First timer’s guide to academic conferences

Attending your first academic conference? Alexandru Cernat, PhD student at the Institute for Social and Economic Research reports on how to make the most of it.

Alexandru Cernat conducts survey methodology research at the Institute for Social and Economic Research based at the University of Essex

What was your first conference like?

My first conference was as a Master student at the University of Bucharest. The conference was organised by the department where I was studying, Sociology and Social Work, and it was a relatively ‘safe’ space to do my first academic presentation. The public was a combination of people that I knew and some academics from other institutions and I felt it was a place where I could receive constructive feed-back without being very ‘exposed’.

How many have you been to? How did you benefit from these?

So far I have presented at seven conferences. Each one was organised by a different institution and in a different context. I think this gave me a good breath of the distinct conference experiences available to researchers.

I think I could classify these conferences on a continuum from small scale workshops to massive conferences, each one with advantages and disadvantages. I really enjoyed workshops because they are usually small, between 30 and 50 people, and highly specialised. If you find one linked to your research you can meet the authors you have been reading, or will be reading in the future, in a couple of hours. Also, in my experience, these events are designed with more time for in depth discussions. I think these are ideal for socialising in specialised fields and in-depth feedback on research.

Very big conferences, such as that organised by American Association of Public Opinion Research or by the European Sociological Association, are very good for networking outside your field, for broadening your research interests and disseminating your results in new directions.

How do you make the most of your time at conferences?

Again, I think this depends on the aim of the researcher. If I wanted to meet certain people or continue collaborations I would schedule meetings in order to be sure these will happen. Otherwise I would try to participate in a number of social events and meet new people. Dinners and drinks after a long day are usually a nice way to meet or to get to know people.

For presentations, if there are parallel sessions sometimes it would be more efficient to “session hop” (see only the talks you are interested in each session).

How should you pick which conference is right for you?

Phd students and researchers have to decide what their main aim is when going to a conference. For feedback and more in-depth discussions, a small workshop on a particular research topic may be more useful. For networking, exploring new research areas or disseminating results to a more diverse public; big conferences may be a better avenue. As a first experience I think workshops may be less intimidating.

Do you recommend researching presenters online?

That may be useful, although I do not do that. If there are people from my field that I should know I would probably be aware of them without further research. I think this would be especially useful when deciding to view a certain session and you are not sure on the background of the speakers.

Do you have any presentation tips?

Here are a couple of tips that I found generally helpful:

1. Keep it simple. Less is always more. Have only 1-3 main points. People see tens of presentations in a day, if you are lucky they will remember your main point.
2. Less text. People can’t read and listen to you at the same time. So if you want them to listen have as less text as possible. Use only keywords in order to reinforce the main point.
3. Be visual: avoid formulae, use only the essential numbers and use graphs. People don’t care about all your numbers; usually they care only about 1 or 2 of them. Don’t include the others. Usually you only have 15 minutes. People either know the formulae, so they don’t need it. Or they don’t know it, in which case it would take longer than 15 minutes to explain it.

What is the best way to deal with presentation feedback?

Be honest and don’t be defensive. Being a harsh critic of your own research usually helps. If you have limitations mention them in your presentation. If criticism appears embrace it and talk about how you could include those points in the future. Use your public to help improve your research.

How do you follow up with people you have met at conferences?

I usually don’t use business cards but they are handy to have just in case you need them. It depends on the reasons you want to follow up. About a week after the conference may be reasonable.

Any there any online forums that you use?

In my field at least there are a couple of important email lists through which you can communicate with people, either by posting questions or by raising awareness of different events. Otherwise I think Twitter is a good platform to follow during the conference.

Have you used any social media at conferences?

I think Twitter can be really useful during conferences. Noting the hashtag of the conference is essential. Using and following that hashtag will help you know what is going on and find out interesting findings presented in parallel sessions. When going to a session I think it is worth checking if presenters have Twitter accounts or to note their name in case you want to Tweet about their research. Always use the conference hashtag. See who is active at the conference and follow them.

Any final advice for those heading to their first conference?

Be relaxed about it and enjoy it.

More about the author

Alexandru Cernat conducts survey methodology research which focuses on modes of interview (such as face to face, telephone or web) and how that influences the responses people give to surveys. More generally he is interested in the measurement of the social sciences and how the important step between theories and what actually people think and feel is made.

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