A Guide to Attending Confrences as an Undergraduate
Earlier this summer, I attended the British Society for the Philosophy of Science (BSPS) 2019 Annual confrence as part of my research project. I decided to write this post on what I believe are helpful points for scholars who, may feel like an imposter at conferences, as I did.
This week, I attended the British Society for the Philosophy of Science (BSPS) 2019 Annual Conference held at the University of Durham. This was my first ever conference, and I must admit it was both enjoyable as well as challenging. I will be using this post to document what I have learnt from the BSPS conference as well as provide some tips that I believe might help other scholars!
The first thing I would like to point out is that it's okay to be confused! You will be confused, that is not only to be expected, it is to be encouraged. An example of this is when I attended the first symposium of the conference titled ‘Multiple Realisability in the sciences’. Immediately, I realised that the speakers will assume everyone in the audience has some background knowledge of the topic. If you don’t, as I didn’t, I strongly advise that you go through the programme and abstracts carefully before arriving at the conference and decide which sessions you would like to attend and research the main idea if you are not already familiar with it. It’ll make the whole experience less overwhelming. Although I was a bit lost, I found this to be a great way to learn about a brand-new topic, you may even find that this new topic brings about a new thought that could help your research!
"Rethinking Time and Determinism" lecture by Jenann Ismael from Columbia University
Luckily, I had a bit more knowledge about the next talk which was titled ‘Rethinking time and determinism’ by Jenann Ismael from Columbia University. I found this talk to be captivating and learnt so much from it. Jenann shed some light on the topic in a way that was never taught in A level or first year philosophy, and that I had never thought of; it was intriguing to consider a known topic in a completely different way. I had so many questions which was exhilarating. This brings me onto my second point: don’t be scared to ask questions! We’re always told this throughout our academic career, and I've tried to stick to it, but I was very intimidated being around professionals who seemed to use very complex language just for the fun of it. Because of this, I waited until the end of the talk to speak to Jenann and she was lovely and answered all my questions patiently in a way I understood. One thing I learnt was that even when surrounded by professionals, its acceptable to admit that you don’t fully understand an idea and speak out when you do not. There will always be someone who is happy to explain further.
Panel discussion after a talk by Paul Needham (Stockholm University) and Robin Hendry (Durham University) titled "Chemical Substances"
Finally, I must admit, I was incredibly nervous about attending a conference only having completed the first year of my degree; not only because I wouldn’t understand the topics discussed but also because I thought I would be out of place. When in fact, the opposite is true. Conferences are the perfect places for undergraduates who are interested in an academic career. They are great places to network and start the cycle of getting your name out in your chosen field. Now, don’t get me wrong, the idea of networking sends shivers down my spine, I think that’s the one thing my Quintax evaluation was right about, that I am an introvert, so I was very happy to go through the whole conference without speaking to anyone and merely absorbed the knowledge. But the point of this programme is to push yourself further and aim to grow into a leader. So, with a true Laidlaw Scholar mindset, I pushed myself to speak to someone, which was Jenann as I mentioned above. What I found from my discussion with Jenann is that researches enjoy speaking about their research! This makes networking incredibly easy. Once you introduce yourself and they marvel at the fact that you’re an undergraduate at the very beginning of your career, get them talking about their research and their speciality and they’ll remember you and you can consider that as successful networking! You may even find someone with similar interests as you who could potentially help and provide you with ideas to investigate for your project. An all-round win!
To conclude, do not be afraid to attend a conference during your project and even after! Conferences are amazing not only to find out what the hot topics are in your field, but also to simply listen in on what the best minds have to say about said topics and to meet others who are excited about your subject as you are. To observe such a polite back and forth between a senior professor and a PhD student is something I think we should all try to experience. It’s a great way to see first-hand not only the importance of sharing ideas but also how it is done.