Comparing conferences – different crowds, different questions

testBy Tamara Bouwman / Reading Time: 5 Minutes / 

After so many years of being a PhD-candidate I’ve seen my share of conferences! In 2015 I attended three completely different conferences: one before summer, and two after (so I had time for a vacation IN summer 😉 ). ‘Different how?’ you may wonder – well, there are three main differences that I will point out in this blog: size of the conferences, topic (or field) and presentation-type.  I will briefly tell you about the three conferences and extract the best aspects of each of them. By doing so, I will be better prepared  for future conferences and make sure I get the most out of each conference visit!


The first conference was the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics – European Region (IAGG-ER) Congress in Dublin, Ireland (23-26 April). The theme of the conference was ‘Unlocking the Demographic Divided’.  This conference was a large gathering of scholars from all over the world. The size of the conference meant that sometimes there were up to 10 sessions parallel to each other. I was in one of these sessions and had about 10 minutes to tell the audience all about my work. A seemingly impossible task, which I somehow managed.

The second conference took place in mid-September (17 and 18 September) in Warsaw, Poland. This was the European Society for Research on Internet Interventions (esrii). The theme of this conference was:  ‘Internet Interventions for People and for Science’. At this conference, I gave a presentation of approximately 15-20 minutes. A funny thing was that I met a group of colleagues there from our own psychology department. Apparently, you have to go to the other side of Europe to meet people who actually work across campus from you.

The third conference was a Dutch conference held in Ede on October 2nd. This was the NVG-KNOWS conference – the conference of the Dutch association for gerontology- during which I presented a poster. The crowd that attended this conference was very mixed: there were fellow scholars, but also a lot of practitioners and other professionals.  It was a one-day conference, so a lot had to be done in one day and sessions were scheduled closely after another. The poster session was scheduled during the morning coffee break.

Conference Size:

I will now tell you about the differences. The first difference that I would like to discuss here is conference size. The IARR-ER conference was a large conference. Compared to this, the other two were small-scale, the internet intervention-conference (esrii) especially. It was hosted at one of Warsaw’s universities instead of the usual large-scale conference venue. Instead of 10 sessions parallel to each other, this conference consisted of only 10 presentation sessions and some additional (poster) sessions. A great advantage of this was that there was more time for the presentations. There was less hurry than at the IARR-ER, and I was allowed 15-20 minutes for my talk.


Considering presentation-type, I really enjoyed the set-up of the poster presentations at the Dutch gerontological NVG conference. Instead of leaving the participants just wander among the posters, the organization decided to make it a bit more structured. The posters were grouped into four topics so that interested participants could join one of the four topics for a pitch with each of the posters. I found this was a nice set-up, because in addition to one-on-one sessions, you also got the opportunity to talk to larger group all in once. Of course, later on there was also room for more in depth one-on-one discussions.


And, finally, the topic (or field) of the conference. The first and the last conferences were gerontology conferences, whereas the middle one was (mainly) in the field of psychology. I did notice quite some differences between the questions I got asked by the different audiences. While at the Dutch gerontology NVG conference I got some more practical questions on the benefit of the research for people in ‘real-life’, the questions at the other two conferences focused a bit more on theory and especially on methodology.


In sum, I know more about my own conference preferences now.  As for size of the conference I must admit that the smaller conferences allow for more interaction with people you don’t know. At the big conferences, on the other hand, you can easily feel lost, both due to the huge amount of participants and the huge amount of content that comes flying at you (For survival tips read Marieke van Wieringen’s blog on how not to drown at conferences). All in all, I would advise (starting) PhD’s to try a bit of everything! So you should try to attend both big and small-scale conferences.

If you have the chance, I also strongly suggest you to participate in conferences in different fields, like I did by attending the very psychological focused conference on internet interventions. The different focus and questions you get asked will give you new ideas! Finally, If you haven’t done a poster presentation at a conference yet I can highly recommend it! It allows for a whole other type of interaction with interested people!

I’m very curious about you experiences – have you been to different conferences? And what differences (or maybe similarities) did you notice?

helpful tips

(If you want to know how to make a good poster read these two blogs: How to make a successful research poster? and  The aesthetics of science)





Tamara Bouwman MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology. Her research project is about developing and testing a multifaceted, web-based, friendship program for adults aged 50 years

How to make a successful (and attractive) research poster? Tips and tricks:

Bouwman  by Tamara Bouwman / Reading Time: 5 Minutes /

As a PhD you probably have made a research poster at some point, or you are going to make one in the future. You fly half way across the globe to present your poster at a large conference. And there you are, along with 300(!) other posters. So how do you make your poster stand out? What are good ways to make your poster attractive enough to make people stop and actually read your poster?

In this blog I will give you some tips and tricks to make your poster more attractive and what you can do to stand out in the crowd.

In March the Graduate Platform hosted a poster workshop, followed by the First VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Social Sciences PhD Poster Market mid-April. On mid-March about 20 PhD-candidates from within (but also a few from other faculties) gathered in the Graduate Room for a workshop ‘Successful poster design’. The focus of the workshop was to learn how to make a research poster as attractive and interesting as possible. Louise Mennen is a very experienced trainer and provided the PhD’s with a lot of valuable information on poster design. I will sum-up some key point that you might want to take into account.

3-30-300 rule

An overall rule to keep in mind is the 3-30-300 rule. Assume you have:

o   3 seconds to attract attention and grasp the topic of the poster: This means the title of your poster should attract attention (you might want to formulate it as a question?)

o   30 seconds to keep the attention and to get your overall message across: Your key message, or take-home message, should be clear right away. Don’t stick to the regular paper structure of introduction, methods, results, conclusion/ discussion (which is usually your key message and in the end). Put the information that is most important on top of your poster, right below the title (maybe even in a different colored box).

o   300 seconds to read the entire poster

In order to keep up with the 3-30-300 rule your poster needs to be well-designed. The following, more concrete tips will help you with that.

Visualize your research

Visuals stand out in a poster – they attract the attention of the audience. It is important to think about which elements to visualize in your research. For example, for my own dissertation I developed and tested an online friendship program for people aged 50 and over. The online program has its own website (you can check out the website here). I decided to shape my poster as the actual website of the online friendship program The poster attracted attention because of the website lay-out – that the research had something to do with a website became clear right away, mainly because of the taskbar at the top of the poster. Keep in mind though that the visuals should support your message. So when you are selecting images or visual representations ask yourself; do these visuals have anything to do with the information next to it? And do they support the message, (and not contradict!) your message?

Also, try to add something to your poster that stands out from the rest. In my case, that was a QR-code (a barcode you can scan with your smartphone) which linked to an animated video with an example from the friendship program.

Font size and whitespace

Mind the font size you are using, try not to use anything below 24 points (if you have to you can use 18 for references etc.). Also, avoid using different font sizes, try not to use more than two in the main sections of your poster. If your font size varies it makes the poster look messy and makes it harder to read. Don’t use italics, if you want to emphasize something make it bold.

Something that even I did not manage to do is keep about 40% of your poster ‘white’ (i.e., without text). Your font size and whitespace should be used in such a way that you can read the entire poster in 300 seconds (remember the rule) and from about 1 meter distance. A nice way to check the layout of the entire poster is to print it on an A4-sized paper and check if you can read everything without trouble. If it is easy to read (font size) and nice to look at, you are heading in the right direction.

Names and a picture

Remember, it is your poster – so your name should be most prominent on it. If you like, you can choose to put your name on top (below the title) and the names of your supervisors at the bottom. Another nice way to draw attention to your poster (and yourself) is to put a photo of yourself on your poster. That way people know whose poster it is, even when you are not standing next to it.

Tamara Bouwman at the PhD Poster Market


Just a brief tip about the use of colors on your poster. All black and white will be boring, so of course you want to use nice colors in your poster. Do keep in mind, however, that too many colors can be confusing. The general rule to keep in mind here (and with the rest of your poster) is to keep it simple. Try not to use to many colors. Also make sure that if you use a colored background the color of the font has enough contrast. Check out the earlier blog by Robert Paauwe for some great tips.


Hopefully these tips are useful for you when you need to present a poster at a conference. They sure helped the PhDs who presented at the poster market and made it very hard for the jury to decide which poster should get the FSS PhD Poster Award. The jury, consisting of five members of the FSS who recently finished their PhD, had the difficult task to decide which of the 21 (!) posters that were presented at the poster market would win the award. I must admit, the tips and tricks I described in this blog worked for me, because my poster won the award at the FSS PhD Poster Market!


Tamara Bouwman MSc is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Sociology. Her research project is about developing and testing a multifaceted, web-based, friendship program for adults aged 50 years.