I am working on adding to my Vita to make me more competitive for postdoc positions, and I was wondering if poster presentations would really be all that helpful. With the cost of conferences being so high in terms of registration, travel, lodging, etc., do the benefits of a poster really outweigh the costs?

--Poster Presentation Hesitation

Dear Poster Presentation Hesitation,

My stalwart answer to this question is yes! There are numerous benefits to presenting posters at conferences that go beyond that of polishing your CV.

First, writing abstracts and creating aesthetically pleasing posters is an art that needs much practice. When you are working as a faculty member, it is expected that you will attend conferences, often with graduate students of your own. Thus, you will want to be seasoned in these skills. Furthermore, being able to present your research to colleagues in your field is never easy, because these are the people that know the most about your area of research (and are usually more than happy to quiz you on your knowledge of the field). Thus, the practice and experience gained by attending these conferences as early as possible is invaluable.

However, knowing that there will be hundreds, or even thousands, of professionals in your field at these conferences should not be feared. Rather, this should be seen as a rare opportunity to network with colleagues in your field. There is no feeling quite like that of chatting with someone about your poster for fifteen minutes only to then realize you have cited this person dozens of times in your research! Indeed, it is not uncommon to run into people who have played a big role in shaping your research interests (even if they don’t know it)! Thus, this is an opportune time to show off your skills and research and to suggest to these researchers that you would be interested (if not thrilled) to work with them at their institution. Even if no one seems to be looking for a post-doc or new faculty member, they may be willing to send your job request through the grapevine. In essence, the possibility of networking and finding a future job opportunity is the true reason many graduate students attend conferences. The poster is simply a medium that will get you in the door. Yes, networking with those who have been in the field for years can be daunting, but when you are finally ready to start applying for academic positions, it is always a great idea to have a few researchers you can contact to get the ball rolling.

In addition to networking opportunities, many conferences have opportunities that are specific to the development of graduate students. For instance, many conferences offer opportunities to attend lunches with the greatest researchers in the field. Attending these lunches is a great opportunity to see where the future of research is headed in the eyes of these academics. This is your chance to ask these researchers any questions you might have about their research and what they think about related topics. It’s also another opportunity to network with the best in the field! Other opportunities for graduate students include panel sessions with institutions looking for bright young graduate students to hire in academia and the private sector, as well as discussions on balancing graduate school and personal life, teaching in a university setting, and bridging the gap between your research and policy.

Lastly, many conferences offer scholarship opportunities for those who would like to attend. In addition, many graduate programs offer financial aid for students who are presenting their research, because it is a good opportunity for the program to be represented at the conference. Although these sources of funding may not cover all of your expenses, they will certainly make it more feasible to attend. If you find that even financial aid is not enough to make your travel expenses practical, I would recommend focusing your efforts on attending conferences that are in your country and are a reasonable distance from your locale. This will make travel expenses much less and may open up your options for attending.

--René Paulson, PhD

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