Expert guidance from Study Advice at the University of Reading

As a postgraduate student you may be thinking about attending, or presenting at, a conference or seminar relevant to your area of work. Going to conferences can be a great opportunity to test out your ideas, gain feedback, and make contacts. However, these events can be quite daunting if you have never attended one before. It is common for postgraduate researchers to have concerns about their level of expertise and the kinds of questioning they may encounter at conferences. However, with good planning and preparation you can go to conferences feeling confident and knowing what you would like to get out of them.  

This guide offers some suggestions to help you get the most out of conferences, whether you are attending, or presenting a paper (or poster) of your own.

Preparing to attend a conference

Conferences are useful for:

  • keeping up to date with the latest developments in your field
  • making contacts and getting to know your peers
  • getting feedback on ideas
  • developing presentation skills
  • disseminating your research
  • an opportunity to be published in the conference proceedings

They can also be very hard work, and expensive to attend, so choose the conferences you attend wisely - don't try to go to everything that's vaguely relevant.


Check out conference details to see if there are any bursaries or reduced rates for postgraduate students. There may be travel bursaries available from your department or funding body, or from a subject association. Be aware that, even if you are presenting a paper, you may not be reimbursed for travel or accommodation - always check with the organisers if it's not clear.

Treat it like work:

Be prepared for your first few conferences to be stimulating but intense. Many people find them stressful for a number of reasons:

  • meeting a lot of new people
  • listening to complex ideas can be draining
  • nerves involved in public speaking
  • organising travel, accommodation and navigating an unfamiliar place

You can reduce your stress by:

  • being well prepared and organised
  • working on introductions – think of how you will talk interestingly about yourself and your research when chatting informally
  • going with someone you know
  • going to your first conference as an observer, as opposed to presenting
  • talking to your supervisor or a Study Adviser about presenting effectively

Attending a conference

As an observer, you have a great opportunity to listen to and network with experienced academics and your peers. These skills can be most valuable to you in your research though they are often not mentioned or taught.

Listening to papers

Have a look at the conference programme before you arrive and choose the papers you want to attend. Check out any maps of strange campuses too - you don't want to find that you have two minutes to navigate to a room in a completely different building.

It can be difficult to follow complex ideas in spoken presentations, so don't worry about capturing all the details if you're taking notes. It's more important to note how the presentation influenced your own thoughts and how it fits with your research:

  • Write down any questions you might want to ask afterwards or follow-up later.
  • If you don't get a chance to ask your question at the end of the paper, most presenters are happy to chat later over coffee or over meals.
  • After the conference, write a few paragraphs summarising what you learned and how it stimulated your thinking.

Networking and making contacts

Before you go, it can help to identify some people you'd like to talk to and read up on their work. Be aware that the key speakers will be busy and in demand. Consider emailing them afterwards instead of approaching them on the day. Be interested and ask sensible questions. People love to talk about their own work. Be friendly and don't try too hard to impress people.

Eat lunch with different people each day. Interesting conversations often happen in coffee breaks, in the bar, or over meals – try to do some socialising and have informal chats.

Interest groups, organisations or committees are often formed at conferences – see if you can volunteer or join in. But if you do, keep your promises – if you say you'll email someone afterwards or send them a paper, make sure you do.

Contacts made at conferences tend to have a high drop-out rate. Don't take it personally. If you make one good contact – job done!

Presenting at a conference

As well as listening and networking, you may have the opportunity to present your work and get feedback from your peers.

When writing a proposal or abstract, make sure your topic is relevant to the subject and level of the conference, and that you can deliver your argument clearly in the time alloted. Your supervisor may be happy to look over your abstract before you submit it - but don't assume they'll be able to drop everything to read it through and give comments five minutes before the deadline. Remember too that if your abstract is accepted, you will have to write the paper! Schedule in time to do this around your research.

When preparing your paper, ask yourself - what is the main message you want to get across? How can you best convey this to your audience? In a short presentation (20-30 minutes) you will not have time to do more than develop 3 or 4 main points. Even in a long paper, try to group your points in 3 or 4 sections to help listeners understand your arguments.

Practise public speaking before you go – in graduate seminars, with friends, or as part of a speaking group. Practise keeping to time, as the Chair is likely to be a strict timekeeper. If you're using PowerPoint or visual aids – practise with them and make sure the conference organisers know what equipment you need.

There are lots of presenting styles ranging from reading from a script to ad libbing. Aim for somewhere in between – a natural, well prepared style. Study Advisers can advise on how to present more effectively.

Many people are concerned about how to prepare for questions. Think of it as a discussion not a trial. Remember that you can open the subject out to the audience, or acknowledge you need more time to think about it.

If you have a lot of references or data, it may be a good idea to provide a handout. Check with the organisers if they will be prepared to copy a handout for you, or, if you have to bring your own copies, how many are likely to be needed. Even if you don't need a handout, have some slips with your name and email address to hand out to anyone that's interested in your work.

If you are presenting a poster, you will still need to think about how you are communicating your information. You will also be expected to stand by your poster and answer questions - or even do a mini-presentation. Check with the conference organisers what is expected. If you are representing the University of Reading with your conference poster, it may also be helpful to consult the guidance on the Design & Print Studio webpages.