So you’ve registered for the conference, and now you have the programme. It might be slim, or not. The ECER conference I’m at is not small but it’s not the largest around either – it’s usually somewhere around two to three thousand people. But that many people means about that many papers too, and a printed progamme which, if not quite the size of an airport novel, is certainly big enough to take a few hours to read thoroughly.
These days you can usually get a conference programme online so you can look at it before you come. Many conferences now also have an app that feeds your choices of sessions straight into your diary. I had a brief look at the ECER programme before I came but mainly focused on the first day.
But when faced with the programme, how do you decide what to go to?
Finding your way around a conference programme is always tricky. First-time conference goers may think that there is some kind of hidden knowledge about how to choose which papers to go to. But there isn’t. A quick and very un-random poll of five people at dinner on Sunday night – on the riverfront, grilled fish and very nice – suggested that, regardless of conference experience, choosing which sessions and papers to attend involves generating a menu of opportunities. This means:
(1) picking some papers given by people you know – you either use or are interested in their work. You have a rough idea what you’ll hear. Sometimes you only know people through their writing, and the conference is a chance to see them in person. Sometimes you may also know people who are just good presenters and/or who always do interesting work.
(2) choosing other papers on the basis that the topic seems to be strongly related to your own work. This might mean following the sessions in one or two strands, or interest groups, within the conference. If the conference is large, then finding a subgroup of like-minded people in a strand is often a good way to get to know people and to avoid the lost-in-a-huge-crowd feeling you can get in really big conferences.
(3) selecting a few papers where the topic sounds interesting, but isn’t strongly related to your current work, but nevertheless could be interesting. Sometimes the most stimulating ideas come from, or come to you, in those slightly-off-your-main-focus sessions. However, beware the clever title. It’s not unknown for papers to have a snappy title and then be just the opposite – very tiresome indeed when you find this out as the paper goes on.
It’s a very good idea not to fill up your entire programme with sessions, or you could mark some down as more optional. It’s not a waste of hard won registration money to leave some time for hanging about in the book displays, going to special interest group meetings, association business meetings, and/or just spending a bit of time chatting to new people. Conferences precede social media in being the place to make new academic connections. Making the time to follow up those quick chats after presentations (more on this later) is essential. I’ve been known to spend as much time outside paper sessions as in, although I’m not assuming that will be the case at ECER.
The ultimate rule of conference thumb is not to expect every session to present you with a breathtaking new analysis, ground breaking new results and/or elegant argument. Some sessions will be good, and some won’t be. You may well hear experienced researchers fumble their way through their presentations, some people who should know better reading their papers in a monotone and others racing through a set of densely packed powerpoints. Amid this, there will be presentations that are polished, and others that are dead interesting. The dead interesting are often what makes the conference memorable.
I’m hoping for some memorable moments at ECER this year.