Attending a Research Conference: Why bother and how to make it count

Many of us are strongly encouraged to attend conferences, but why are they so important, and what should we doing when we get there to make the most of the experience? They are often expensive, and take time away from other research or clinical activities, so how can we get the most for our time and money?

I personally enjoy travelling to conferences, however, with an increasingly busy schedule it can be hard to justify the time away from the office. This year, the European Association for Palliative Care was having its 10th annual world research congress in Bern, Switzerland, from 24-26th May. I was fortunate to have three posters accepted, but I was curious what other ways I could use this time away to benefit my research career. To help me answer these questions, I approached various conference attendees to get their perspective.
Why should I attend a conference?
There was an overwhelming support for conference attendance across all of the interviews, with some of the key benefits including being able to put a face to the names behind the research, building capacity, networking and building collaborations within the palliative care field, and potentially gaining a publication with your poster or abstract. 
Given my current role in a Marie Curie funded position, I was delighted to visit the Marie Curie stand and speak to those responsible for funding many of the palliative care research projects in the UK. Sabine Best and Sanjay Thakrar shared their positive experiences of the conference, identifying it as an excellent way to make that direct connection with researchers, putting a face to the name and sharing ideas informally which could result in future research ideas. 
Conference president
Professor Phil Larkin, president of the EAPC, identified building capacity as an absolute priority, through meeting both early career researchers as potential collaborators, and experienced researchers to learn from their experiences and to help develop research ideas.
“Bringing people together so early career researchers can learn from the more experienced researchers, and find ways of working together to take their careers forward”
International expert in my research area
Conferences are a great opportunity to meet international experts in your field, and I was delighted to attend Professor Katherine Clark’s presentation on bowel problems in palliative care in Australia, an area of great relevance to my own work. I took the opportunity to set up a meeting about our research area, and asked her about the benefits of attending a conference. Katherine thought meeting with your own supervisors in a more informal setting, building a sense of connectivity within an active research community, and building networks with potential collaborators were some key benefits.
“I think conferences allow valuable thinking time. Our usual work places are often busy, placing numerous demands on our time. Sometimes the opportunity to be removed provides invaluable free thinking time which so often results in later increased productivity.” 
Post-doctoral research fellow
I attended a session on health economics in palliative care and approached one of the presenters, Dr Peter May, an economist and health scientist from Trinity College Dublin, after the session. He identified two main benefits of attending a research conference. The first was to take advantage of presenting and testing your research ideas, through either a poster or oral presentation, and engage in the discussions surrounding your research to develop your ideas further. The second was to use the conference as a networking and collaboration building exercise:
“Despite having grown phenomenally in the last ten years, palliative care research is still relatively small. There are so few people and the problems are so large and so pressing, that we have to be able to crowd source the best ideas and the best data to generate the best evidence we can as quickly as we can. There is no better place to meet and grow your network and collaborators than at a conference when all the experts in the field are there”
PhD student
Whilst it is so important to capture the experiences of experienced researchers, it is equally important to capture those of an early career researcher. Ms Laurie McKibben has recently submitted her PhD thesis at Queen’s University Belfast. Laurie felt this was an excellent opportunity to network within an international arena. Opportunities to share your research and potentially gain a publication, which is essential for students building their CV, were also motivational factors for attending.
So how can I make the most of a conference?
After the interviews, and reflecting on my own experience at the conference, I have made a list of the top ways I plan to make the most out of future conferences
  1. Read the programme before the conference and scope out the oral and poster presentations. See what is aligned or relevant to your own research interests, and take notes or photos of posters. Contact the researchers if you have any questions or to coordinate meeting up
  2. Do not try to attend everything. Be strategic in your choices and focus on the research and researchers which are directly relevant to your area of interest
  3. Step outside your sphere of influence and make the most of all social events organised by the conference. Network with new potential collaborators at all career stages
  4. Get feedback, and engage in discussions to shape your research. This will help improve your current research, but could also lead to future opportunities
  5. Be present on social media. Actively engage, share your poster or key points from your oral presentation. Use social media as an informal way to connect with other participants at the conference and follow up on any connections with people of interest.
Dr Deborah Muldrew is a Post-doctoral research associate at the Ulster University Institute of Nursing and Health Research, and one of the AIIHPC’s Early Career Research Forum Communications and Activities Officers. 
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