Attending academic conferences can enhance a researcher’s career in several ways. A conference is a venue to obtain information, make contacts, and increase your visibility.
The stated purpose of an academic conference is to learn recent results in a field of study. This is certainly one reason to attend a conference. Knowing the latest advances is always valuable for a researcher interested in keeping up with developments in a field and spotting future trends. During a presentation you can ask questions that are of particular interest to yourself and get immediate responses. Outside the lecture hall, private conversations are even more valuable in learning about the researcher’s work and how it might apply to your own.
At one conference I approached a speaker following a presentation and had a fifteen- or twenty-minute conversation that started with a question on the presentation but branched out into another area of mutual interest. At the conclusion of the conversation I remarked that I was now the resident expert at my work place on this particular topic.
However, as any experienced researcher knows, supplying technical information is only part of a conference’s value.
Besides offering a preview of current research, attending a conference allows personal introductions to the presenters. Establishing rapport may be important for future exchange of information or collaborations. Expanding a researcher’s circle of contacts is at least as important a reason to attend a conference as hearing the actual papers.
In the example I gave above, a few years after our conversation, the presenter was transferred halfway across the country to a position located in my building, right across the hall from my office. Reintroduced, we promptly began to collaborate on some projects. Having met beforehand at a conference did not cause this chain of events, but the rapport established made it easier to take advantage of the situation later on.
Presenting a paper at an academic conference is also a good way to enhance your visibility and name recognition—factors which may be helpful in getting future funding. Chairing a conference session is another way to put your name and face in front of other researchers.
Some researchers love attending conferences and lobby constantly for the opportunity. Others hate spending the time away from their research and avoid conferences. I fall midway between these extremes. I like going to conferences once or twice a year to keep abreast on the research and researchers in a field. If more than two years go by without attending a conference, I start to wonder if I am falling behind current happenings.