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What's the point of academic conferences?

Conferences are like...geeky work-vacations
Academics love attending conferences. Chances are you’ve had at least one college class cancelled so that your professor could run off to some exotic location. In fact, both Timothy and I spent the last week in Memphis, Tennessee (a location that is perhaps not exotic, but in the midst of a March nor’easter, was difficult to get to) for the American Psychology-Law Society (APLS) annual meeting – and have returned excited and full of new ideas. In this week’s post, we’re going to deviate a bit from the normal theme of psychology and law and address a more meta-science topic – that is, what’s a conference, and what’s so great about them?

Last semester, I told my students that I had spent the weekend in Vancouver for a psychology conference. A student asked why I’d go so far for a workshop. Conferences are far more than workshops, though. Conferences are an opportunity to scientists to share their work, see what other people are researching, and network. While at APLS, we got to show off some of our most recent work on memory and confessions, as well as see presentations ranging from how to best construct an eyewitness lineup to suggestions for how to examine forensic evidence without bias on the part of the expert. 

There are all kinds of conferences. Usually, conferences are organized based on scientific topic, although the scope of that topic can vary widely. Some conferences, such as Psychonomics and American Psychological Society’s annual meetings, have thousands of attendees, presenting on topics all over psychology. Other conferences may only have several hundred attendees and are more focused – such as APLS’s annual meeting, which focuses on psychology and law. Some conferences focus on very narrow topics – such as deception detection or autobiographical memory. Every researcher has a favorite conference, but usually goes to several different ones – sometimes in the same year.

Timothy's poster presented at Society for Personality and Social Psychology
annual conference in San Antonio, 2017. The poster has few words, but a lot
of images and graphs to help communicate the information quickly.
Although a major goal for most science projects is peer-reviewed publication, that process can take months, if not years. Conference presentations are peer-reviewed, but they are more lenient about what gets presented. This offers a great chance to get feedback on your work – what you’re doing well, what you could improve on, or what a follow-up study could be. You can then use this feedback to improve your project. Such feedback can be particularly useful for getting new perspectives from others with different backgrounds, like what different psychological theories contribute to your project, or different real world applications.

Research can be presented at conferences in a variety of forms, although the most common are the poster and talk (also called a paper). If “science poster” evokes memory of high school science fair, then you’re on the right track. The researcher puts all of the elements of their project on a several-foot-tall poster. Because a poster is only so big, and no one will stand and read your poster for 20 minutes, each element of the project is abbreviated – usually a few bullet points on a literature review, a statement of the research question and hypotheses, a simple explanation of the procedure and materials, a graph or two (although sometimes more) of results, and a few bullet points of discussion.

The posters are usually presented in poster sessions that last an hour or two and are pretty laid back. A bunch of posters are up at once, and conference attendees stroll around to (try to) see all of the posters. As the researcher, you stand by your poster and give quick question-and-answer sessions to anyone who walks by. While at first this may sound really impersonal, it’s actually a really great way to interact one-on-one with other researchers – even the famous ones. Even if you only speak for a few minutes, it can open the doors to longer conversations later.

Will presenting some of his dissertation data at
the International Conference on Memory
in Budapest, summer 2016.
Talks, on the other hand, can be a bit more involved. A typical talk is around 15 minutes long, where you present your research to an audience, usually with PowerPoint slides. Although 15 minutes may sound like a long time, it goes by really quickly – usually too quickly to fully and completely explain every point of your literature review, methodological nuance, and statistical finding. In a talk, you have a bit more room than a poster to give detail, but it still won’t be as complete as a publication. Instead, you have to decide what’s important – a cool paradigm, nifty findings, or even something you want feedback on.

Research talks are usually presented in sessions as well – usually 4-8ish talks organized by topic. Depending on the size of the conference, there are usually 5 or so sessions running simultaneously. Thus, throughout the day at a psych and law conference, there may be a session on eyewitness talks, a session on confession talks, a session on substance abuse, etc. If a talk is submitted by itself, the conference organizers will find other solo-talks that are on the same topic to form the session. Another option is to submit your talk with talks by other researchers – a preplanned session called a symposium. Some conferences (particularly larger ones) don’t take solo-talk submissions and only take symposia. If that’s the case, you can still present at the conference, but in a poster format.

Conferences also provide a great opportunity to learn about what else is going on in the field. Because scientists are presenting their most recent work, others can get a preview of what publications may be coming out soon. This can lead to staring collaborations with other researchers, using cool new paradigms, and sparking new research ideas. Of course, this doesn’t mean stealing anyone’s ideas, but instead getting an infusion of fresh perspectives and methods into your own work.

For example, maybe there’s a talk about a new interrogation tactic. You could talk with the presenter, find out what they liked about the method and what was challenging about using it as a research tool. Then when you get back to your lab, you can incorporate it into your next study – with a citation crediting the original presenter, of course. 

Will with Beth Loftus (left) and Maryanne Garry (right), two of his favorite scientists
at the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition
meeting in Sydney, 2017.
Finally, conferences are a great place to network. Much of attending a conference is professionally socializing. Talks, lectures, keynote speeches, and poster sessions usually fill up most of the day-time, but there are often socials, dinners, and leisure events planned in the evenings as well. The low-key setting is a chance to catch up with old friends that are now at other schools, and meet new people who may be future collaborators. Undergraduates, Masters students, and PhD students can find opportunities for what comes next – be it scoping out grad programs, meeting potential advisors, or finding out about post-docs. So while there’s a lot to learn at conferences, it’s not all research – you can learn a lot about what to do next in your career.

Thus, for a researcher, a conference is more than just a workshop. It’s a chance to show off what you’ve been working on and get feedback, to stay updated about what’s going on in the field, and to catch up with old friends and meet new people. The work presented at conferences is much more cutting-edge than waiting on a journal article to be published, which means you can get exposure and drum up excitement for your own work, and see what others are doing and possibly get new ideas. Conferences allow you to stay connected to your field by finding out about the research, but also the people and opportunities. Hence, the snow storms and delayed flights getting to Memphis didn’t ruin the trip – we still learned a lot, met new people, caught up with old friends, and have some new ideas for what to research next. 

This post was written by Will Crozier/edited by Timothy Luke.

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