Milestones And Memories: Reflecting on my First International Conference

Ellie Colegate from the 2021 Cohort reflects on her recent attendance at the British and Irish Law Education and Technology (BILETA) 39th Annual Conference held between the 17th and 19th April 2024 at Dublin City University.

post by Ellie Colegate (2021 cohort)

Attending a conference. Scary. Attending an international conference. Super scary. Attending an international conference where you are presenting your work that you’ve entered a postgraduate prize, you’ve not been to an international conference before or flown since February of 2020. Extra super scary.

I realised on my way back from the conference that this was the first time I’d done a lot of things. Of course, all conferences are different, but I thought I’d share these in case you’re attending a conference soon and need some reassurance of what to expect.

The First Time I’ve…attended an international conference.

Confession time. I did present at this conference last year with a co-authored paper. However, this is the first time I’ve joined the community in person with my own first-authored paper and travelled to another country to present. So, it’s a first milestone to reflect on.

Now I’m not a big fan of travelling on aeroplanes. It’s not the plane itself that makes me anxious, it’s the bit before, the getting to the airport on time, making sure you have your bag/s sorted for security, finding the gate etc. It just gives me a cold chill. Luckily, my colleague and friend from another university was also attending the conference so we travelled together which helped a lot.

I also just took it one step at a time, tried not to worry too much about the steps ahead, even when my boarding pass refused to scan at every automated point at the airport, I remained calm and before I knew it, we were in Dublin!

My pastel pink suitcase was a certified way of not getting separated from my fellow travellers.
stained glass window
A stunning piece of stained glass in the building on the Dublin City University Campus where the conference was held.

Dublin was a super easy city to navigate, so once we were out of the airport and had purchased a travel card that gave us unlimited trips on public transport for the duration of our visit, the city was ours to explore. So, we went straight to the hotel to eat – travelling is exhausting and really makes you work up an appetite!

We did manage to fit in some city exploring in the evenings after panels and on the Saturday before leaving for our flight back. Something that I now will do at all conferences where I can get to see the city I went to rather than just spending two days at another university’s campus – as nice as DCU was!

a long room with giant globe
The long room at Trinty College Dublin visited as part of the Book of Kells Exhibit.
The store front of a book store
The font of the Hodges Figgis, the oldest bookstore in Dublin.

The First Time I’ve…submitted my work for a paper prize.

When the call for papers went out for this conference, so did the details of prizes for papers. I’ve never entered any of my work for a prize before, so I thought if I’m going to go in with a paper I might as well go in for it all and see what happens. The process was very straight forward, I entered my abstract via Oxford Abstracts like everyone else and then nearer the conference date and within the deadline given I sent over a copy of my full paper and informed the organisers which prize I’d like to be considered for. Then I waited. The results were revealed on the last day, last session of the conference, so plenty of time to half not think about it and half think about it!

Whilst I was unsuccessful at securing the prize on this occasion, the process of preparing the paper for submission and entering it for consideration afforded me a depth of insight to what I was presenting that I perhaps wouldn’t have had if I had just prepared slides and an abstract. The fellow attendees were really kind in their best wishes of luck when I mentioned that I was entered for the prize and asked lots of questions about my work, so despite not being successful I was still able to talk lots about my work and know that it was of value within the wide BILETA community.

The First Time I’ve…attended a conference dinner.

Questions I had before the conference dinner: What do I wear? What do I talk about? Do I talk about my work? Do I talk about everyone else’s work? How much detail do I go into? What about if I bore people? What about if I don’t know what to talk about? Can I talk about my dog? No that would be unprofessional. How professional is a conference dinner? What is for dinner? Do we all sit at a long table? Do we have allocated seats? What about if I get sat next someone I don’t know? Worse, what about if I get sat next to someone whose work I know? Do I ask them about it for my literature review? Can I do that? What about shoes?

Questions I had after dinner: where can I get more of that carrot cake?

The dessert gets an honourable mention – carrot cake and ice cream!

I was unsure about the dinner on the basis that I’d never been to one before. Turns out, it’s just like a normal dinner really, expect we had a set menu of two choices to pick from. You can sit where you like (I sat with my friend) and you don’t have to talk all about work, you can talk about other things! (I did avoid the dog chat though purely because the law and tech discussions were a bit more interesting!) The dinner gave me a great chance to talk to others in the area, our table ended up being two put together full of discussions and networking over food. I heard lots about other people’s work in the area, events they had coming up, where they had come from, it was a super wholesome discussion with like-minded people who know about similar topics and things that you do. Nothing to be scared about really!

The First Time I’ve…been recognised for my previous work (!)

This one was unexpected. As I’ve said, I attended this conference virtually last year and presented a work in progress paper, so when an attendee walked up to me and said “I remember your presentation from last year” I was a tad stunned given it’s not been published yet. After my initial shocked reaction and my excited message to my co-author that we had been remembered, I reflected on how much of a community the organisation is. It wasn’t an interrogation, it wasn’t a critique, it was a “I remember you presenting last year, it’s great to see you back.” And that was lovely.

It was also an opportunity for me to reflect on my progress in the last year and how my work has developed. Whilst the paper I was recognised for is still a work in progress, other papers and outputs are now published and been presented which felt like an age away last time I was at BILETA. I’ve learnt that if you keep going, you’ll get there with things and being recognised was a reminder for that. It also showed me that despite my own thoughts that my PhD is just me at my desk with my laptop, my work is out there and contributing which is a nice motivator going into writing my thesis up.

The First Time I’ve…met other researchers in the area whose work I am familiar.

Networking. A word that scares me to my core as I think I’m not very good at it. You can’t take a class in networking, but it turns out networking is just talking to people, and I can do that. I hadn’t made a list of people I wanted to talk to really despite it being always recommended. But I did have a rough idea of who I should probably talk to as they were either doing work interesting to me or working in a similar area to me.

So, on the coffee breaks and lunches I made a point of going up to them and introducing myself, the first couple of times it felt awkward, but I’d join conversations with others rather than marching directly up to people and sticking out my hand with a business card. The more I did it, the more conversation I had, the easier it got, and people were super kind! A few even came to my presentation after meeting me. BILETA has such a welcoming community which values its PGR members, so people are open to sitting down and having discussions with you when you’re there and connecting with you afterwards. From now on at conferences, I’m going to try and network with people more following this as it is just talking to people about your work, and we can all do that!

The First Time I’ve…sat down and thought about my trip.

It’s hard to sum up such a great trip in a blog post (if you’ve got this far, bravo!) but I think the main thing I’m taking away with me is the value of going to things in person, meeting people face to face, chatting to them and joining communities where you can. These sort of events and experiences can make what can be a lonely experience doing a PhD far from that and reminds you that you’re not just working on your own in an office somewhere and like the CDT, there are groups and organisations you can join and be a part of.

Entering a community of academics can be daunting, travelling across the world for a conference can be daunting, and presenting your work with others can also be daunting. But, as I found this year, sometimes you must go out of your comfort zone to make gains in your PhD journey. I found the BILETA community and conference to be one of great enjoyment, Dublin a stunning city, neither of which I would’ve found if I hadn’t of taken a chance on my work. To both, I’ll be back.