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!

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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.

Presentation-type:

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.

Topic:

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.

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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)

 

 

 

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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 not to drown at conferences: go out and run!

Marieke van WieringenBy Marieke van Wieringen /Reading Time: 8 Minutes

Conferences may be a one-day event, or last two or three days. When you include pre-conference workshops, which are common in some fields, conferences may even cover 5 full days. Sounds tiring? It is, in a way. Still, conferences are actually quite useful (as described by Anouk van Leeuwen in ” Is participating in academic conferences worth the time and money?“). That is, if you do not drown in the overwhelming amount of sessions, lunches, dinners, drinks and/or other social events. The question is: how? How not to drown at conferences? The simple answer: chose your sessions wisely ahead of the conference’ start.

Obviously, I have learned this the hard way myself. As a fourth year PhD student, I have attended quite some conferences. Fanatically attending every single round of sessions, I oftentimes found my attention slowly but steadily decreasing, sometimes already on the first day. Yet, this would generally not hamper me to continue in the same vein the next conference day(s). The consequence: when someone would ask me which sessions I had attended, I generally had difficulty remembering their content. Of course, I nonetheless also did learn from those sessions. However, I always needed the notes that I had made during the sessions to remember what I learned and liked exactly.

During my most recent conference visit, I decided to go about it differently. After two days of pre-conference workshops, I attended only one (to be honest, actually only half a) paper session on the third day. After that, I went for a run. Why? First of all, because I felt like it. Second, because the weather was way too good to stay inside. Third, because I was in the beautiful city of Vancouver, which is surrounded by water, ‘beaches’ and mountains, and because I was staying close to the marvelous Stanley park. From all of this, I basically had seen nothing yet. My run came with some spectacular views indeed (see below)! Fourth, and most importantly, I went for a run because there were no sessions in the program that afternoon that were of much interest to me. So why stay?

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I know why you might stay, and will tell you why do not have to. To start, you may be afraid to miss out on a session that potentially could turn out to be of interest to your research after all. I know I was. However, I learned that sessions that did not grapple my intention in the program in the first place, never turned out to be interesting; on the contrary. You may also feel you have to stay because your university, graduate school, or may be even your own supervisor is paying for your visit to the conference. No worries, they will not be angry or, worse, disappointed if you wisely decide to take some time off to relax and re-energize so you can gain more from the sessions to come. If you are afraid to be caught skipping sessions by your supervisor, remember that when your supervisor finds you not attending a session, s/he is not attending either. More importantly, your supervisor has better things to do than checking on you, like enjoying the city themselves. (Make sure, though, that they come and attend the session in which you present your work!)

marieke2After my run and the afternoon off, I felt re-energized, and ready for two more days of ‘conferencing’. During these two days, I met a range of interesting people and got inspired by the sessions that I attended. Why? Because I attended the sessions that were of interest to me.

Yes, I had come prepared this time: before flying to the other side of the world, I had ploughed the program and made a selection of sessions that appealed to me. You can do the latter, for example, based on the (famous) people who will be presenting. If available, you could also have a quick reading of the papers that are presented. This will help you make informed choices, and also increase your involvement in the discussions during the sessions. Given that conference presentations generally only last 10-15 minutes there is only so much presenters can tell, and you oftentimes end up with only a hint of what a paper is actually about.

When you read the paper in advance, or have a look at previous work of the presenter, you are able to (publicly!) give intelligent comments or ask questions, which is always good at conferences, or so they say. Moreover, it will help you to get in touch with the presenters afterwards.

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So, instead of attending each and every session, my humble advice is to skip some, to choose your sessions wisely, prepare for those sessions, and join the discussions. To be honest, I have not actually joined in many plenary discussions at previous conferences. However, I will definitely (try again) next time… I will keep you posted!

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Marieke van Wieringen is a PhD candidate at the department of Organization Science. Her research focuses on how actors within home care organizations perceive and act upon different institutional demands in their day-to-day work.

Is participating in academic conferences worth the time and money?

van LeeuwenBy Anouk van Leeuwen / Reading Time: 4 minutes

Academic conferences are costly and time consuming. So, sometimes I wonder: Are they worth it? Or should I just continue to write my dissertation instead? After all, writing is time consuming, especially on days like this:

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Conferencing costs loads of time. Not only do we have to travel to the conference venue, and attend it, but we also have to prepare for it. Especially the latter takes a lot of time. In my experience, I spend at least a month working on a conference paper, and at least some days on a power point presentation or a hand-out.

Money

The reason that conferences are expensive is because they usually require us to travel. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but travelling isn’t cheap. For instance, in the last two years I went to conferences in New York and San Francisco. Buying a ticket here (during peak season!), staying in hotel, paying the conference fee, and going out to dinner requires you to bring a bag of money.

What you get back for your time and money

In my opinion, there are at least four benefits of attending academic conferences:

  1. Preparing for your presentation will help you to structure your thoughts. After all, you usually don’t have much time (or space) to present your work. And of course, you don’t only want your story to be concise, but also clear. So, complicated theories have to be simplified and long results sections have to be cut to the bone.
  1. At the conference you are bound to get some (hopefully good) comments on your work, which will tell you how far it has developed. Is your research relevant? Are your research questions clear? And is your dataset suited for the question posed? These are general, but important questions that are often addressed. Knowing whether other scholars understand and appreciate your work will help you to determine what remains to be done.
  1. Learning what your peers are up to may stimulate your creativity and provide you with new research tools. After all, interesting new topics and innovative research methods are often presented at these conferences. Besides, knowing where your research field is headed is important as it will help you to position your own work.
  1. Getting to know peers on a more personal level is not only fun, but may also lead to new opportunities. Future cooperation, publication possibilities and even job offers may result from participating in these events.

So, the answer to my question of whether academic conferences are worth the time and money is: Yes. This is because conferencing provides you with new insights. These insights are likely to improve your work. For instance, having prepared a short presentation on your research, you may be able to write a more concise paper. Peers may suggest new theories that sharpen your insights, or methods that are more applicable to your data and research question. So, in a nutshell, conferencing helps to you to solve your academic puzzle, and to write down what is in your head. Just give it a go and find out for yourself.

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Anouk van Leeuwen is a PhD candidate in the Sociology Department. Her PhD research is on the (perceived) atmosphere of street demonstrations. The project is integrated in the international collaborative research project called ‘Caught in the act of protest: Contextualizing Contestation’ (CCC)

Visiting conferences abroad: cherries on top of an academic cake or an absolute necessity?

Yazililtasby Demet Yazilitas / Reading Time: 8 minutes

 

Early June 2014 I attended the International Science and Mathematics Education Congress organized by the Educational Research and Publications Associations (ERPA) in Istanbul, Turkey. The visit was partially funded by the VU Graduate School of Social Sciences (VU-GSSS) to which I am very grateful. Though the main purpose of my visit was to present my own work and to meet and learn from other researchers working in similar fields, the visit turned out to be much more than that. During my visit I got acquainted with the city of Istanbul, also known as the City of Cities by Turks, in ways I did not before. This blog is essentially about the extras of doing a PhD –of which going abroad to attend conferences is an important one – and the additional learning experiences that come with those extra’s.

City of intersections – Istanbul

The last visit I made to Istanbul was 9 years ago and I was surprised to find the city even more magnificent and energetic than during my last visit. To some extent this probably relates to the combination of splendid summer weather and the neighbourhood in which the congress took place, namely Beyazit Square in the district of Fatih on the European part of Istanbul. Besides being close to the city’s main tourist attractions, the square is also adjacent to Istanbul University’s main campus where the congress took place. Established in 1453 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II – immediately after Mehmet’s conquest of Constantinople – it’s Turkey’s oldest university.

Main entrance of Istanbul University

The history and grandeur of Beyazit Square was one of many marvels the city had to offer after my arrival. The district of Fatih is generally considered to be the heart of Old Istanbul. Some of Istanbul’s most important architectural buildings are situated here, including Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) and Basilica Cistern. Although I had visited this particular neighbourhood before, it had changed in many important ways, of which the introduction of Marmaray was only one. In 2013, Marmaray was opened for public after years of delay. It is best described as a high-speed metro-line that partially runs under the Sea of Marmara that connects Europe to Asia in only a few minutes.

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An impression of Marmaray – connecting two continents

On the day of my arrival I called an old friend who lives in Istanbul to meet up and have a coffee. He had migrated 8 years ago from Paris to Istanbul for work and I was eager to hear his stories about life in Turkey, and Istanbul in particular. He told me to take the Marmaray and get off at the last stop at the Asian side after which he would pick me up in order for me to meet his wife and have dinner at his home. I did as he said, thinking that he probably lived near this last stop since this last stop was already quite far off from the city centre – at least that’s what I thought. To my surprise we had to drive for an hour or so before we reached his house. The city kept on going as we drove further and further away. Skyscrapers and construction sites as far as the eyes could see. At that moment I started to realize how big the city actually is. With a population of 14.1 million this is perhaps not surprising. When we arrived at this home, he and his wife, assured me that this still wasn’t the edge of the city. It was still within reasonable distance. They lived in East Ataşehir, at Eastern part of Asian side, of which you can find an impression below.

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Ataşehir – cities within the super-city

The supersized city as a magnifying glass

Besides the distance and all the skyscrapers, there was one other thing that caught my attention. When I entered my friend’s home I was introduced to someone who I thought was a family friend. Later this person turned out to be the housekeeper from Georgia who lived with my friend and his wife. This was, I have to admit, a bit of a surprise to me. In the Netherlands I personally don’t know anybody with an in-living housekeeper although outsourcing of household tasks such as cleaning has become rather normal, even among single households. Having an in-living housekeeper is therefore something I still associate with old movies and Victorian costume drama’s in particular. My surprise is also related to my upbringing in a welfare state in which social inequalities between “the haves” and “have nots” are much less visible to the ordinary eye. This is of course not to say that there are no similar manifestations between these groups in welfare states as ours. It’s that they are less visible. The scale of a super city like Istanbul in this sense probably acts like a magnifying glass for social processes of all sorts, both the positive and negative, and all at the same time.

City of intersections – history and present

Over the next days, as the congress and my stay in Istanbul progressed, I would slowly start to understand some of these processes along with the vastness of the city. In 2009, research conducted by the London School of Economics referred to Istanbul as the “City of Intersections”, which I think is a very good description of the state of the city, both in the literal meaning as in a more symbolic. Examples of the literal meaning immediately come to mind when we speak of a city stretching out over two continents. An example of the more symbolic meaning includes the sight of two women, sitting next to each other at a restaurant, and one of which is dressed in a niqab and the other in a short and bare dress. Never, at any congress, or in any other part of the world I have visited, did I witness something similar. This is I think the strength of places like Istanbul, diversity is the norm rather than the exception. And that in itself creates a kind of flexibility in attitude that we in the West, I am inclined to argue, are not used to nor completely understand.

The rootedness of diversity and the importance of the Ottoman era in today’s Turkish culture

The importance of diversity in Istanbul is probably rooted in the city’s specific historical context  as one of the most diverse and tolerant empires of all times – the Ottoman empire – and the city’s specific geo-political importance as a city connecting two continents. According to Oxford Islamic Studies Online the Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful states in the world during the 16th and 17th with control over many of the countries around the Mediterranean, the Middle-East and North-Africa. The city’s importance as the capital and home of the Ottoman Empire as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multinational and multilingual power is still very much engrained in the collective memory of most Turks and Istanbulites. The recent revival of the Ottoman era and it’s artistry and craftsmanship, e.g. in architecture, jewellery, fashion and interior design, are only few examples of this. Popular use of the ‘tughra’–  the Ottoman calligraphic monogram or seal – ranges from tattoo’s, t-shirts, home wall and car stickers. Other examples include multiple TV shows that are inspired on the Ottoman history and/or take place during that particular period, including the hit-show ‘Muhteşem Yüzyıl’. Translated as The Magnificent Century it is currently one of the most popular shows in Turkey. The show mainly deals with the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest reigning Sultan of all the Ottoman Sultans, and his wife Hürrem Sultan, who used to be a slave girl from what we now know as the Ukraine. Moreover, since the shows first broadcast in 2011, it has reportedly gained an international audience of 200 million viewers with broadcast in 59 different countries, including USA, France, China, Russia and China. One last interesting example concerns the construction of mosques around the world based on the Ottoman style, e.g. the Nazimiye Turkish Masjid in Midrand, South-Africa that was built in 2012. The renewed interest in the Ottoman era and culture is thus not limited to Turkey but well exceeds the country borders.

To understand today’s Istanbul, and for that matter Turkey, is to understand its history as a multiethnic power. This history is of course not only limited to the Ottoman era, but starts well before that with the history of the Anatolian peninsula as one of the oldest permanently settled regions in the world that saw many different rulers throughout its long history. However, one cannot understand this history without understanding the country’s specific geographical location on the brink of two continents. This specific location is of course deeply imbedded in the region’s history and that of its neighbors. Taking into account how history and place are interconnected over time is of course not an easy task to venture on, nor something that one can do within a few days, weeks or perhaps even years. Nonetheless, this visit has inspired me to do just that. I think that places like Istanbul, where all of these things come together, are very important to visit especially for sociologists, since time, place and history are key factors that we always need to take into account in our work when we try to understand how groups of people interact in any given society.

Visits like these might be considered by many as the perks of doing a PhD – the figurative cherries on top of an academic cake –, the extras that come with hard and lonesome work of an academic but that’s not how I see it anymore, at least not for sociologists. I think that when you claim to investigate social behaviour and are interested in finding out why certain groups of people act in certain ways you cannot disengage from getting acquainted with different cultures and places. Here I thus argue that going abroad and taking time to understand differences is therefore an essential necessity for all sociologists and we should not think otherwise.

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Demet Yazilitas is a PhD candidate at the department of Sociology. Her research focuses on the influence of social, institutional and psychological factors on gender and ethnic differences in natural science choices of high school students in the Netherlands and Sweden.