Making the Most of Scientific Conferences

by Jay Maddock, PhD, FAAHB

Mad About Public Health is a series that looks at the health of populations from varying creative and innovative perspectives.

In the last month, I’ve attended two scientific conferences, the Active Living Conference and the American Academy of Health Behavior (AAHB) Annual Meeting. As I was sitting in another airport lounge, my thoughts went to why we continue to attend these meetings and how do we get the most out of them? Attending conferences has become very expensive. At most meetings, the registration fee ranges from $400-$600; add to that a $200 a night room in most major cities, a $500 flight, meals and ground transportation, and most conferences cost about $2,000 to attend. That investment along with four to five days away from home presents a real opportunity cost, making getting the most of a conference a priority. So how do we achieve the outcome that we want?

First, we need to think about why we are attending a conference in the first place. For me the value comes from connecting with friends and colleagues, meeting potential new collaborators, and sparking new research ideas. Other good reasons for attending conferences include keeping up to date on the latest research, presenting your own research, increasing your academic reputation, performing national level service and gaining leadership opportunities. When you are presenting your own research, one of the biggest decisions is to present a poster or an oral presentation. Many young scholars select the oral presentation because they believe that it is more prestigious than a poster. In my 12 years as a Chair and a Dean, I can tell you that the number of oral presentations versus posters has never come up in a tenure or promotion case, unless of course you’re giving the keynote or other invite presentation. Instead, I find that poster sessions provide a lot more opportunities to meet new colleagues and get feedback on your work. This can be helpful advice in turning the poster presentation into a paper in the future. Poster presentations are also a great place to network. People who come up and engage with you are interested in your research. Don’t be afraid to ask for their card. This is especially important when you are getting ready for tenure and promotion. Almost all universities require outside letters for this process. Getting contact information of senior people who admire your research is a good way to help get positive outside review letters.

A leadership position in a national or international organization can be a great post for an Associate Professor looking to be promoted. I previously served as the President of the American Academy of Health Behavior and found it to be a great way to shape an organization, influence the field, and work with several colleagues on a different level. One of the keys to getting these leadership positions is to get involved at the ground floor in the organization. Volunteer to serve on the conference planning committee or other working group of an association. Most of the committees in organizations are looking for members and would be delighted to have you join them. Find the contact information for the chair of the committee or the staff person for the organization and let them know about your interest.

Once you have figured out what you want to get out of a conference, how do you decide which conference to attend? Many early career faculty attend the conference that their dissertation mentor brought them to or to a conference that is in a place they want to go to. While this is not a terrible strategy, it is worthwhile to be a bit more selective in choosing your conferences. I have found that the smaller the conference, the more people that you end up meeting. For example, the AAHB meeting only has about 150 people. This allows all of the sessions to be in one room and most of the people to know each other. I have met a lot more people at this meeting than I do at APHA even though it is 100 times smaller. If you do go to a larger meeting, try to find the meetings within the meeting. At APHA, the conference is organized by sections. Each of these sections has a program, committee meetings, and a social. Smaller sections, like the physical activity section, can be a home within a much larger space. Another strategy is to look at the focus of the meeting. The Active Living Conference is very specific on my research area. Everyone at the conference is interested in physical activity and the built environment, so every talk is relative. The AAHB meeting, on the other hand, has a multidisciplinary health behavior focus. I find it valuable too because it exposes me to different methodologies and ways of approaching problems from areas like substance abuse and injury prevention. The link between these two is that they both have a strong focus on the quality of the scientific presentations. This makes the content highly valuable and cannot be said for every conference. Another thing to think about when picking a meeting is whether or not senior faculty in your department or other senior faculty that you know attend the meeting. If networking and meeting new research collaborators is one of your goals, having a senior person that you know well at the meeting can be important. Ask them to introduce you to their colleagues. I make sure to connect my junior faculty and students with my colleagues to help them develop a professional network.

Before you get to a conference, spend some time looking at the program. Go over the things that you really want to make sure that you attend. Conferences can be quite tiring. From breakfast roundtables and early morning exercise sessions to late dinners, the days can be long. If you look at the program and there is a time when nothing interests you, feel free to skip it. While this is not a vacation, it is also not middle school. No one is taking attendance. Meals are an important time for networking. I try to eat dinner with different colleagues every night. This is a way to get to know them and their connections better. Socializing is an important aspect of getting to create future collaborations and a strong network. Finally, take care of yourself at a conference: make sure to eat well, get enough sleep, and find some time for exercise. It can be easy to get run down at these meeting, so pace yourself. Hopefully these trips can help you get the most out of your next meeting and lead to a more productive and enjoyable career.

Jay E. Maddock, PhD, FAAHB, is the former Dean of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University. He is internationally recognized for his research in social ecological approaches to increasing physical activity. He has served as principal investigator on over $18 million in extramural funding and authored over 100 scientific articles. [Full Bio]

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