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Maximizing Your Potential at Academic Conferences: Abstracts, Posters, Presentations, and Networking

Conference season is approaching! Attending academic conferences is probably the most useful and gratifying experiences of graduate school. However, the majority of graduate students may not be fully aware of all learning and professional development opportunities available to them by attending conferences. In this blog, I will describe four opportunities.

Submitting Research Abstracts

Make it a personal rule that if you are attending a conference, you should aim to present one or more abstracts about your graduate work. It does not have to be your dissertation – you can present a topic that is related to your dissertation. Graduate students often do not realize that they can present anyscholarly work, even if it in progress at the time of abstract submission.

The majority of conferences will ask for a 250- to 300-word abstract that outlines the background, purpose/objectives, methods, results, and implications/conclusions of your presentation. The abstract provides a snapshot of your scholarly work.

The deadline for research abstracts is usually months before the conference date. Once submitted, peer-reviewers will evaluate your abstract on its novelty, clarity, conciseness, acceptability, and relevance. Your abstract may be accepted as either a poster or oral presentation, or as any one of many alternative formats (e.g., panel, breakfast session, etc.).

Another important consideration for submitting abstracts is authorship. You should ensure that all relevant collaborators have reviewed and approved the abstract and there has been a discussion about the order of authors. I have experienced and witness conflicts as a result of miscommunication on authorship.

person writing on white paper

General Breakdown for Conference Abstracts:

  • Background should be 1-2 short sentences
  • Purpose/Objective(s) should be 1 sentence
  • Methods should be 1-2 short sentences
  • Results should be 3-4 sentences
  • Implications/Conclusion should be combined into 1-2 short sentences

Tips for Writing Conference Abstracts:

  • Take a note of the deadline for abstract submission. It is the worst feeling in the world to miss the deadline and then beat yourself afterwards.
  • In front of a mirror or someone else, describe your research study in one minute. This elevator pitch serves as the springboard for writing your abstract.
  • Start with an outline of the main points. Rearrange the points depending on what the literature says and how it augments or changes your rationale.
  • Once the abstract is written, edit it multiple times over a period of days. Look for redundancy, conciseness, and clarity.
  • Have multiple individuals (within and outside your field) review your abstract. A fresh view of your work may determine which aspects of your abstract can be improved.
  • Keep in mind that peer-reviewers will most likely be non-experts on your abstract topic. Therefore, it is important to use plain language that is free of jargon. If you have to use jargon, then define it clearly but briefly.

Designing a Poster and Preparing for a Poster Presentation

Poster presentations are an efficient way to add another line to your CV and enhance your public-speaking skills. A poster presentation is a conversation with a conference delegate who is interested in your work. In this conversation, you will pitch your scholarly work in approximately 1-2 minutes.

At the end of a pitch, you may have an opportunity to respond to any clarifications or specific inquiries from conference delegates. Engaging in collegial conversations enhances your personal understanding of the topic and discipline, and satisfaction with your work. Moreover, when we are knee-deep in our research, we rarely get a chance to talk to others about our ideas and interests. Poster conversations allow for others to offer their perspectives, which can refine your research or improve your perceptions about it.

Designing a poster may be a hassle for some because it requires a careful consideration of content, format, design, appeal, and colour. Generally, research posters comprise of the following components:

  • Title
  • Author, affiliations, and institutional logos
  • Background to topic
  • Purpose of research
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Figures and tables
  • Discussion and implications
  • Conclusion
  • Works cited and acknowledgements

Tips to Designing a Poster:

  • Produce a general colour scheme and layout. A simple Google search will show multiple examples of research posters. You may be able to download PowerPoint Templates online, which you can use to build your research poster.
  • Order and format the general components of a poster described above. Generally, the title is at the top for conference delegates to identify your work, followed by authors and affiliations under the title and institutional logos at both sides of the title. The remainder of the research poster is divided into three columns. The left column starts with the background and continues with purpose of research and methods. The middle column consists of the results and any figures and/or tables. It is helpful to include at least one figure in your poster. The right column includes sections on the implications of your research, conclusions, works cited, and acknowledgements.
  • Use bullet points! Write out concise versions of your content for each section and then convert them into bullet points (i.e., one sentence per bullet point).
  • Show the poster to your co-authors for feedback on the design, content, and format. You should also consider showing the poster to individuals outside your field.
  • Use at least 36 points in Arial font on a 100 cm by 100 cm poster. Anything less than this will not be legible for conference delegates in print format.

Preparing for an Oral Presentation

Another opportunity is to design and deliver an oral presentation. This is similar to poster presentations except that it is in a more informal setting with a slide deck.

Oral presentations are usually between 10 and 15-minutes long with 2-3 minutes of questions from the audience at the end. Oral presentations can be viewed as abridgements of full papers in a verbal format. Unlike a paper, however, the presentation enables you to facilitate participatory activities and moments of reflection that enhance the experience of delegates and your personal understanding of the work.

Delivering an oral presentation may seem nerve-wracking at first. But I will emphasize that these “uncomfortable” opportunities are essential for your growth as a researcher and professional. See me previous post on Steps to Expanding Your Personal Comfort Zone.

person standing in front of brown lectern

Components of Oral Presentations:

  • Title, Authors and Affiliations, and Institutional Logos
  • Disclosures
  • Background and Research Objectives
  • Methods
  • Overview of Findings
  • Key Results
  • Discussion and Implications
  • Main Messages
  • Works Cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Contact Information

Tips for Designing and Delivering Oral Presentations:

  • Balance images with words. Conference delegates are usually more interested with what you are saying than what is on your slides.
  • Unless you are concerned about copyright issues with regards to images or videos, you should share your slide deck with conference delegates if requested.
  • You may use the BOPPPR framework for designing oral presentations: Bridge (i.e., hook and background), Objectives of presentation (i.e., intended learning outcomes), Pre-assessment (i.e., assessing the baseline knowledge of the audience), Presentation/Participatory Activity (i.e., deliver content), Post-assessment (i.e., check if the audience understood your content), and Reflection (i.e., summarize the main messages of your presentation).
  • Practice with your supervisor and colleagues. Practice will improve your ability to present complicated research findings in a simple manner.
  • Include participatory activities and moments of reflection for audience to recollect, integrate, and synthesize the content of your presentation.

Networking at Conferences

One of the most useful aspects of conferences is the opportunity to network with individuals with similar academic, career, and professional interests.

Tips for Networking:

  • Look at the conference schedule in advance and plan to attend the sessions that are most relevant to your work and/or interesting to you.
  • Listen attentively during the sessions you attend and formulate questions that you can either ask at the end of session or in-person with the presenter after the session.
  • Meet with the presenters afterwards to continue the conversation either at lunch, break, or coffee, even if it is outside the conference location. This may lead to research collaborations, funding, or other research projects!
  • Offer to buy coffee to at least two delegates you meet daily. This is an excellent way to expand your professional network.
  • During lunch time, sit at a new table (ask before you sit), and start a conversation. This is a quick way to acquaint yourself with five or more strangers in a professional setting.

photo of three person sitting and talking

That’s all for this week!

Umair Majid

Posted in Conferences, Productivity, Professional Development Tagged with: ,

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