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I am a PhD student around midway to the end of the program and I often find myself doubting about which conferences I should attend.

I find many conferences that have to do in some way with my field of specialization that seem interesting. Most of them are just overlapping with my thesis, which is not clear where it will end, and some talks might even require background which I do not possess (despite understanding the general view of things).

Should I attend as many conferences as I can in the attempt to grasp the big picture and explore what is being studied or should I stick to my research project (and maybe introduce myself to other topics from the basics) and avoid attending conferences in which I am not directly involved?

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    The pragmatic answer is that you should figure out who are the people you want to work with after you finish your Ph.D., and then attend the conferences that those people attend. More generally, don't base you decision on what your thesis is but on which research directions you want to pursue in the future. Jun 17, 2023 at 14:03
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    Attend whichever ones are in the nicest locations... Jun 17, 2023 at 16:51

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This is impossible to answer without knowing your field of study, because there is so much variation among academic conferences.

If your budget is limited, and everything else being equal, you should attend the biggest conferences available. Large conferences give you the best chances of meeting new people with shared interests. They also have more talks, and give you a better selection to match your interests.

This does not mean that you should forego attending small conferences. In my experience, more important than the number of attendees or the degree of subject specialization, is the culture of the conference. Some small conferences have a clubbish feel to them, more like a group of friends seeing each other once a year, with no space for newcomers who are not already connected. Other small conferences are wonderful, inviting, and you get to know everybody without much effort, resulting in long lasting connections. To know which is which, you have to ask around. If you can't find that information easily, attend the big conference.

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This will depend on which country you are in, customs in your field or university/institute/lab and your travel budget. In general, though:

There are three different reasons why you would attend a conference:

  1. To learn new science (either in the field you are in now or in the field you want to be in later). Here you may even attend without presenting.
  2. To present your work and get feedback on it from experts on the topic or field via a poster or a talk.
  3. To network/make new contacts (I think best way is still to also do this in conjunction with 2, but it could be without if you pick a small conference and interact with speakers and presenters at their posters and during the coffee breaks etc.)

Talk to your supervisor, though, about what they think is most beneficial to you. And all of this will matter much more if you want to continue in science/academia than if you want to do something else after your PhD.

That being said, I do think that #2 should be part of anyone's PhD training as one of the goals is to develop into an independent thinking scientist who can discuss their findings with others.

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