Research intelligence: how to get more from academic conferences

Be kind, be constructive and go easy on the free booze, conference veterans advise new and returning attendees

May 16, 2019
Source: Getty

Attending a big, discipline-wide academic conference can be an intimidating and stressful event for anyone. For early career and junior researchers, there may well be the added anxiety of presenting or discussing a piece of work with strangers for the first time.

Planning ahead for a major international conference that she attended this year, Christine Cheng, a lecturer in war studies at King’s College London, outlined a number of tips for her colleagues and fellow attendees on Twitter. The advice – which she based around “kindness, and interpersonal etiquette” – clearly resonated: it was shared online more than 4,000 times, sparking discussions between academics.

Here, we outline some expert guidance for making the big event a valuable one – whether it is your first or your 50th time in attendance.

Value people – don’t ‘network’
The concept of networking to advance a career may be accepted dogma in academia, but Dr Cheng insists that it is simply “the wrong mindset”. Rather, her first tip is to “stop looking for someone more important to talk to and focus on who is in front of you”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, she explained that in her view, “networking is too instrumental – and it just doesn’t work in the context of academia”. She added: “What’s more helpful is building a long-term relationship.”

Equally, Dr Cheng stressed the importance of giving time to new and junior people you meet at the conference. “A mistake I see some senior professors make is disregarding people they think are not important. To which I say, you will see these people every year, do not make the mistake of acting badly towards them – they could be the next Nobel prizewinner.”

Be kind
In Dr Cheng’s second tip, she wrote: “Putting your work out there to be criticized is an act of bravery…So in the Q&A, don’t humiliate the speaker in order to make yourself look clever.”

Simon Kövesi, professor of English literature at Oxford Brookes University, said senior academics have a responsibility to be “careful, positive and kind”.

“When I was a very junior academic, the very senior host of a major conference in my area took it upon himself to come and tell me why I was wrong, and why I should stop doing what I was doing, every time he caught sight of me at the conference,” he told THE. “I was in tears by the end of it.”

Learn how to give constructive criticism
The key to good, useful feedback is that it is all about being specific, Dr Cheng said of her third tip. “Helpful criticism is not about showing off; it’s asking questions that allow the researcher to see their work from another perspective. Too often in my own discipline, there seems to be this competitive atmosphere that just encourages confrontation.”

Adrian Kavanagh, a lecturer in geography at Maynooth University, agreed that audience members should “try to be as discreet as possible when it comes to noting glaring errors in a conference presentation – if possible, bring it up after”. “Conferences are there for presenters to learn and hear other people’s ideas, but there’s no need to jump all over or humiliate someone in the process,” he told THE.

Be inclusive
Confrontational approaches can “demoralise women in particular” in a conference setting, Dr Cheng said.

To help create a more inclusive atmosphere, she urged that women ask – and be asked – more questions. “Consider setting this as an intention at the start of the session,” she suggested. “Asking a question can also lead to productive and fun interactions because audience members – not just panellists – might want to engage further after the panel,” she added.

Be professional
Researchers who are going to present a paper should in advance “ask for advice on specific ideas or concepts”, said Dr Cheng. “The best panels happen when we treat [the session] as a joint endeavour.”

James Goldgeier, professor of international relations at the American University, Washington, said that preparation was key for first-time speakers. “If you are presenting a paper, send it in by the deadline the chair and discussant have set,” he advised. “Make sure it doesn’t say ‘Rough draft, not for citation or circulation’. You want to be cited and circulated as a rising expert.”

Try to enjoy it – but not too much
Dr Cheng advised: “Don’t gossip in the elevator or in the restaurant, or drink so much that you forget where you are. You don’t want to be remembered as that person.”

Scholarly conferences and other such get-togethers can be intimidating for newcomers. But Dr Cheng said that “something to remember is that the people you are afraid to talk to probably, most of the time, have no idea they are so intimidating, and will remember what it was like for them that first time”.


Print headline: Conference anxiety? Focus on the people

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Reader's comments (1)

Some great points there. On disregarding people that are not important, perhaps there is more to it. Conferences are great places for old friends and colleagues to rekindle long established relationships. Perhaps sometimes they just get so carried away catching up they forget that they are the experts and that perhaps somebody might want to speak to them. From the outside it could be seen as closed groups or cliques, perhaps sometimes it is, other times they might be oblivious.