As it evolves from passing thought to (world-changing) publication, research develops through a series of stages, as written by Dr. Deirdre Duffy.
Normally these include:
- Defining the parameters of the project (i.e. what you are not talking about);
- Identifying a research question (something which, as any researcher will tell you, takes a lot longer than you think);
- Designing your research (how exactly do you plan to answer that question?);
- Analysing data and producing findings or conclusions (what does it all mean?);
- Comparing your findings with other research (wait…why did you find something different…?); and finally
- What is missing from your research (what couldn’t you find out?).
As many conferences, especially ones organised by large umbrella groups like the British Sociological Association or Society of Legal Scholars, accept participants based on an abstract rather than a completed paper, research can be presented at any of these stages. To get the most out of the conference is it important to tailor your presentation to reflect what stage you are at. Presenting research that you are still mapping out as if you have gathered concrete data to prove your assertions will only be met with raised eyebrows and harsh criticism. Attending the conference might thus feel like a waste of time and can leave you questioning the point of your work. It is not unusual to find out that a particular piece of research has been dropped based on the reaction of the audience.
On the other hand, by beginning your presentation by admitting that your research is not yet fully formed you may get tips, advice and even pointers to other information. This makes the conference a lot more useful to you. Unanticipated questions from conference attendees can indicate that you may have overlooked something or provide you with a new avenue to take your research down. Framing your research as incomplete can also mean that you are supported by your audience rather than mauled!
The key thing to remember here is that conferences should give much more than they take. In exchange for time and money (often quite a lot of money – large conferences can cost upwards of €200 for a full ticket) they should provide you with what your research needs at that point in time. You do not need to promote findings from data you have not gathered or defended what problems your research has not answered when you do not yet have a research question. Equally you do not need to be told how you should have approached research that has already been published. Having someone tell you to use econometrics when you are promoting a book where you use photographic research methods can be very frustrating!
And remember, what you need from the conference might be entirely different from what the other panellists/presenters need. While you are looking for a sounding board for early findings or a mock tendering interview or PhD viva they may be publicising their forthcoming book or convince people to include their article in undergraduate course reading lists. So don’t be put off if they seem to know much more than you do (or cocky if they seem to know much less!). Concentrate on what you are trying to get out of the conference, tell the audience the stage in the research process you are at and you will find presenting a lot more useful.
Dr. Deirdre Duffy is a specialist in youth work, research methods and contemporary sociological theory. She currently works as a lecturer in Childhood and Youth Studies at Edge Hill University.