Busy practitioner? Think carefully before choosing which academic conference to attend

With conference season upon us, Errol Douwes (Environmental Planning and Climate Protection, Durban) shares advice on how to make the most of the academic conference circuit from a practitioner’s perspective. What tips do you have? Leave a comment below or Tweet us @JAppliedEcology.

I’ve often wondered if and how other practitioners decide on which conferences they will attend. It’s very seldom that I’ve been invited to present a keynote at a conference, so in my case, attendance is really up to me. Importantly, my work covers a broad spectrum of topics including ecological restoration, green economy, sustainability and climate change adaptation. All of these fields have dedicated academic conferences, and there are also a few generic conferences for practitioners. Wow – where to start!!? I hope that the insights I’ve shared below will be useful.

Limited time and budget

First, look carefully at the budget you have for travel and conferences. If there are no funds for international travel then, either rule those options out, or put a game plan in place to ensure you can raise the funds. Next, look at conferences that align most closely to your work, where you know you will be able to gain knowledge as well as share your experiences with others. Ideally you should always aim to present a talk, as this will showcase your work and ensure that interested people find you – rather than the other way round. Lastly, look for conferences that showcase a mix of practitioner and academic work. These are often the best as there’s lots to learn from both groups. It’s especially useful to partner with academics who have an interest in practitioner projects; they often have insights to research that can help answer questions or improve work on the ground. If you’re lucky they may even have funds to start a relevant research project on your site.

Choosing the relevant talks

In my view, keynote presentations are always best value for money. They are usually early in the day or session and are typically packed out. As such, get there early for a good seat, take lots of notes and think about the lessons presented and how they may apply to your projects. Next on the list are talks by experts in a field relevant to you, and thereafter choose to sit in talks made by academics or fellow practitioners working on projects similar to yours.

Making the most of networking

Always make time to ask academics some questions about their views on topics relevant to your work. Be prepared to apply some listening skills, as the views presented may not be the same as yours. Be patient, and engage in banter wherever you can. These conversations often yield the most in a relaxed environment. Find a local pub and talk into the night!

And in general

It’s a good idea to carry business cards, and to hand these to anyone you chat to. If anyone gives you their card, follow up with an email to thank them for the discussion and invite them to come and visit your project. I also suggest keeping in contact every few months with people you would really like to work with. This sort of networking often fosters long-term relationships between projects and institutions and can yield many benefits for your work.

This post forms a part of the ‘Conference Survival Week’ series across the British Ecological Society journals. Read more posts in the series:


4 thoughts on “Busy practitioner? Think carefully before choosing which academic conference to attend

  1. think that all scientists and especially ecologists need to think about their annual carbon footprint as a priority before deciding on attending conferences. Uppermost in mind needs to be what form of transport will be involved, is there an alternative to flying? Also, does what I will gain from and contribute to the conference really justify my attendance and the use of fossil fuels involved? Can I learn the same from a webcast or series of publications? Clearly, networking and face to face contacts are very important – but climate breakdown is now an emergency. So conferences probably need to be re-configured and re-designed.


    1. These are certainly points to consider. If you’re interested in focusing more on smaller, more local conferences that may require less travel, our colleagues at Methods in Ecology and Evolution have a post in this series dedicated to the benefits of small conferences: https://methodsblog.com/2019/05/29/small-conferences/. Keep an eye on the Functional Ecologists blog too as they’re going to be sharing a post on alternatives to attending conferences very soon.

      Liked by 1 person

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