The case for conference attendance

Conferences are part of the undulating fabric of an academics year. The question is, do we attend simply because that’s ‘what we do’? I would argue a conference could benefit a researcher at any stage in their career, in multiple ways. How so? It might be obvious, but when I stopped to think about it, the rationale for attending is much easier to justify.

High angle view of the illuminated buildings and the Transamerica Pyramid of the CBD in San Francisco at night. Travel Photography from PhotoEverywhere
High angle view of the illuminated buildings and the Transamerica Pyramid of the CBD in San Francisco at night. Travel Photography from PhotoEverywhere

I’ve always enjoyed conferences, to varying extents. I especially love a conference that just ‘clicks’. I can’t quite articulate what I mean by ‘click’, but I found myself trying to fathom why my recent trip to the American Geophysical Union ( AGU ) last year ‘clicked’. Reasons for attending a conference can be varied. This could include one session dedicated to an international project or a collection of people working in quite a specialised area. From my point of view, the rationale for attendance on this occasion was to present some proof of concept work to a broad audience and then use this information to improve my research strategy. Sure, this was a fantastic experience and the information was very useful. I couldn’t, however, pinpoint this alone as the ‘click’ origin. So, what else contributed? Alongside presenting I also took part in a wide range of other activities:

 

  • Listening to talks on the periphery, if not outside, of my field.
  • Arranging meetings with others in my field and not in my institute.
  • Having informal chats over coffee about new ideas.
  • Engaging with exhibitors [meeting R2D2…yes…you read this right].
  • Attending union meetings.
  • …not always discussing work…[wait, what?!]
  • Making new connections
  • Lots and lots of coffee breaks.
  • Drafting new project ideas on the fly

I think I’ve just past my early stage researcher definition, so why haven’t I been doing this before you ask? Well, I have, in parts. I haven’t however allowed myself the time to reflect on the collective merit of these. Reflection can be a wonderful thing and can crop up when you least expect it. Anyway, everyone is different and responds to specific drivers that can inspire and ultimately generate new ideas.

For me, I need not just one element to justify attending a conference but a combination of the above. To be brutally honest, I don’t even think attendance always requires presenting to be part of that package. In my opinion, there is an old-fashioned stigma associated with having to present to attend a conference. In a changing research environment, I can no longer see the full logic behind this. To appreciate where your work sits in the grand scheme of things, it is often not enough to read papers. Engage with people. Engage with the community. Feel part of the damn community, because you are!

Of course, as I’ve already said, everyone is different and each PI can dictate, should they want, a certain course of action associated with the purse strings for which they are responsible. I would encourage everyone to at least think about attending conferences simply for the boost they so often provide. Think outside the box, and allow the research and researchers to discover new directions and feel positive about working towards breaking new ground. This can often reap dividends and I look forward to post docs/PhD students working on my projects bringing new exotic ideas back from foreign lands.

Enjoy your next conference folks! Oh, and if you fancy a coffee whilst there, drop me a line.

 

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