Thursday, 17 November 2016

What do I really get from a conference?

Posted by Christina Cooper, Fuse Postgraduate Researcher, Faculty of Health & Life sciences, Northumbria University

As a PhD student there comes a point in your research when you are ready to start disseminating your work and opening it up to feedback from your peers. This is not only important for your personal development as a researcher, but also in demonstrating your contribution to knowledge, a vital step, the importance of which is reinforced throughout the PhD process. Conferences provide an accessible and valuable way for students to present their work, as either a poster or short oral presentation. Attending a conference can feel daunting at first, but regardless of whether you are presenting or not, the benefits of attending and participating cannot be highlighted enough. Conferences can be regional, national or international, but they all share in common the opportunity to learn from, and network with peers and experts with some shared common interest.

Far from being 'just a poster' - an opportunity to discuss my work
I am a public health PhD student at the beginning of my third, and final, year investigating what works, for whom, and in what circumstances in the prevention of risky behaviour by young people, using realist methodologies. For me, my second year felt like the ideal time to begin disseminating my work, through publishing in peer reviewed journals and attending conferences. I have participated in a number of conferences over the last year, from small university based and local regional conferences, to larger national and international conferences. Submissions so far have been in poster format, detailing various aspects of my research covering the research protocol, methodology, and early findings. Far from being ‘just a poster’ these presentations have provided me with an opportunity to discuss my work with other students, and professionals in the field, helping me to develop my ideas, make connections with those investigating similar subjects, and perhaps most importantly, to build up a support network with those in a similar position to myself. The expert advice and guidance gained from a conference is of course invaluable, but often there is nothing more reassuring, when you are struggling with a difficult concept, than hearing the words ‘me too’. Knowing you are not alone can be just the motivation you need to keep reading, keep talking, and keep going until you find a way through.

Most recently I attended the 2nd International Conference on Realist Evaluation and Synthesis held by the Centre for Advancement of Realist Evaluation and Synthesis (CARES), in London. The focus of which was Advancing Principles and Strengthening Practice. Aside from the benefits of presenting
as discussed above, attendance at this three day conference allowed me to attend talks and presentations by a wide range of researchers, including some of the biggest names in realist research. Covering subjects addressing complexity in public health research, attaining funding for realist projects, and knowledge building and translation. The breadth and depth of the material presented provided insight into the realist methodology that would be hard to gain elsewhere. In addition to these thought provoking sessions, time was given to discussion of the myriad of ways in which the realist methodology is employed in research, and how these may be developed to advance knowledge, not just within our specific fields, but also within the methodology itself. These ‘open mic’ sessions, in which disagreement was not only welcome, but encouraged, provided an opportunity to think through new ideas, allowing us to present, debate, challenge and defend our use of the realist methodology regardless of level of expertise. For me, being present for and involved in these discussions was a unique opportunity which allowed me to engage with my chosen methodology at a deeper level.

"...disagreement was not only welcome, but encouraged..."
As a student, relatively new to realism, two key themes emerged repeatedly over the course of the conference. Firstly, how do I know what I am doing is really realist? Secondly, the difficulty of grappling with the complexity of realist research as a lone working student. Both issues I have experienced myself in the last two years, and were indeed part of the reason I wanted to attend the conference; it was greatly reassuring to discover I was not the only one. Not only were there other students there feeling exactly the same way, many of the other delegates, including some of the ‘big names’ such as Professor Ray Pawson, Dr Gill Westhorp, and Professor David Byrne were able to identify with us, and provide support and encouragement. There is still a great deal of work to be done in taking the realist methodology forwards and I am excited about being a part of that, both in the work towards my PhD, and as a researcher in the future.

Photo attribution: “Academic fact fight - debate” by Frits Ahlefeldt via, copyright © 2015:

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