Your complete guide to academic conferences

7 minutes read

First time attending an academic conference? Don’t sweat it, read on to ease your initiation.

An academic conference (sometimes called a research conference, academic congress, academic meeting or symposium) is a meeting which researchers attend to present their findings and hear about the latest work within their field. These events are usually organised by associations or groups of independent researchers under the watchful eye of a scientific or technical committee who ensure the technical quality of the research that’s presented.  

Academic conferences aren’t just for academics and they come in all shapes and sizes, from small local meetings to global events with thousands of international attendees. And while some conferences focus on highly-specialised topics within a single discipline, interdisciplinary conferences often bring together a broad variety of perspectives from academics, the industry and practitioners across several disciplines.

Attending an academic conference can be one of the most intellectually invigorating experiences the research world has to offer. They offer the opportunity to peer over the fence and see what’s going on outside of a particular speciality. And in doing so, they help researchers forge new connections, build on their research and enrich their career.

But it’s not a secret that lots of people don’t get the full benefit that an academic conference offers. Most of us have attended professional conferences and meetings, but an academic conference inhabits its own world. A world filled with abstracts and “camera-ready” papers, peer review and poster sessions. And successfully navigate this world, you need to get familiar with how an academic conference works.

Let’s dive in.

What happens at an academic conference?

A conference is an opportunity for academics and researchers to present and discuss their latest work, and discover new and interesting developments in their field. Which means that almost everyone who attends an event like this also presents at it. For this reason, the typical medium-to-large academic conference has a programme packed full of short presentations across a variety of topics. These are often arranged into parallel “streams” that have sessions which run simultaneously.  

Thanks to the influence of commercial conferences and the rising popularity of “un-conferences” that operate without a predefined structure, the rigid grip of the traditional academic conference format is loosening.  However, while an increasing number of conferences in the academic world are testing out innovative styles of presentation and interaction (like this conference from the Political Studies Association that held a debate in a pub), the typical presentations at an academic conference fall into the following categories.

Plenary sessions. While most of the larger academic conferences are structured along parallel streams, a plenary session is a session which all delegates are encouraged to attend. Plenary sessions may include a keynote session, panels or other types of presentation.

Keynote sessions. A keynote session is usually a major draw for conference delegates. Keynote speakers are intended to set the tone for the whole conference and foster a sense of collective academic endeavour.

Panel sessions. Panels usually involve multiple researchers discussing, and perhaps debating, one topic. These sessions can take many forms, with panellist delivering prepared statements or diving straight into answering questions from the session chair or the audience. But regardless of format, they’re designed to elicit an exchange of viewpoints among the experts on a topic.

Oral sessions. These sessions typically involve multiple presenters giving talks on separate papers that share common themes or topics. Each presenter is allotted an amount of time to speak (usually around 10 minutes) with some added time for a question-and-answer session with the audience after each presentation.

Poster sessions. A typical poster presentation involves creating a physical (or digital) poster that’s displayed in the halls at an academic conference. Posters are usually presented at the same time (usually over several hours) in the same room. And unlike the time constraints of oral sessions, poster presentations allow delegates to take their time studying work and discussing it with the presenter in detail.

Workshops. Conferences often hold tutorials or workshops on subjects like science communication or advice on getting published in top journals. These are often geared towards researchers who are beginning their careers and can have the added benefit of acting as a good opportunity for connecting attendees who are at a similar career level.

Reasons to attend an academic conference

If you’ve never attended an academic conference before, you could be forgiven for thinking that the main point of going is to present your research. Presenting at a conference means exposing your ideas to experts in your field and inviting questions and comments that will ultimately strengthen your work.

But while presenting is certainly important, it’s only one slice of the pie. There is a whole tranche of other reasons to attend an academic meeting.

Research submitted to an academic journal will often be re-drafted many times over, with perhaps many months passing between the first draft being submitted the date of publication. However, most academic conferences accept findings that are a little more rough-hewn and recent, so attending conferences is a great way to keep up with emerging trends in your field.

And because there’s so much information packed into a well-structured academic conference, that attending presentations will give you just enough information to identify whether you want to find out more about the speaker’s work.

Which brings us neatly to one of the most valuable reasons for attending an academic conference: meeting other researchers. Think of presentations as billboards for ideas: you see the billboard and it piques your interest, then you follow up. Conferences are wonderful sources of chance conversations and cross-pollinations, and the attendees who get the most value from attending them follow up with everyone who’s presentation caught their attention. This could be by approaching the speaker in the hall or hitting them up on the conference app to arrange a meeting over a coffee or a beer and dive into their work in depth.

It’s always helpful to hear others’ perspectives on careers and research, and attending conference social events can also sometimes be as useful as showing up at technical sessions. Mealtimes are a great opportunity to have a relaxed conversation about work or discuss the presentations that had the most impact. Most conferences also hold events that are targeted at event first-timers or young researchers, and these are a really useful way to find your tribe.

Not everything of value happens onsite at the conference, either. Attending a conference means you’ll receive a set of proceedings (also called a book of abstracts or book of papers). This is the official record of a conference and it might be a hard copy or a digital version. These usually contain an abstract (and sometimes the full paper) of every presentation given at the event, and they’re a treasure trove of the latest research in your field. Once you get home from the conference and have some space to think they’re a great jumping-off point to explore further research, and give you a point of conversation to introduce yourself through LinkedIn to presenters you didn’t get the chance to meet in person.

Submitting to a conference

So, how do you get your work accepted for publication at a conference in your field? Academic conferences are announced usually announced via a call for papers (also known as a call for abstracts or conference announcement email) and they’re also often listed on conference announcement sites. These call for papers will outline that year’s conference topics and detail how to submit your conference abstract.

Conferences often allow you to select what type of presentation to submit your work for,  with the most common options being a talk (as part of an oral session) or a poster. A talk is great for getting your name out there as it may be part of a large oral session. But if you think your work isn’t ready for a talk yet – or you think you’re likely to spend the majority of your first conference stressing out about giving one, you may be better off submitting a poster. Presenting a conference poster is a bit like repeating the same talk to a revolving audience of one. Your poster should ideally be effective enough to communicate the main points of your work on its own, and you are there to answer any additional questions with no set time limit. Scientist Sees Squirrel gives a really thorough breakdown of the oral vs poster pros and cons.

Submissions can take the form of an abstract, an extended abstract or a paper. And learning how to write a strong abstract for your submission is a skill that will serve you well throughout your career. The purpose of a conference abstract is to summarise – in a single paragraph – the major aspects of the paper you want to present, so it’s important you learn to write one that’s complete but concise. It’s also often the only aspect of your work that conference organisers will see, so it needs to be strong enough to stand alone. And whether you’re submitting your work by email or by uploading it via conference management software, make sure you follow the conference submission guidelines to a T.

To be accepted for presentation at an academic conference, submissions are assessed by a panel of reviewers. These reviewers are experts in their field who give their time voluntarily and provide written, unbiased feedback on submissions. They may also advise the organisers on what type of presentation a particular submission is best suited for.

To ensure the review process is fair, your submission may be reviewed under single-blind conditions (the reviewer knows who the researcher is) or double-blind conditions (the reviewer doesn’t know who the researcher is). Some conferences have a two-stage review process, and reviewers may request corrections if they think it’s necessary. Final corrected copies of submissions are referred to as being “camera ready”, meaning they’re ready to be published as part of the conference proceedings.

Funding your trip

Between paying registration fees, getting there and having a roof over your head, the costs of attending an academic conference add up.

Having said that, it’s pretty common for conference organisers to offer cheaper fees to researchers who are from developing countries or are just beginning their careers. And because some universities or research institutes may also require you to publish at or attend conferences, they often offer funding to help cover the cost of fees too.  Many researchers who are just starting out in their career may also qualify for travel grants to help them get there.

If you’re not sure how to even begin investigating what funding is available to you, ask your academic supervisor, your department head or your HR department what options are open to you. And don’t be afraid to contact the conference organisers directly. They’re not always fantastic about promoting the grants they have, so if the conference website is thin on info it’s worth asking them directly. Conferences also often look to minimise their costs by looking for student volunteers on site and may offer you a volunteering role instead of paying full fees.

It’s also worth following the conferences social media hashtags or getting active on its mobile app to see if any delegates who live near the venue are willing to host people in their homes. Or if people are willing to split the cost of accommodation.

Pre-conference prep

And finally, as well as preparing your presentation, you should do some pre-conference prep. Academic conferences can be tough going for the uninitiated. But there are plenty of tactics you can employ to help you survive your first conference without crying.

Best of luck.

Dee McCurry

Dee moved back from London to help Ex Ordo tell their story. Although she finds it tough to find turmeric lattes and other hipster nonsense in Galway, she enjoys writing about the weird and wonderful world of research conferences.