Why You Should Attend Academic Conferences
The word “research” often conjures up many different images in people’s minds – a scientist in a white lab coat and goggles carefully holding a test tube and a beaker, a caffeinated and sleep-deprived student hunched over in front of a computer, or an adventurous scientist in a hard hat and high-visibility jacket sampling the surrounding flora and fauna. Regardless of the field of study, research is a significant and vital component that allows us to better understand the world around us and for the advancement of society.
Many undergraduate students at universities and colleges often pursue or wish to gain research experience. Not only does it look good on your CV, it is a fantastic way to learn more about a topic of interest, gain hands-on and real-world exposure, as well as network and receive mentorship from graduate students and established researchers. While many of our NSN members have discussed their experiences and advice on research, I argue that the more important aspect of research, is sharing your results and communicating it with as many people as possible. One of the best ways to do this is attending/presenting at academic conferences.
Academic conferences typically have a central theme, and gather together hundreds, even thousands, of individuals who are involved in that field. These individuals may include professors, researchers, commercial companies, and even the general public. However, more often than not, the majority of participants are students. And that is where the real benefit of attending a conference lies.
Being able to connect and network with other student researchers is a fantastic low-stakes way to openly discuss ideas. Oftentimes, there will be students from different academic institutions who have similar research questions as yourself. This creates a casual, yet thought-provoking opportunity, to discuss similarities and differences in your research methods. Not only is it less intimidating to talk to a fellow student than a professor, but connecting with your peers – a phenomenon known as near-peer mentoring – has been proven to lead to better academic performance and results.
Sharing successes and struggles with fellow students is also more relevant to both parties, as many student researchers are solely focused on research and laboratory techniques, rather than the logistical components of research such as dealing with lab supplies, funding, and personnel. This can lead to novel discussions about designing future research projects you may have, which often generate more though-provoking and high-yield questions that warrant further investigation. These projects can then facilitate more questions and discussions, and this cycle continues indefinitely. This creates a synergistic relationship that benefits both parties, and is often the catalyst by which great research develops. Research in any field can be difficult, broad and never-ending, but it is from these discussions and the camaraderie that develops that helps us further our research.
Finally, if you are lucky enough to attend a conference outside of your home city, research gives you an opportunity to travel. Oftentimes, research conferences rotate through several cities, and attending the conference provides a great way to explore these locations. This is especially beneficial if you intend to or have applied for graduate or professional school outside of your home city. This non-academic aspect of attending conferences lets you experience different communities and cultures within Canada, the US, and around the world. Perhaps more importantly, sometimes, it’s just fun to travel!
Conferences may range from small (such as a research day for a specific department within a university) to enormous (international conferences that take years to plan). Regardless of the size of the conference, the constant theme throughout is the sharing of knowledge and inspiration of future ideas. In my opinion, attending a conference as a student is one of the best experiences you can have. Where else can you connect with many like-minded individuals who share the same passion as you do for your research?
Research conferences give you the opportunity to talk to many people from different backgrounds who use different research methods, yet are still trying to achieve the same end goal as yourself. This allows you to expand your horizon to what is possible within your field of research and can help inspire and further your own work.
No matter how big or small your project may seem, I encourage every student to try and attend research conferences whenever possible. You never know just who you’ll meet and what might happen.
Photo Credit: Dennis Schroeder