Academic Conferences: What They Are and Why They Are Important

Academic Conferences: What They Are and Why They Are Important

As you work toward earning your master’s degree or doctorate, you may begin to hear more about academic conferences — or even be asked to attend one. Most academic disciplines, such as industrial organizational psychology, have dedicated organizations that serve as a central source for new research and information, networking and professional development. The associations generally host regular conferences to bring together the brightest minds in the field to share ideas and information and further the study of the subject.

Understanding how academic conferences work and what you can expect when you attend will help you get the most from the experience, which can give a major boost to both your academic and professional careers.

How Conferences Work

In general, there are two types of conferences, also known as symposia. Some groups host one large conference for the entire membership each year and offer multiple “tracks,” or focus areas for attendees to follow. The other type is a smaller, more-focused conference dedicated to a particular topic or issue, such as developments in forensic psychology. Both types of conferences have their pros and cons, and which is best largely depends on your area of study and what you hope to gain from attending.

No matter which type of conference it is, the event is primarily a series of research presentations. Academics — and students— present their research findings to an audience, who then has the opportunity to participate in a discussion or question-and-answer session. Some conferences include panel discussions or round-table discussions about a particular question or issue, keynote speeches or lectures from well-known figures and social gatherings such as cocktail parties, luncheons or dinners. You might also find a shopping area, where vendors display books and other items that may be of use to those in the field.

Depending on where the conference is being held, there may be a leisure component as well. Since most conferences are held in large hotels in major cities, organizers often schedule tours, sightseeing trips or other events for the participants. These events allow attendees to decompress and explore the area while also building relationships with others in the field.

Why You Should Attend Conferences

Attending conferences is an important part of co-curricular learning, or learning outside of the classroom. When you attend a national conference, you often have the opportunity to learn from and interact with the leaders and greatest minds in the field in addition to learning new and exciting developments that may not have made it to the classroom yet.

Conferences also present students with a valuable chance to work on building their list of publications. In most cases, organizations publish the proceedings of each conference. These proceedings include analysis and discussion of the ideas presented at the conferences, as well as the formal papers that were presented at the meeting. A professor may request that you assist with the writing and presenting of his research or present your own original project. When you present at a conference, you can add the experience and the publication to your resume, which will impress future employers — or help ensure that you stay on track to an academic career.

Planning to Attend Conferences

Some students resist attending conferences because they expect that they will be dull, expensive or both. Although it’s true that not every presentation or discussion will knock your socks off, if you are passionate about the field, you will find the experience stimulating and enlightening. If expense is a concern, most organizations offer reduced rates or scholarships that allow students to attend. If there is a conference that interests you, talk with your advisor to determine whether you can get a subsidy that will allow you to attend.

Academic conferences are an important part of an active learning curriculum, and graduate students should research the opportunities in their field and make an effort to attend an event. The knowledge, contacts and insight that you will gain is well worth the investment of time and money.

About the Author: As a student of forensic psychology, Ginny Woodward attends several conferences each year. She especially enjoys round-table discussions and meeting up with colleagues from around the country.


  1. I just went to my first academic conference in December and it was a great time.

  2. Academic conferences were my favorite part of m my graduate school experience. I got to meet so many cool people at them and I had opportunities I never would have had otherwise.

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