A guide to the academic conference

Summary

  • An academic conference is an event where researchers meet to discuss the latest in their field.
  • It’s made up of several sessions and normally features oral and poster presentations.
  • Attending an academic conference could be the beginning of your next big career move.
  • You’ll have to submit a compelling abstract in order to get in and you can even publish your work in the conference proceedings.
  • There are several things to factor in when you decide to attend an academic conference. It can get expensive, so look at the costs and consider your options.
  • Prepare well. Get your poster checked over, rehearse your talk and have someone review your conference paper. This could be a career-defining event for you.
Japan academic experience meeting a sumo wrestler in Hiroshima.
The academic conference can be an unforgettable experience. Really make the most of the opportunity. I got to visit Japan and meet some truly extraordinary people. I evolved as a person because of this.

Introduction

You may be at that stage where you’re wondering: what is an academic conference and what goes on at one? This blog will aim to answer both questions and more. Perhaps you’re a master’s student or PhD student and you’ve heard from many academics about their experiences at one of these events.

If you’re looking to go to your first one or have already been to a few but are not sure what to make of it then there are a few things you need to know. I have personally attended many academic conferences all across the world in some really exotic and outstanding locations. The academic conference is probably one of the best things about working in academia. You get to see things you’d otherwise never get to see. In some cases, you get to visit places you’ve never even heard of. I can recommend attending as many academic conferences as possible. Provided you have something new to present each time. Let’s get to it.

What is an academic conference?

The definition

The academic conference goes by many names: the research conference, symposium, congress or meeting. It’s just a fancy term for academic researchers getting together under one roof to talk about their work. This event is usually organised by the host institution or by a conference organiser. But this is all done in collaboration with a scientific committee who ensure that the research presented at the academic conference meets their criteria. Normally, research is presented via a poster, oral presentation or both.

Types of academic conferences

An academic conference can take many forms. They can range from small regional gatherings to more grand international events. The whole event can fit into a single day or take place over a series of days. The theme of an academic conference can be quite specialised focusing on a very narrow field within a certain discipline or it can be very broad and interdisciplinary. For example, I have previously attended the International Symposium on Metal-Hydrogen Systems which brought together physicists, chemists, material scientists and engineers interested in this very narrow area.  On the other hand, I’ve attended a poster conference that featured research students from various backgrounds including History, Law, Engineering and so on.

Who attends?

The academic conference does not just attract academics. You can also find members from certain industries or even just interested individuals attending. However, from my own experience, the academic conferences I attended mostly featured PhD students, postdocs, lecturers and professors.

Get with the programme

Normally, an official website for the academic conference goes live well in advance of the event to advertise all of the big names that will be attending and to give all the relevant information. The website will show a tentative programme, which may change closer to the event. The programme will include details of all of the planned sessions. So, an academic conference can be made up of various sessions some of which run parallel to each other and some not. I’ll go on to give you a brief description of some of the sessions you’re likely to encounter.

Plenary session

The plenary session stands alone and it is expected that most delegates will attend this one. It can involve a keynote session, discussion panel or some form of oral presentation.

Keynote session

The keynote session sets the central theme of the academic conference. The keynote address is usually delivered by a well-respected member of the research field. This big name is one of the reasons why most people attend. They’re almost like celebrities to some researchers. I recall once a PhD student eager to take a photo with one of these notable figures.

Panel session

A topic is chosen and is discussed or even debated by a panel of researchers. In some instances, those on the panel deliver a prepared speech otherwise they may tackle questions from the chair or those in the audience.

Oral session

This session normally makes up the bulk of the academic conference. In an academic conference, you can have hundreds of oral presentations all going on at the same time. The talks are usually given by up and coming researchers talking about the latest development in their field. These presentations are often categorised into similar themes. Each speaker can have ten minutes or more to present with a few minutes at the end for a question and answer session with the audience.

My advice is when you get your hands on the programme, make a note of all of the interesting talks and their dates and times. If you’re lucky, those talks won’t be happening at the same time but if not then you’ll have to make a choice. I’ve delivered quite a few oral presentations and I recommend rehearsing. Also, practice sticking to your allotted time. The last thing you want is to find out that you have only two minutes to cover twenty slides.

Poster session

A researcher may also present their work in the form of a poster. Posters can either be printed on large paper or cloth. Researchers will put their posters on display in a room and stand beside them to answer questions by onlookers. Poster presenters are given more time to display their work. These sessions can last hours.

There’s an art to producing eye-catching and award-winning posters. Usually, there’s a prize given for the best poster. I was fortunate enough to win an award for one of my posters. It was one of the highlights of my academic career.

Workshop

These aren’t as common. But they’re essentially a tutorial session designed for early career researchers. They cover topics like how to get published in reputable journals or how to write a manuscript. I’ve delivered a workshop at an academic conference in the past. The key is to do one on a topic that is relevant, useful and interesting to the delegates. So, it may be worth asking the conference organiser to poll the delegates for workshop ideas.

Why attend?

Inspiration

Going to an academic conference can be intellectually stimulating and inspiring. I once travelled to an academic conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. At the time, I was in the final year of my PhD and I was also in the middle of writing my PhD thesis.

At this academic conference, I met a scientist who at the time worked for a prestigious laboratory in my home city of London. It was just a chance meeting with this person but we discussed my research at great depth. I was amazed at how much I learnt from this individual so much so I included a lot of the new information in one of the chapters of my PhD thesis. This interaction renewed and revived my motivation to complete my PhD. Quite ironic though how I had to travel to a different continent to meet someone who was working nearby in my home city.

That’s the beauty of an academic conference. It creates those opportunities to meet well-known and respected people in your field that you’d otherwise not have. Don’t get me wrong, you have to pluck up the courage to approach these famous experts, but that comes with practice. Don’t forget, the main aim of an academic conference is to exchange knowledge and ideas so talking to others about your work is the point of the whole thing.

Job opportunities

A friend of mine once delivered an oral presentation about his research at an academic conference in Vienna, Austria. It just so happened that someone from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) attended his talk. The person from the USDA was so impressed by the talk that they offered him a position at their department. My friend ended up having the time of his life in the USA as a result. I’m not saying that there will always be people waiting around at academic conferences to hire unsuspecting researchers. I’m just saying it can happen.

See places

Most academic conferences are held in some of the most exotic and picturesque locations around the world. There’s a reason for this. Not many people will attend an academic conference in an abandoned warehouse in a rough neighbourhood. Sometimes, the venue can be at a luxurious 5-star hotel on a beautiful seaside resort. The academic conference can include excursions to visit some of the local sites or meals in luxurious settings. Some academics are accompanied by their spouse and treat the occasion like a vacation. Well, it’s not. But when you host an academic conference in a luxury resort in Cancun, Mexico you can see how the lines may become blurred. This is done on purpose: to attract the world-renowned figures who well then further attract more big names creating a snowball effect.

How to find an academic conference

There are many ways to get notified of upcoming academic conferences. Sometimes you’ll be informed by your supervisor and colleagues as they are likely making plans to attend one. That’s how I found out about most of the academic conferences that I went to. If you don’t hear of anything, then just ask your trusted sources.

Reading some of the reputable journals and magazines can also give you notification on some upcoming events.

A simple internet search can do the trick too. PaperCrowd is one example of a database that is designed to find academic conferences by topic or location. Visit the conference website to check if any recognisable names are attending. Perhaps you know a few personally. Contact them for more information. But always double-check your findings with a more experienced academic. There are a lot of predatory conference organisers out there. They look to attract the more inexperienced researchers with high registration fees and other unscrupulous deals.

How to attend

Now you’ve found an academic conference, how do you get on the guestlist? Months in advance, the conference organisers will put out a call for abstracts or papers. The calls are advertised on the conference website and distributed via email to relevant contacts. The conference organisers will provide details, normally on their website, on registering, registration fees, attendance criteria, event programme, recommendations for accommodation and much more.

Typically, you’ll have to submit an abstract which is a concise text summarising your research and highlighting your major findings. I highly recommend checking out my other blog on ‘Writing an effective abstract’ for useful tips for writing your own. For certain academic conferences, you’ll get to choose whether you prefer to do an oral or poster presentation. Also, you have the option of submitting a paper for publication in the conference proceedings. Ultimately, the decision on what type of presentation you’ll give is down to the review panel.

The review panel is made up of experts who check every submission. Similar to the peer-review process, the whole thing can take place under single-blind or double-blind conditions. You can read more about the peer-review process in my blog ‘Peer review: how it works’. These experts may even advise on whether delegates should present their work orally or via poster. Either way, you’ll be notified in plenty of time to give you a chance to prepare.

Funding the trip

Attending an academic conference can get pretty expensive. The total can be eye-watering when you factor in costs involved with the registration fee, travel, accommodation and subsistence. So, before registering to attend an academic conference try to come up with a rough estimate of cost for going. Students are normally offered a discounted registration fee which is even further reduced if you register early. Make sure you take advantage of this fact.

PhD students often have a budget to attend at least one major academic conference. So, you may have to be selective in the ones you go to based off of your limited funds. However, do consult your supervisor, head of department or even conference organiser for advice. They may be able to point you in the right direction if you’re low on funds.

Travel grants are a great source of funding too. These are given by institutions or charities to help students and early career researchers attend such events. If you’re not sure where to find a suitable travel grant try asking your supervisor, head of department or conference organiser. Failing which, do a simple internet search to see what else is out there. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

General advice

  • I cut my teeth at a poster conference which was held on my campus at the University of Birmingham. It was a good way for me to experience my first academic conference on a smaller scale. I recommend doing something similar rather than going straight for the more prestigious events right from the start.
  • During breaks, poster and networking sessions look for groups of people and observe their body language. If the people in a group are facing each other while talking you might find it difficult to strike up conversation although it’s not impossible. Rather, look for groups or pairs of people standing almost side by side with a more open posture. It’s a subtle invitation for others to join in. This is something I learnt from years of attending academic conferences.
  • Network. I had several copies of my business card and I always kept the cards of other delegates. You never know if you may need their help down the line or vice versa.
  • If you’re giving an oral presentation, I cannot overstate the importance of rehearsing. I’ve already mentioned how an oral presentation can lead to job opportunities if the right person is in attendance. This is a chance to market yourself and your work. So, do it justice.
  • For poster presentations, get your hands on a copy of a poster from your supervisor or colleagues. If you can obtain an award-winning poster than even better. Study it and implement a similar approach and style.
  • Research the venue and familiarise yourself with the location if you’ve never been there before. I used to spend hours investigating the venue, nearby transports links and points of interest using Google Maps.

What do you think?

Do you think I’ve missed something? Do you need proofreading, editing, course designing, grant proposal writing or consultancy services? I’d love to hear from you. Get your free quote today!

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Naser Al-Mufachi
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