May 10 · 6 min read

Conferences in academia, much like conferences in any profession will present opportunities to travel abroad. For many, this may be a once in a lifetime event. Travelling abroad for a conference may be terrifying for those that may not have attended a conference, let alone travelled the distances necessary to attend. So in this short blog, we will guide you through all the necessary steps to prepare you for your first conference abroad.

Research the country that you are going to

You know where you are going, so the first thing is to research more about the country that you will be going to. By research, we do not mean research different restaurants or cultural sites (not at this point anyway), instead, look into certain health risks or any legal documents that you may need to enter the country of destination.

An example of this can be seen with the United States. Do you need to apply for a visa to stay or will an ESTA by adequate for your travels. When travelling from Europe to India, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend a series of vaccinations. Even if you are there for a short stay, it is always best to be prepared. We would also recommend that you spend a few minutes researching a few cultural customs of the country in which the conference is held. For example, niqabs and burqas are banned in France. It may sound ridiculous, but it may be worth having a check on a few websites before. One last piece of advice, which is sometimes overlooked is knowing the emergency codes of that country — just in case.

Think about the city in which the conference is held in

After you have thought about the country, it’s time to start thinking about the city itself. Again, we won’t be thinking about the sites to see. Instead, it’s time to think about the functional aspects of your stay. What are the transport links like? How far away is the airport? How can you get from the airport to the city? How much does it cost to stay and travel? All of these points are usually thought about when going on holiday, and should not be forgotten here. However, the most important aspect will be your accommodation. It is always best to pick a place as close to the conference as possible (with amenities nearby too). Remember, you will have to be at the conference by 9, so try and cut unnecessary travel out of your stay.

Are you going alone or as part of a group?

If you are attending with your lab or as a group, it may be a good idea to plan together. Will you all meet up at the airport? Will you be getting on the same flight? Will you all be staying together. If you are saying together, you could always look at renting an apartment on Airbnb. This could save you a lot of money, and could be a fun experience. Either way, if you are going as a group, plan as a group. This also includes the visiting of attractions. You can list the places you want to go to as a group and if there is something specific you want to see, plan this in too (even if you have to go alone). No one wants to get back in the lab after a huge fight the week before.

Budget the trip

This piece of advice is straightforward but is sometimes overlooked. No matter if you are there for 2 days or 2 weeks, create a budget for yourself and have some emergency funds left over. Remember to take accommodation, travel, food and places of interest into account when budgeting. It is also worth looking into funding options for your conference. There might not always be funding, but it is worth checking out.

Plan specific extra-curricular activities

You may be travelling across the world, or to a destination that you have been dreaming of visiting so, you should spend some time visiting the main attractions that the city has to offer. Just remember that the conference that you are attending is your main reason for being there, and they usually start at 9 and end 5. So try and get all of your sightseeing activities after. You could always book some more time off after the conference. This is especially true if you are flying halfway across the world. It is always good to have a few sites or museums planned before you go. If you can, try to remain as flexible as possible as the majority of your time will be spent attending the conference. Often conferences will also host a sightseeing tour of the city, so have a look at the conference website — it might just be worth it.

Have your goals set

Again, this piece of advice may sound patronising, but you should get your priorities set. At the end of the day, you are travelling specifically for the conference, not a holiday. So prepare for the conference. Do you need to bring anything with you? Do you need business cards? Are you presenting a poster at a poster session — if you’ve never presented a poster before, you can read our guide here. Many conferences also host banquets, and if you are planning to attend, you will need presentable clothes.

A few months ago, we spoke to Professor Rik Tykwinski on RESEARCHER Radio about a conference that he recently attended. As a regular attendee of multiple conferences, his advice may be of aid to those who may be planning their first international conference.

“With conferences being global and obviously having travelled from the University of Alberta to the University of Oxford and I’m guessing you’ve also been to many other cities, how much time do you get to explore the city that the conference is hosted in?

Sometimes a reasonable amount, if I have a friend or a particular place or if somebody will actually organise a field trip or something to see a landmark in a city. But probably the worst kept secret of conferences is that most professors, as they run out of time trying to balance out their work and their families, spend an unfortunate amount of time in their hotel room trying to get their talk ready for the presentation the next day. Often that means we miss out because we’ve got things to do and it’s a nice quiet hotel room, so we can get things done and so sometimes we don’t see anything. But that’s a choice, it’s a choice that we make because as a group were quite motivated to succeed. So, we take that free time, if you will, in which nobody is asking us for anything. Often we don’t have a telephone ringing or emails, and we take the time to think about our research, and sometimes we miss some of the local offerings. Although invariably we end up walking around in the evening for dinner and finding a nice pub or a nice bar somewhere, and that’s often our exposure to the local culture.”

You will have to plan for a trip to a conference, much like a holiday. Just remember the reason why you are going — to attend a conference! Make sure that this is your main priority and if you follow all of the above, your trip will be smooth. And just one more piece of advice — always bring a jumper, even if you are going to a warm climate (some conferences sure do like to ramp up the air conditioning).

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