Researcher Life: Reflecting on Conferences

As I traveled back from the last conference this year, I reflect on each of the 4 conferences/summer schools of the last 12 months, comparing and contrasting my take home from this year of travel and talks. Here’s my take on my recent conference experiences…
This year (Sep 2016-Sep 2017) I attended the:
1. European Summer School on Eye Movements, Athens
2. Deutsche Gesellschaft für Kinder und Jugend Psychiatrie Kongress (Congress of the German Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry), Ulm
3. 6th World Congress on ADHD, Vancouver
4. European Conference on Eye Movements, Wuppertal
For ease of speaking, let’s just group the summer school, congress and conferences, simply as conferences. Again, for simplicity, I would refer to the above conferences as C1,C2,C3 and C4 respectively.
By just looking at the names of these conferences, you can figure stuff out about their focal points. C1 and C4 are method focused conferences. C2 and C3 are clinical focused. Within these groupings, C3 was narrower than C2, and C4 was more advanced than C1
These differences mean each of these conferences was slightly different in terms of

1. Value added to Knowledge:
C1 taught me my basics back in 2014 when I attended it the last time. Going back to it this year was a good reminder of what I know and should re-remember. C2 gave me an overall direction in psychiatry and psychology, about what is going on in broader fields of mental health and what clinicians expect from research. C3 gave me super-focused clinical and research insights on my specific area of research i.e. ADHD and its comorbidity with Autism. C4 gave me in depth insights for my upcoming stages of research, tons of methods for my analysis phases and ideas for solving technical shortcomings.

2. Networking:
I enjoy C1 every time I attend it, because I collaborate with a lot of people involved there. Networking is relaxed, focused on my project, and mixed with personal anecdotes. C2 is huge and overarching. Here, if you pick a person at random, the chances of their research overlapping with yours are so slim, that you’d really have to go over the crowd with a fine comb till you found someone you could collaborate with easily. So instead of trying to build bonds, I prefer listening a lot, and to many different people. C3 and C4 were great for networking! Almost every other person did something I could directly learn from and use in my projects. At both conferences a lot of contacts could be easily exchanged, a lot could be discussed even over smaller coffee breaks.

3. Presenting your work:
Work presented at clinical conferences needs to have a different approach and relevance as compared to methodological conferences. While each can value the other, there will be a stark difference in the audience.
For e.g.: At C2 I was presenting mainly to clinicians who assumed that someone would have checked for the robustness of my methodologies before letting me showcase my work. These guys were mainly interested in what I had found with my clinical groups and how this impacted their practice.  At C4 on the other hand, I was presenting to engineers and computer scientists as well. They cared more about how I had reached my conclusions. More often than not, the conversation went into a direction of ‘so if we were to develop a software that does x and y, it would help your research, right?’ Very often though, conferences may be like C3 where I was presenting to people doing very similar work, well aware of clinical and methodological challenges.

I learnt a lot from each kind of audience. I came back from C2 satisfied that my research had practical mental health implications, from C3 that it was state of the art, and from C4 with new ideas being developed, that I could use to continue keeping it state of the art.

4. Conference Organization:
I have to touch upon this point, simply because each conference was organized so differently! It was uncanny!
C1 and C3 topped the comfort list with venues in Athens and Vancouver, good food arrangements, and C3 went ahead and made an awesome Conference app, right down to being able to mark people you have met in the app (This was brilliant also because academicians don’t always carry business cards, and if you are an early researcher, you may not even have one).

C2, like I said, is an overarching conference. This meant they had to fit in a lot, in very little time. This year they had the added burden of addressing the refugee crisis in Germany, and by extension tacking mental health issues in this new post-warzone population. They had long days, with no lunch or coffee breaks. Instead, they had something called ‘Brezel talks’ where everyone would get a big German Pretzel during the talk, which was coincidentally scheduled where one would assume a lunch break to be.

C4 also tried to have a cool atmosphere with lots of socializing events and even a free beer party! But I guess living in Germany meant I was less impressed having a typical German experience! They also had a conference app though, so I wonder if conference apps are going to be the next big thing in Psychology/Cognitive conferences. I would like that…

Finally, I would like to end with a note on how every conference is similar – it makes me progress. PhDs or research in general, can become an isolated process. You are stuck in a rut, you discuss with a few people, usually the same ones, and determine your own progress. Meeting people and presenting your work to people does 5 awesome things:
1. It lets you reflect on where you stand and what you have found so far.
2. It lets you put your research in a broader context. More conferences=more people=more contexts.
3. It lets you think of questions you may have the answer to, but haven’t thought of yet.
4. It lets you foresee where you may be criticized, before you start the publishing process.
5. You learn about all the wonderful possibilities you could still have for the next phases and future projects.
Bonus point – It lets you travel! 😀

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