So my PhD hasn’t been easy but whose has? And if it wasn’t for some supportive colleagues and some great advice I wouldn’t be where I am today, or where I was last year!  I found out about a great conference from a colleague, and their enthusiasm got me really interested when all I wanted to do was forget about my project (second year blues maybe?).

But how on earth can you go to a conference when your supervisor doesn’t want you to?

When I approached my supervisor saying “I’ve got to go to this conference, it sounds amazing and the list of attendees/speakers reads like my bibliography!” his response was “Sorry – you’ve got no chance of getting an abstract accepted”! I will admit my first thought was that he’s probably right, but then after a while I decided it was too good an opportunity to give up on.

It was a Gordon Research Conference and believe me if you can get to one of these you won’t forget it.  These conferences are intense; they normally last for 7-9 hours a day for 5-7 days.  Normally eating, drinking and sharing dorms with attendees.  But if you think that’s a bad thing, here’s where you’re wrong.  For a start, the long hours and days mean you can really get into the topics.  The speakers are pretty much the experts in the area and range from professors to PhD students.  But the best thing I found was that these conferences are usually small, less than 100 attendees which means you end up talking to just about everyone. Ours started with an impromptu football game (mostly students) which was a fast and fun way to learn people’s names.

So how do you get there?

Firstly, make sure you’ve got some data, at least enough to make a poster.  Try and ask a few postdocs in the labs to look over it and explain why you think you should go to the conference.  If you can persuade them, then you’ve got a good chance when you submit your abstract of getting accepted.

Second, be careful what you write – if this is new data and your supervisor hasn’t okayed it, you could be in for some trouble.  If in doubt, speak to another PI or group leader, and see what they suggest.  You’d be amazed at the people who are willing to help you out (after all they were once where you are now).

So you’ve got an abstract, submit it! The worst thing that can happen is you don’t get accepted.  But there are always plenty of conferences to go to.  Keep trying!  After waiting for what seems like a lot longer than a few weeks, you find out you’ve been accepted. Yeay!  Now the hard work begins.

How do you get funded?

Unless your chosen conference is near where you work (and for some reason they never are) you need to get funding.  Before you even ask anyone, make sure you ‘cost’ the conference, travel accommodation and registration fees as it soon adds up. Try to find the best deals and the cheapest flights – the less money you ask for the greater the chance you have of getting it.

Dig out your piggy bank.  How much do you really want to go, enough to fund some of it yourself?  I did, and it was money well spent.  If this just isn’t an option for you, get creative, have a bake sale, sell some old stuff on EBay or call your family (sometimes the bank of mum and dad do pretty good loans).  Once you’ve decided how much you can spend but still afford to feed yourself, you need to raise the rest.

Find as many sources of funding as possible.  The sooner you do this the better, as they often have a set budget to spend and once it’s gone it’s gone!  If you’re not sure where to start, ask postdocs or students who have funded themselves for conferences in the past.  Approach the funders – tell them about the conference, and try to persuade them why you should go, but also why it would benefit them.  Importantly, if you are contributing your own money tell them, as this demonstrates how much you want to go and they will probably be more willing to help you out.

But if you’re still struggling, ask your Head of Department/School, student services or whoever will listen.  I even emailed the conference organisers and managed to get $250! Just tell them how much you really want to go and see what they suggest.  Just don’t give up.

Once you’re there – Make it work for you

Most importantly, if you do get to go, make the most of it.  Speak to as many people as possible, there’s no point in travelling half way across the world to sit in a corner.  One of the best things about conferences is networking, I know it seems scary but just go for it – poster sessions are great for informal chats, especially for asking students what their supervisor is like to work with. Basically, listen to others, discuss your own work, and challenge other people’s ideas. Best of all get excited and enthusiastic about your area of science again!

You never know – it might be all you hoped it would be…

and it’s always nice to prove your boss wrong!

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