Should I attend conferences outside of my field?

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Career advice


Career advice

There are hundreds of conferences held all over the world on all sorts of different topics. You probably know which the big conferences in your field are, and maybe you've attended them in the past. But if you work in an interdisciplinary setting, or if your work has crossover with another field, you might be wondering – should I attend conferences outside of my field? Today, we'll discuss the pros and cons of this, and at the end we'll share some tips for how to prepare for a conference when you're new to the field.

Pros of attending conferences outside of your field:

  • You can broaden your knowledge. There's no better way to push yourself and gain new perspectives than to throw yourself into a new field. You'll learn a huge amount about a field by attending a conference – not only about the concepts within a field, but also about how these concepts are put into practice in research.
  • Make contacts with people outside of your field. We've talked before about how valuable conferences are for networking, and so they're a great way to get to know more researchers who work on different topics.
  • Get inspired by new ideas. Hearing about totally different approaches to problems than the ones you usually discuss is a fantastic source of inspiration. You might hear about a new research methodology or a type of statistical analysis which could be ideal for your project, or you could even get a totally new idea for an experiment.
  • Learn how to communicate more effectively with people outside of your bubble. A problem that's common among academics is difficulty in communicating clearly with people from outside their own field. Attending a conference full of people with a different background from you will be excellent practice for your communication skills.

Cons of attending conferences outside of your field:

  • Some of the material may go over your head. There will be sections or even whole talks which you won't be able to understand, and this can be discouraging. You need to be confident in your own skills not to feel put off by this.
  • It will be more difficult for you to contribute to group discussions. After a talk has finished, the group discussion can be one the most interesting and engaging parts of a conference. However, if you're unfamiliar to the field, you're probably best off sitting and listening rather than trying to contribute to the discussion.
  • You may be better off using your time or travel budget to attend a conference specifically relevant to your field. If there's a conference which is highly relevant to your work, you're likely to derive more career benefit from attending that instead of a conference outside of your field.

How to prepare for a conference outside of your field:

  • Choose your conference carefully. A broad-based interdisciplinary conference will likely give you more benefits than a narrow, very specific conference where you lack the basic information.
  • Read up as broadly as possible before you go. In addition to books and journals, you can make use of magazines, blog posts, and other public-oriented materials. Anything aimed at a lay audience will be a good starting point.
  • At least scan through the most recent issues of the biggest journals in the field. You don't need to read and understand every article, but get an idea of what topics are currently in vogue and what kind of language is typically used in the field.
  • If possible, attend with a friend or colleague from that field. They can help you choose which sessions to attend, based on their knowledge of who is an important or particularly engaging speaker. They can also make introductions to other people in the field, and quickly explain any concepts which you don't know to fill in gaps in your knowledge.

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