Each year academics make a plea to their head of department or head of research for funding to attend conferences at home or abroad. These can be events run by universities, research networks, industry, training providers or accreditation bodies and they often have a mixture of academics and practitioners attending.
Many Higher Education institutions will only fund staff to attend an academic conference if they are presenting a paper and individuals will only get funding for a skills based conference if they identify the particular need in their annual appraisal or it is a requirement of continuing accreditation.
Therefore when permission (and funding) to attend a conference is granted, it is an opportunity to be seized.
Here are some tips on making the most of conference attendance.
1. Conferences are fundamentally a knowledge exchange opportunity. It is a chance to find out the latest research in your field, who is working on what, and what the future trends might be. At skills based events it is an opportunity to learn about the latest pedagogic tools, technological advancements and industry requirements. Go with an open mind, take notes and absorb.
2. You should come away from a conference with updated knowledge and/or skills. These should feed back into your own research, curriculum development or teaching techniques. You should attend a conference with the intention of picking up something that will change your own practice be that teaching or research.
3. A conference should be an opportunity for personal development but also wider staff development. In my department, if a member of staff attends a conference funded by the department (rather than the research centre) they are expected to write up a summary of the key issues raised and to circulate them to course staff. This is good practice to follow and I usually do the same via my blog opening up knowledge exchange to a wider readership.
4. If you are presenting an academic paper use the conference as a testing ground rather than a final exhibition. It is the best place to get feedback on your methodology, analysis and even literature particularly if you are an early career researcher. Give the audience something new, such as your initial data findings, but leave some room for adaptation to your final paper.
5. Use the social spaces and time slots to network. Heard an interesting paper and want to find out more? Go and speak to the presenter in the queue for the buffet. Want to make yourself known to someone? Make sure you sit near them at the conference dinner or even better, find out which pub everyone is going to and buy them a drink. Networking is a great way to find people to collaborate with on research projects, get in as guest speakers or even tap up for external examining duties. Be strategic and check out the delegate list, then make your move at an appropriate moment. I secured the external examiner for my PhD by making myself known to the person I had in mind during a conference coffee break and then later again in the pub (he actually bought me a drink which was a bonus).
6. Struggling to find willing participants for your latest research project? Conferences can be a great place to speak to people face to face and get them to agree to take part in your research whereas usually they are too busy to respond to your emails or phone calls. I found a case study for my PhD research via a contact made at a skills conference and I intend to use a forthcoming conference to sign up subjects for my latest research project.
7. Academic conferences are ideal for finding the latest literature in a particular field as they often contain papers that are yet to be published or are a work in progress. The authors will usually be happy, and flattered, to share their presentation slides or draft paper and these can be a further great resource for reading material and references
8. Publishers often attend conferences, particularly if they are launching a new textbook and this can be a good way to make contact with them and explore publishing opportunities. Some conferences publish a selection of the presented papers in their next journal or in a special edition or at the very least on a conference intranet site accessible to delegates for a limited period of time. But be aware of predatory publishers who may contact you after the conference. See more in my article here. Another publishing opportunity is conference competitions in conjunction with academic journals and these can be another way to get your work published.
9. Keep good notes of every presentation you attend. Even if the paper does not seem relevant now it may be something vital to you in future months or even years, and then you will wish you had kept better notes. You never know what you might be working on in the future.
10. Use the time to enjoy yourself and get out of the office. Conferences are a space to relax and unwind, chat, socialise and have some nice food and a few drinks. Don’t feel guilty for doing so. It is often in relaxed, social environments that we are our most productive and creative, as it gives us space to think.