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What should I get out of conferences?

I vividly remember my first conference. Specifically, I remember walking around in a haze unsure of which direction I was going and where I should actually be. My first real conference was the American College of Sports Medicine Conference in New Orleans which brings together approximately 5000-6000 delegates from around the world. I barely found the session I was speaking at and most sessions that I attended were not chosen because of content but because I had stumbled in and decided to sit down. I heard a lot about Gatorade. I can confirm with 100% certainty that research on Gatorade is not for me.

This experience was definitely a shock to the system and taught me a really important lesson – taking time to plan is important. Allocate time to decide what you want to see and have a think about what you want to get out a conference. In some small conferences, this isn’t necessarily an issue, but for larger ones, as I found out, lack of planning can be disastrous.

Even after this first conference I still found it difficult at times to know what I should be doing at the conferences besides listening. Over time I got a bit better at engaging while at conferences and I thought I’d share some of my ‘key’ tips. Many will be absolutely common sense, but I reckon it is often the most obvious things that need repeating!

Important things to do at conferences:

1. Go into super-sleuth mode on one of the interesting keynote speakers – look at their previous research, check out where they work and where they trained. Nope, not to stalk them, but it’s really good information to have up your sleeve if you are somewhat like me and tend to get decently nervous when trying to talk to them.

2. Get out of your comfort zone. We often have a tendency at conferences to find our friends and spend the majority of the time hanging out with people we already know. Make an effort to talk to someone new. Most important of all, make a concerted effort to talk to someone who is actually in your research area of interest. Also, when you are new to a research area, you may not know the important people to meet. Ask your supervisors who you should talk to and ask for an introduction.

3. Make an effort to balance your responses to the research being presented (i.e. there is a difference between critically appraising research and cynically deconstructing it). I’ve certainly been guilty of getting annoyed by speakers that make exorbitant claims/conclusions that their research methodology does not support and then deciding that for this reason the conference was a bust. Take a moment and remember that whilst the conclusions may not be appropriate, the performed research does still provide important information – take that information from the talk.

4. Take responsibility for the conference quality. Often we go to conferences and are disappointed because nothing really new or exciting was presented. However, I think it is really important to remember that the research being presented is exactly like the research you are presenting – the research question has the potential to be up to 5 years old (as often occurs in RCTs). This is why talking to other delegates in your area of interest is so important – you can talk about what they are doing now. By doing this, you can make it a useful and interesting conference regardless of the speaker content.

5. Think of at least 1 question to ask at every talk. You don’t necessarily have to ask the question, but make sure you are actually engaging and actively listening to the talk.

6. Try your best not to be intimidated by more experienced/famous/infamous(?) researchers. I often found it hard to talk to experienced researchers and was a bit worried that they wouldn’t be interested in my questions or ideas. Important! They are researchers…they want to hear other viewpoints! And if they don’t…it has nothing to do with you. You may have just successfully identified someone you don’t want to work with in the future.

Hope that helps or at least inspires a bit of discussion! Also, I am happy to hear other’s tips!!