September 2020 was a milestone for our cohort of students who completed the first year of their PhD studies. A bit more than a year ago many of them moved to Ireland leaving behind their family while others gave up their industry job to embrace the challenge of a PhD. It has been an amazing journey for these young researchers and with great pride we witness their professional and personal development. The first year of a PhD is more than just reading the state of the art, the PhD students embark on their research journey, attend workshops and conferences, experience the value of networking and have the opportunity to hone their communication skills. For most of the students it was the first time to attend an international conference and some of them, after only twelve months of research, had already enough results to showcase their work outside the lab.
We asked our students to share with us their experience of attending a conference and what motivated their choice for a particular event. We were pleased to learn that ambition and a strong desire to gain and share knowledge were the main reasons behind their decisions. All of the students opted for well known international conferences with peer-reviewed proceedings. As well as the opportunity to hear about emerging trends in Machine Learning research from leaders in the field, one of the main appeals of an international conference for the students was, undoubtedly, the chance to visit a new part of the world.
Unfortunately, 2020 has been a year like no other , and with advice against non-essential travel coming into place in March, almost all of the conferences were quickly re-designed and moved to online platforms. Workshops, and poster and paper presentations continued as planned but with limitations. While pre-recording talks and no need to stand in front of a large audience can make a virtual conference less stressful for first-time presenters, sadly, the virtual experience could not fully replace the networking benefits of attending a conference in person. The excitement of going somewhere new, meeting lots of new people, and interacting and networking with like-minded students and researchers was unfortunately lost. The was the most common comment from our students about their virtual conference experience.
Despite the limitations of virtual conferences, however, the students still enjoyed and made the most out of these experiences as expressed in their other comments:
“It was simply amazing. It is always energising to showcase your work and teach others”
“It was a great learning experience for me. Also, sometimes it’s better to look out of the pigeonhole which we are trying to focus through and get a broader perspective “
“These conferences helped in attaining a broader spectrum of knowledge from greatly talented researchers while also providing me with an opportunity to brainstorm ideas and provide some suggestions.”
“It was a nice opportunity for me to see what kind of work was being done in my field and by whom it was being done.”
Well done to all of our students and hopefully next year they will get to experience all of the benefits of a traditional conference.