Academic conferences - scholarly exchange and support networks

     
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The academic conference has become an integral part in the life of a scholar.  It is much more than an opportunity to present your research and obtain peer review in the long journey towards publication.  It has become a forum for discussion, debate and also a support network for academics at all stages of their career, whether they are still graduate students, or even if they are full professors.  There are many different types of conferences.  There are specific graduate student conferences open to PhD students only, there are specialised conferences that are organised around specific theme or area of specialisation, and there are larger conferences that operate within an academic discipline but are open to all sub-disciplines and specialisations within the larger subject area.  There are advantages and disadvantages to these conferences, and while this article is not exhaustive, it aims to provide some of the benefits that I have experienced from attending these conferences at different stages in my career. 

Graduate student conferences

These are very useful, particularly if you are in the early stages of your research. The main aspect to remember about these conferences is that everyone who is presenting is in the same boat.  All presenters are graduate students, and thus the environment is largely supportive and understanding.  If you are experiencing difficulties in your studies, the chances are that everyone at the conference has experienced or will soon experience similar frustrations and hardships as you.  Furthermore, it helps you to know the other young scholars in your field, provides you with the chance to make friendships, and gives a platform to explore possibilities for further collaboration at a later date.  Ultimately, many of those at the graduate student conferences could end up being your future colleagues. Thus, identifying research collaborators at an early stage will certainly help you later when you need to apply for research grants that may require a collaborator.

Specialised conferences that are organised around specific themes

These conferences are often larger and will comprise of people from all stages of their academic career, including graduate students.  They are very useful to help you get to know people in your field and also familiarise yourself with the latest cutting-edge research. They provide an opportunity to meet those who have power and influence within the discipline, such as journal editors, editors of book series, commissioning editors and department heads.  The ultimate aim of a conference in terms of academic output is normally a publication of some sort, whether it is a book or journal article.  Familiarising yourself with publication options is certainly helpful and will help you channel your research into the most appropriate area.  Also, getting yourself known among those who have influence in the profession, such as department chairs could also be very useful, since you don’t know if they may be on a committee that may read your future job application!  

Larger conferences within an academic discipline but open to all sub-disciplines

These conferences, as the title suggests, are often bigger and thus less personal.  The larger conferences I have attended can have upwards of 3,000 delegates.  The major advantage of this is that you will have access to the widest possible range of people in your discipline from a range of specialist areas.  The disadvantage is that the conference is so large, you may have difficulty in deciding what sessions to attend.  Moreover, many of the international, large-scale conferences are often prestigious.  Even getting a place on the programme to present a paper is often very difficult.  However, if you achieve this, it will put you in a good position to interact with many leading people in your profession.  Even if you do not present your research at one of these conferences, going as an observer can often yield positive results too.  Moreover, larger conferences also tend to have many professional development sessions led by senior academics, medical professionals, publishers and members of funding councils.   These are all very useful and important to help you enhance your skills, and to make you more successful in the academic profession.  For example, many senior scholars will lead sessions that provide advice on how to make a job application and interview techniques.  These are extremely important in an age when competition for academic jobs is fierce.  Members of funding councils will provide sessions that give guidance on how to write a successful grant application, and in so doing, they may provide an insight into the hot topics in the profession that may be more appealing to readers, which ultimately has influence on the allocation of funds.  Other sessions, including how to deal with workplace stress and depression are also invaluable in a profession where pressure is growing, and incidences of mental illness are now sadly increasing.

In summary….

If you get the chance to go to a conference, it is a good idea and a great opportunity.  Be clear about your aim and what you want to experience.  Also, study the programme carefully before you arrive, and identify the people you want to meet.  You could even contact them ahead of time to introduce yourself and to say you would like the chance to talk with them at the conference.  Conferences help you to enhance your personal network.  This is a very important element to a successful academic career.  While hard work and perseverance are also essential, knowing who is working in your field, and possibly more importantly, ensuring that they know you, could be the key to your achievement in the profession.     

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