How important is it to present at conferences early in one’s career? (Part 1)

Way back when, Julie Gold asked: “How important is it, really, to present papers early in one’s career?” (Research Whisperer’s Facebook page, 3 Feb 2018).

I took Julie’s question to be about presenting at conferences and my short, immediate answer (in my head) after I saw it was this:

“Even though many things have changed in academia, and I’d argue that most people could do with less conference-ing (rather than more), though getting the word out about your work early in your career is very important and sustained networking even more so.

There are many ways to do this, though, that don’t HAVE to be conferences – it’s just that conferences still retain a standard allure for academia that will take a longer time to shift…”

Then I stopped and thought a bit more about what I was saying. I realised how narrow my own experiences were (humanities, based in Australia, relatively recent social media zealot) in the broader pool of academic conference lore.

In addition, I’m speaking from a ‘mid-career’ position in the system, with established networks and an established track-record of conference presentation and attendance.

So, I approached a wider circle of Research Whisperer colleagues from various disciplines, perspectives and career stages. They were brilliant! They responded with thoughtful, useful advice and fascinating sharing of their experiences.

In fact, their responses were too good (and, therefore, hard to slice down) so this planned single post has become a 2-parter!

Here’s part one, featuring Inger ‘Thesis Whisperer’ Mewburn, Dani Barrington, Euan Ritchie, and Eva Alisic.

Inger Mewburn (Director – Research Training, ANU / Thesis Whisperer / @thesiswhisperer

It’s very discipline specific, even in the sciences. For example, computer science tends to publish mostly through conference proceedings these days, and they like the thesis by compilation/publication format, so they tend to encourage candidates to start early. Other science disciplines, like astrophysics, are big on posters as a conference entry point, with papers being something you get to in the middle years.

Humanities varies, but in my experience, it’s usually later on in candidature that supervisors start to encourage conference presentations. In the humanities, you need to shape the topic much more than many science candidates, who might be handed some work started by a previous student.

TSEEN gatecrashes here: I wanted to re-post an excellent comment by Owen S. from my post ‘Staying still’ (which interrogated the idea of always having to attend conferences) – it’s particularly relevant after Inger’s comments and a fascinating insight into one discipline’s protocols.

Owen S.: Computer Science conferences are an interesting case study. You may be aware that rankings have been attached to international Computer Science conferences via the Computing Ranking & Education (CORE) portal. In this way, a paper accepted into a Computer Science conference becomes a research output with a quality rank, analogous to journal articles with SCImago rankings. The rationale being that the field moves so quickly, journal articles are out of date by the time they’re published, hence conferences are the only way to ensure current relevance. CORE conferences are counted in the ERA exercise, which is the only discipline area I’m aware of which allows conference papers into the assessment. As a result, Computer Science Schools adopt approaches which encourage conference attendance via workload model allowances and financial incentive schemes.

The CORE system is only recognised in Australia, and there’s a lack of agreement among Computer Scientists about its validity. Several Computer Scientists I’ve spoken to think CORE is irrelevant and that publishing in high quality journals should still be priority #1.

Nevertheless, there is significant pressure for Computer Scientists (including research higher degree candidates) to attend conferences and present papers. When someone can’t afford to travel and present their paper, they sometimes purchase the conference registration and have a proxy present on their behalf. This is heavily frowned upon within the field due to the prevailing travel addiction.

So, all in all, Computer Science academia in Australia has set itself up a system which makes it almost impossible to break out of the conference cycle.

And now back to the fabulous contributions from RW’s brains trust…

Dani Barrington (Water, Sanitation and Health Engineering / School of Civil Engineering, Leeds Uni / @dani_barrington)

I had a fantastic PhD supervisor, Professor Anas Ghadouani, who pushed me to attend and present at conferences from day one.

I was certainly out of my comfort zone, introducing myself and my work to professors I admired, but it got easier with time. Many of my career opportunities have arisen through word-of-mouth from this type of exposure – from being asked to partner on grant applications to giving interviews on national radio. Perhaps more importantly though, I am an academic because I believe in our role as public intellectuals, and attending and presenting at conferences allows me to engage in national and global debates on topics that get me up in the morning (figuratively and literally – I work on toilets).

There is certainly a growing space for online conferences and webinars, but I don’t think you can beat the informal conversations that happen following conference presentations or over a beer at the conference reception. I strongly believe these receptions should always be included in conference registration fees as they are essential to the conference experience, and ECRs in particular shouldn’t be excluded due to personal or institutional budgets that preclude participation in “social events”.

Euan Ritchie (Ecology / School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin Uni / @euanritchie1)

It’s very important you attend and present at a conference early in your career. The benefits of doing so are many and occur over the short and longer term.

Conferences inspire, the energy around them is often infectious and can be used to motivate you to explore new and cool ideas, and they can potentially launch your career. Never underestimate people knowing you as a person and not just as a CV or Google Scholar entry.

Networks are forged on relationships and personalities. Conferences are an opportunity to show not just the awesome research you’re doing, but that you’re a clever and nice person who people will want to work with, give a job to, etc.

Research is hard, and can be quite a lonely pursuit at times. Going to conferences makes you aware of the wonderful community you’re a part of and contribute to.

Lastly, once you’ve gone to one conference, they get much easier. People know you and conversations and networking becomes easier. Remember, though, that once you’re embedded in the research community, you need to help others to also become a part of it!

Eva Alisic (Psychology / Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, Uni of Melbourne / @evaalisic

It’s a great question, definitely worth a post! My thinking is that just giving a talk at a big conference is probably not enormously helpful unless you have exceptionally striking findings and there will be an audience. At some of the larger conferences that I know, people do sit in on talks but also quickly get to saturation point / information overload, so not much of an ECR’s story will stick.

What I DO think is useful are other aspects of conferences, such as pre-conference workshops and ECR-focused initiatives. As an example, I have been involved with the creation and management of several ‘Paper in a Day’ events that precede the major disciplinary event. These have been really beneficial to research students and ECRs. Connecting with national or international peers as an ECR (and doing some intellectual work together, as with Paper in a Day) is very valuable, and happens more effectively in person than via email.

In brief, my answer to Julie’s question would be: traditional conferences are mostly useful for the non-paper aspects of your participation, especially if there is some collaborative writing/discussion time with your international peers. These will be your friends, colleagues, inspirations, and challengers for the years to come, so it’s worth investing in building these connections and collaborations.

Next week’s post is Part 2 of the responses to ‘how important is it to present papers early in one’s career?’, and includes takes from Kylie ‘Happy Academic’ Ball, the fabulous Kerstin ‘Postdoc Training’ Fritsches, and the lovely Sarah Hayes.


About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is an academic at La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

4 Responses to How important is it to present at conferences early in one’s career? (Part 1)

  1. ladyredjess says:

    When I was an independent scholar out in the wilderness, before I got my postdoc, conferences (in literature) were crucial for staying up to date with the field & for feeling less lonely.They also forced me to polish & publish my work after I’d presented it. So for me, as an ECR, conferences totally saved my bacon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      That’s true – the conference deadline can function well in that way! And you’re also right about how confs can cohere the scholarly elements or culture that those who aren’t embedded in institutions can miss out on. Thanks for reading! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. ladi says:

    I’m a PhD student, I’ve attended about 3 conferences and the feedback i got from paper presentations have been golden. More specific and concise compared to internal assessments from within my uni, we 2 internal assessments prior to the viva. I’m in the business school.
    I’m yet to have poster presentations though but i do agree the informal conversations are also great. Gives a better sense of the research community than just read academic papers or profiles.


  3. Marc Piquette says:

    I’d say the opportunity to attend and present at conferences is indispensable. Regardless of where you end up during or after the PhD, networking and communication are essential, and conferences provide abundant opportunities for both. Plus, many of the more densely populated areas will have their own local / regional meetings which can be both less expensive and less stressful.

    My first ACS conference was a great experience. In preparation you have to review your work, and ensure that it will be clearly understood by non-experts. It also provided opportunities to meet and get feedback from leaders in my field.


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