Sure, a conference on the other side of the world with thousands of participants from academia and industry sounds impressive. However, do not underestimate the perks of smaller conferences!
In July 2018, I had the opportunity to attend the BBSRC Anaerobic Digestion Network Annual Early Career Researcher Conference (I know it is a mouthful) at University of York. Anaerobic digestion is a relatively small research field. Focused on early career researchers located in the UK, you can imagine that the conference was not a massive gathering – around 40-50 people. However, it is conferences like these that allow you to massively improve your skills! You just have to rise to the occasion. I have listed some of the advantages of attending smaller conferences.
1. A chance to join the scientific committee.
The conference organisers launched a call to join the scientific committee. This involved grading abstracts, posters and presentations. Of course, yours truly volunteered to join! Grading abstracts, posters or presentations from my peers seemed a bit daunting – a first year PhD student judging other researchers? Yet, I quickly figured it out and noticed my marks matched the ones from other scientific committee members. It was a boost to my confidence and I learned the difference between great and mediocre abstracts, posters and presentations.
2. A more specialised audience.
Due to the small scale you are more likely to find peers that understand your research. However, in my case even in the niche of the niche of anaerobic digestion research field, I was still a bit of an odd duck out with my fermentation research.
3. The friendly atmosphere is ideal for socialising and networking.
I have heard a few stories from my fellow PhD students who attend large conferences but end up talking to only their own research group. If you are guilty of this, here is my advice: go to a small conference alone. You will end up joining in on social activities (for more networking tips see my previous blog post). At this conference I immediately got to meet great people to explore the city of York with and ended up playing board games, having a lovely dinner and an improvised evening campus walk.
4. The more you present, the better you get
Smaller conferences are a great opportunity to present in a friendly environment. The smaller scale of the event gives you a better chance to connect with the audience. Only very few people are born as great presenters, for most of us it requires practice... preferably, a lot of it. So go out, present and improve! I won some goodies for the best presentation in my session and for the second best abstract.
5. No need to count money
Learning how to mark abstracts and posters, improving my presentation skills, meeting interesting researchers in my field, attending an elevator pitch workshop and having a great time in York did not cost my budget anything. The event was free to attend and the organisation covered travel expenses and provided accommodation and food on campus. So no silly excuses!
Vicky is working on her PhD 'Anaerobic mixed culture processes for bio-waste valorization' with Dr Ana Lanham, Dr Tom Arnot, Professor David Leak and Dr Marta Coma. Her industrial partners are Wessex Water and GENeco.