Academic conference tips
How to get the most out of conferences
Attending academic conferences is a great way to help develop your research career. They offer the chance to network and meet new collaborators or co-authors, learn about the latest research developments, and understand the bigger picture of your field.
The prospect of attending conferences for the first time can be daunting though. You’ll have new names to remember, new concepts to grasp, and feedback to take on board, if you’re presenting your work at the conference. So in this post, we guide you through some of the key things to consider to get the most out of conferences. Listen to our 15-minute podcast produced in partnership with Vitae for more tips and insights.
What is an academic conference?
Academic conferences are meetings where researchers gather together to hear about the latest developments in a research area. They come in different shapes and sizes, from big general conferences of 15,000+ attendees to smaller more focused events.
A range of sessions can take place during conferences. Typical formats include:
- Keynote (or plenary) presentations – often by a well-known speaker. Most delegates attend these.
- Panel sessions – with multiple presenters often discussing the same or related topics
- Poster sessions – a researcher explains a poster they’ve produced displaying a summary of their research, usually a mixture of text with images, graphs, tables etc.
- Conference paper presentations – Researchers present a paper and get feedback. These are usually grouped into topics or parallel streams.
Often there are also workshops with training on research skills such as public engagement or how to get published in academic journals. You can hear advice on these topics in our podcast series: 15 minutes to develop your research career.
Preparing for academic conferences
How to choose which conferences to go to
With so many different conferences to choose from, and with time and funding often limited, you need to think carefully about which ones you’re going to get the most out of. Researcher Daniel Simpson shares advice:
“To identify relevant conferences and workshops, sign up to as many subject-specific mailing lists as you can find. […] Event titles can often prove misleading. I have sometimes located an event with a promising title, only to encounter something completely unexpected. This can be avoided by looking into the backgrounds of the speakers, and the content of their papers.”
Speak to your colleagues, because they might be able to share advice about conferences they’ve been to and which they found most useful. Ask your supervisor about funding options too as this may influence your choice. Some research funding will include budget to attend conferences to disseminate your work, so it’s worth investigating opportunities to get involved in the program.
Learn about funding to attend conferences from Michael Raynor, Dean of Research at the University of the Highlands and Islands (5.17 – 5.53)
Once you’ve chosen and booked your conference, you’ll often need to choose which sessions to go to. Read the conference program and abstracts beforehand. Sessions can get booked up, so do this in advance to avoid disappointment.
How to network at a conference
Arrange meetings in advance
If you have contacts in mind that you want to meet at the conference, then get in touch with them beforehand and set up time to meet. Plan what you want to get out of the meeting so you can make your conversation as productive as possible. Are you looking to co-author an article with them? Do you want feedback on your paper? Have you seen a job opening at their institution that you want to find out more about?
Connecting with them beforehand via LinkedIn or following them on Twitter can also be useful. It’ll help you put a face to a name, and also as suggested in our podcast, “knowing people off Twitter makes going to a conference ten times less scary.” (7.06 – 7.28)
Using social media
Social media can be a key way of building networks at conferences – before, during, and after.
“If you’re not on twitter it’s like it’s a room you can’t go in at the conference” – Dr. Kieran Fenby-Hulse, Assistant Professor in Research Capability & Development.
Most conferences have a conference hashtag (e.g. #ScholarlySummit). Use this as a platform for discussing ideas raised during the conference, as well as to make connections during and afterwards.
Learn more about the role of social media in networking at conferences from Dr. Kieran Fenby-Hulse (6.26 – 8.14) Can virtual networking replace meeting face-to-face?
Networking for introverts
Some people may love networking at conferences, but for others it can come less naturally. Here’s some tips on networking at conferences if you are more introverted in nature.
- Don’t feel pressure to go to the whole conference social. Plan your time carefully and make sure you factor in time to recharge.
- Prepare a 30 – 60 second “elevator pitch” to use during networking breaks. This can be as simple as thinking of answers to the following: What is the key question that your research addresses? What is your approach? Why does your research matter and what real-world relevance does it have? Avoid using specialist terminology that others outside the discipline won’t understand – not everyone at the conference may have an academic background or the same expertise as you.
- Arrange meetings in smaller groups so you can have a more detailed discussion, rather than trying to meet everyone at the conference.
Hear tips on networking for introverts from Dr. Kieran Fenby-Hulse (9.08 – 9.56)
Presenting at a conference
Conference paper presentations
Presenting a paper at a conference can be a valuable way of raising your profile as a researcher. Give a conference paper, and as Professor Susan Brooks (Director of Researcher Development at Oxford Brookes University) says, “suddenly everyone knows you” (11.26). It’s also an opportunity to get valuable feedback that can improve your research.
It’s normal to feel nervous when presenting your paper at a conference, especially if you haven’t done it before, so here are some tips on how to do it well:
Presenting a paper at a conference can do wonders for your professional profile. Make sure you include a short introduction to yourself at the start of the presentation. Someone in the audience may be a future collaborator and you want to make it easy for them to find you afterwards.
Make it simple
As researcher Charlie Berry noted in her blog post, “Your article can explain the importance of your research for your field in much more depth than a conference paper.”
Often the most engaging presentations are the simplest, so you may want to focus on one aspect of your research rather than trying to present the full study. Use simpler language that you’ll feel comfortable speaking out loud, remembering you’re delivering a presentation not reading an article.
Practice beforehand, making sure you stick to your allocated time limit.
Hear more tips on presenting a conference paper from Professor Susan Brooks (Director of Researcher Development at Oxford Brookes University), including how to create great slides (10.57 – 14.59)
Tips for handling the question and answer session
Some people consider the question and answer session the scariest part of delivering a presentation. Here are some key things to bear in mind:
- Remember you are the person that knows your research best, most likely you’ll have a better grasp of the questions than you may think.
- Don’t worry if you can’t answer every question. Thank them for asking the question and follow up with them afterwards. Chances are they’ll be grateful for you taking the time to investigate the question and for carrying on the conversation.
- Use the feedback to make your research even better. Read how one researcher turned her conference paper into a prize-winning journal article.
Academic conference poster tips
Poster sessions are another way of sharing your research at academic conferences. These often take place during networking breaks or lunch and normally there are multiple people presenting their poster at once. As with conference paper presentations, delivering a poster session can be a great way of sharing your work and increasing its profile. Here are some do’s and don’ts to make them effective:
- Prepare a 2- 3-minute overview or elevator pitch explaining your research, then use this to guide people through your poster.
- Be prepared to speak to a broad audience. Not everyone will be knowledgeable on the topic, so think about how you’d explain your research to someone outside the field.
- Ignore the design. Think about what visuals will attract passers-by and make them want to find out more. Use bullet points, headings, and images to help make it easy to read and understand.
- Make it too text heavy. Your poster should be a visual aid, not a full page of information. Make sure text can be read from a couple of meters distance.
Are you a researcher looking to develop your research career? Then check out our 15-minute podcast series below for tips on getting published, making your research open, public engagement and more.