Late last year I set a goal to attend a conference in 2013. I was aiming for a local conference but my supervisor suggested I try for an international one, the biggest in my field, with an abstract submission date a little over a week away! That was one frantic week as I learned how to squeeze my 11,967 word thesis (who’s counting?), into a 500 word correctly formatted abstract.
The next hurdle was working out how I would get to the conference if I was accepted. No one else in my cohort had been to an international conference, so I took to asking a few kind students further on in their PhD about what they knew and who might be ‘in the know.’ Eventually, I was granted permission to be absent from placement and coursework, should my poster be accepted and sorted out my funding.
Months passed. I honestly thought I had Buckley’s chance of being accepted (over 200 people weren’t because so many had applied). To my surprise I turned out to be one of the lucky ones who was accepted to present a poster at the conference. I couldn’t believe it. I was going to a conference, an international conference, and I was even going to be able to squeeze in a short visit to relatives overseas. I barely had time to process any of this though because the lead up to the conference was horrendous! I was juggling placement, work as a research assistant, coursework, an assignment, conference prep and packing. This chaos as I tried to ‘land a few planes’ before I left as the Thesis Whisperer would say, was the inspiration for the fire-fighting duck post from a few months ago. The trip was well worth the chaotic lead up though and full of new experiences: my first time travelling by myself (though I was occasionally able to share the journey), in Europe and at a conference.
Being all alone in a non-English speaking country did not faze me. Aside from almost professing my love for a particular food instead of ordering it (do not trust Google Translate!!), I did quite well. My proudest achievement was ordering double-sided photocopying. The only problem was that when I started picking a few useful phrases and colloquialisms and had learned how to say them without completely mangling them, people thought I was fluent! Whoops!! Far from it.
My limited knowledge of the language only got me so far though. For example, I had nothing to work with to tell a salesperson that I wasn’t interested in her hand creams, though my ignorance resulted in a free sample so all’s well that ended well. I also realised that while my travel prep had involved making sure I knew the name of common landmarks, numbers and how to ask for directions I had overlooked ‘excuse me’ and ‘sorry.’ I felt horribly rude not being able to apologise and so had to resort to facial expressions and mime. I’ve always admired people living in a country that does not speak their first language but I’ve even more respect for them now.
The town I stayed in was beautiful. I loved the mix of the old and the new, wandering down cobbled streets with a cathedral on one corner and Zara on the other! Trying the local fare was also an adventure, you were just as likely to be handed four beers and not the four plates you asked for!! I’d love to go back one day, armed with a deeper understanding of the language.
The conference itself was awesome, in the literal sense; there were almost 2000 attendees from all over the world! It was fantastic to meet some really famous and lovely researchers and PhD students who shared my research interests. People were genuinely interested in my research too taking hand-outs or requesting them when I soon ran out of them. It can be easy to forget that people other than yourself and your supervisor might be interested in your research too!
Meeting other PhD students was interesting too. They came from universities from the exotic to the well-known and from small research groups to large research groups with seemingly unlimited funding and samples. There were also cultural differences too, in the way people networked and in their lives back home. It opened my eyes to the competition but also to the opportunities, shared interests and collegiality within the global research network. Maybe I will consider at least applying for an international post-doc, who knows? I do know that I very much like my university though, and ideally, it’s where I’d like to end up.
My conference adventure left me with several gifts. First, a greater sense of confidence; if I can fend for myself in a foreign country and muddle through in a foreign language, I can do anything! Second, hope; academia is incredibly competitive but there are some amazing opportunities out there, including international conferences, if you can combine hard work with enough serendipity to secure them. Third, my adventure left me with a stronger sense of belonging; at the local level, I got to know our little research team better and at a broader level, I feel more part of the research community and that I do have a role to play in it, however tiny.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained!