How important is it to present at conferences early in one’s career? (Part 2)

Photo by JJ |
Photo by JJ |

Way back when, Julie Gold asked: “How important is it, really, to present papers early in one’s career?” (Research Whisperer’s Facebook page, 3 Feb 2018).

This post is part 2 of the answers received for Julie Gold’s question. If you missed it, here’s part 1!

I must admit my initial response was based around a preference for breaking down the dependence on conferences as THE place to share findings or research ideas. This was, in part, because of the assumptions about researcher mobility and material support that this entails.

However, on reading my trusted colleagues’ views and reflecting on the dynamics of academia more generally, I’ve shifted my opinions.

This post features responses from Kylie ‘Happy Academic’ Ball, Kerstin ‘Postdoc Training’ Fritsches, and urban archeologist Sarah Hayes.

Kylie Ball (Psychology / School of Exercise and Nutritional Science, Deakin Uni / Happy Academic / @kylieball3)

Early in my career, I regularly attended conferences in my public health / psychology field, and got great value out of them in these ways:

  • The chance to share and profile my work with interested others.
  • Benchmarking my and my team’s research.
  • Making connections that led over time to some great collaborations (and also great friendships).
  • Learning new things and coming away inspired and energised by new ideas.
  • And – OK, I won’t deny it – the groupie’s thrill of meeting in the flesh those academic heroes whose work had long inspired me. [There’s nothing wrong with Academic Fandom! – Ed.]

However, recently, I and others I know have eased off the conference circuit somewhat (family, financial or other reasons) and I don’t think it’s a career deal-breaker. These days, many of these benefits (except maybe the last one) can now be achieved virtually, so if circumstances preclude regular conference attendance I’d just encourage people to be diligent and creative about seeking these outcomes through other avenues.

Kerstin Fritsches (Neuroscience / Director, Postdoc Training / @postdoctraining

I think everyone has to work out for themselves how useful conferences are and the only way to find out is by presenting at a few, if you have the opportunity.

I don’t think my actual presentations as an Honours and then PhD student were particularly important for my career. However, the events taught me a lot about communicating my research, meeting and having interesting conversations with junior and senior people in my field (neuroethology), getting excited about new ideas, and learning about progress in my broader field that I wouldn’t have picked up any other way. As students, we were only funded to go to a conference if we presented, which is a good policy – you get to experience it as a full participant, nerves and all!

The best conferences for me were the smaller ones (up to 300 participants) and I found poster presentations (in my field often the only presentation option for pre-PhD researchers) a great way to meet people and get the chance to discuss my work. I was pleasantly surprised by how interested and approachable researchers were (both junior and senior), and that alone gave me a lot of confidence to contact people later on.

The other thing to consider is that you may be more likely to find the funding to go to conferences early in your career (supervisor’s funding or student travel scholarships). Once you rely more on your own funding, post-PhD, finding money and the time to go can be a lot more difficult. By then, though, you are much more embedded in your field and can build on the relationships you created earlier.

Sarah Hayes (Archeology / Alfred Deakin Centre, Deakin Uni / @SarahHResearch

An underdeveloped conference paper (or worse, year after year of poor papers) isn’t going to do you any favours in terms of developing esteem within your discipline. This is tricky for when you are starting out, and I’d say get some traction on your ideas by presenting your paper to your department or at a local symposium before going for the big, national conference. Better to give conference papers less often and do them really well. Consider finding a mentor who you think has great skills in presenting, and who can help you prepare.

When you do go for the national conference, be strategic about it, especially if you have limited conference travel funding from your institution. Definitely attend when your conference is in your home town, and keep an eye out for grant or funding opportunities for travel (some of which now have provisions to help you travel with kids).

If you only attend two conferences while you are an emerging researcher, do the first in the final year of your PhD (you’ll be confident talking about your PhD research and you’ll gain contacts for job opportunities), and do the second the year before you go for a big grant (i.e. ARC DECRA) so your potential assessors know who you are.

If it’s really difficult for you to attend, make the most of all the digital networking opportunities available to you in order to build your reputation. Consider other ways of making yourself known to your colleagues and especially the ‘old guard’ within your discipline. Maybe shoot them an email about how great you think their recently published paper is! I’ve had three or four such emails and the positive impression this created of the senders has stayed with me.

Finally, when you do attend a conference, I’d suggest not focusing too much on what you get out of it. See anything you gain as a bonus – think about what you can contribute to other conference attendees and the discipline. In the end, this is far more likely to make you a valued member of your discipline.

So, there you have it! Two posts full of advice and shared experiences from members of the Research Whisperer brains trust!

While I’m still highly critical – and jaundiced, it must be said – about aspects of conference-going (see Staying still), I know that I speak from a particular position of academic sociocultural privilege (continuing role, relatively established research cred, strong community of advocates). For many emerging scholars, the stakes are higher when it comes to building profile and establishing their professional networks.

If our sector considers conferences as absolutely essential parts of researcher development and academic career-building, and emerging researchers are heavily judged on this, we must work to ensure that these scholars are supported to participate and benefit from them as equitably and consistently as possible.

That said, let’s not just do things ‘the conference way’ just because it’s what we’re used to. As some of the respondents pointed out, there are many ways to connect with your discipline and peers in the area, network broadly and internationally, build relationships to collaborate on research, etc.

Our colleagues who may not make it to conferences for any number of reasons should not be judged as lesser scholars. As we’re working to improve the equity of our gatherings, let’s also raise awareness and consideration of who may not be there and why.

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