Life in academia #1: the conference

The conference is a key part of academia, a chance for researchers to come together and discuss the latest progress in a given field. A place for new friendships and collaborations to be fostered and for seeds of new ideas to be planted and begin to grow.

Or at least that’s the theory. Over the past month I’ve been to two conferences. First up in December was the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco, a week long frenzy which is probably the world’s largest physical science conference with over 20,000 delegates discussing subjects as diverse as Jupiter and, well, peat bogs. Next up earlier this week was the much smaller affair of the UK’s Quaternary Research Association’s Annual Discussion Meeting in London, QRA@50, which this year happened to be celebrating 50 years of the association and was therefore a summing up of where the science had come from and where it was headed. This blog is my attempt to honestly assess whether the theory of conference attendance matches the reality.

First up – the research. There’s no doubt that the range of topics on show at the AGU was so diverse as to be overwhelming. There was a certain skill involved in trawling through the daily newspaper every morning to pick out the relevant and interesting topics. There was one specifically peaty session, but apart from that finding relevant talks was sometimes needle in a haystack stuff. A degree of physical fitness, map reading skill and quiet door-opening ability was then required to hop between rooms if your chosen talks happened to be in different sessions (which they often were). This was a small price to pay though as in general I really did learn a lot and get the sense that mostly very current research was on show. At the QRA, it was all much simpler with everything taking place in one room. The talks were all reviews of the past and nods to the future so were excellent summaries of the diverse topics within Quaternary research. At both conferences, there were also masses of interesting posters, sometimes, especially at the AGU, almost too many to get around and these offered the chance to have more in depth discussions with the researchers involved. On the topic of research I can honestly say that both conferences scored very highly in their quite different ways.

Next up – the networking. Here, some honesty is doubtless required. Some days I can wake up and feel confident, sociable and able to talk lucidly about my research. Other days, that is not quite the case. I find the hardest bit of networking to be the small talk. Once you’re into the nitty gritty of talking shop, the conversation can flow a little more easily, but finding ways to go up and talk to people you know you really should is not always easy. Social media, especially Twitter, can make breaking the ice much easier and is a real benefit in this respect. Despite the fact that AGU had over 20,000 delegates and the QRA only a few hundred, I actually found the QRA busier, being held in a smaller, more intimate venue packed full of experts in my field. Networking seems to come easily to some people but I’m not sure I would count myself among them. It’s certainly a part of my job I have to make a concerted effort to work at and if I’m honest, some days I don’t do as well as perhaps I should. But this really is where conferencing is at and I have learned that I feel much better at the end of a day when I’ve talked to lots of new people. The cliché that it’s not what you know but who you know certainly has some application in the academic world as elsewhere and conferences are good places to come away knowing a few more people. Who knows where that could take you.

To talk or to poster? At the AGU, I was hoping for a talk, but was given a poster presentation. At first I was disappointed, not least because if I was travelling all that way I felt that at the least I wanted to get some big conference presentation experience under my belt. But it can often be the case that a poster gives you more time to have real meaningful discussions with people that the two or three minutes for questions after a talk simply cannot. A talk will perhaps give you more of an audience but a poster may well allow you to engage more with less people, so there are pros and cons for each option. A talk is certainly more nerve-wracking but provides a much greater adrenalin rush in return. In general, if the option is there (for example at the QRA there were only invited talks given by the experts in the field so all other delegates presented posters) I think I would always opt for a talk, but a poster should certainly not be looked down on as a poorer option.

With Christmas and New Year wedged in between, I feel that all I’ve been doing over the past month at work is going to conferences! There’s no doubt that you get out what you put in to a conference and if you make an effort then there’s a lot you can take away and the theory of conferences can match the reality. But equally, they are just one part of life in academia and I also think that with the ever increasing range of options available, it would be easy to get over-conferenced! Better I believe to put maximum effort into a smaller number of carefully selected events that can really give something back to your research. Both the AGU and the QRA conferences did that for me in quite different ways. Who knows when the next one might be?

Next up in ‘Life in academia’ is #2: fieldwork. Tom is out in Chile as we speak so will have a few things to say about this in the coming weeks!

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