So I have read many good posts about conferences and the great opportunities they provide for networking. I have read all the advice to attend the social events linked to the conference because that is where the interesting conversations take place and where you can get to know people better. This is all very good and valid advice and I have seen the value to get together informally with other people at the conference for lunch, dinner or just drinks.
I want to talk about another way I have found conferences useful for me as a PhD student. I found it difficult to transition from the fieldwork to analysis and writing up. So to push myself to start writing I decided to focus on one part of my data and submitted an abstract to an international conference and also to a colloquium at my home university, more about the colloquium in another post. My abstract was accepted to both the conference and the colloquium. I want to talk about how the conference helped me to start writing because I had this deadline that I was working towards.
This is probably not the best way to do things, but it is one way I was able to move from I have so much data where do I start to focusing on one part of my data and presenting the preliminary findings. I wish I was the highly self-disciplined individual, the deadline superhero who sets deadlines and will stick to them, but I am not. The need to write a conference paper to present to a group of people was the needed impetus to stick to a deadline and have the paper completed. So that is the first point regarding conferences. It got me to sit down and push myself to produce that first draft.
Secondly I found it very helpful to sit and listen to the different presentations at the conference. So my advice if you are attending a conference is try to attend as many sessions from other people as possible. This was an interdisciplinary conference and sometimes it was torture to listen to a paper in a field you have no idea about. It proves worthwhile however when you realise there are other ways to look at the world. Listening to other papers always inspired me to ask the questions I am asking a different way. To think about violence from a literary angle, a political science angle or an anthropological angle. I may not change my work to fit that discipline but I can better outline why I am doing it the way I am doing my work
Lastly I was presenting my work to a group of people that know hardly anything about the area I work in. It was very refreshing to hear someone ask why did you move to South Africa? A question that I don’t get asked a lot where I live because its so obvious to everyone. So preparing a presentation for a different audience, people that know little or nothing about the region caused me to think about and talk about certain issues that are taken for granted and can easily take a back stage when they are central to the story.
I hope my short ramble has inspired you to go on a limb and get to a conference. I found it a great experience. I was very uncomfortable about meeting new people let alone presenting my work but it was well worth it. Sometimes being out of your comfort zone is the best place to be to grow.