Friday, October 26, 2007

A conference for development economists

For the uninitiated, here is an example of how a large-scale academic conference (with participants more than 100) proceeds.

It begins at 8am when breakfast (just sweet bread and cakes with Starbucks coffee and Tropicana orange juice) is served for an hour. Participants chat with their freinds based in other universities or meet with new researchers who may become their collaborators in the future.

From 9am to 10:40 am, five different sessions start in parallel, each consisting of four papers tackling more or less similar research questions. (How similar the four papers are depends on how much the conference organizers put an effort to group a number of papers presented at the conference.) Each paper is assigned 25 minutes. The first 15 minutes is a presentation by the author, followed by 10 minutes questions and comments by a "discussant" who is supposed to read the paper carefully beforehand and by other participants. A horrendously large number of the paper authors cannot clearly talk about the paper within 15 minutes: they take too much time for stating a research question, talk too much about related research in the past, and explain things that are not really important, ending up running out of time and explaining the most important things too quickly with the audience lost in confusion. The discussants then follow the same trap: they re-state what the paper is about (that's the author's job though it can be helpful for the audience when the author fails to explain clearly) and praise the paper superficially, ending up having no time to explain their comments clearly enough. As a result, the audience is not allowed to speak up with comments potentially useful for the author or simply don't know what to say because they don't understand what the paper is about.

After a 20 minute coffee break, the second session begins at 11am until 12:40pm with the same thing repeated. Lunch follows with a box of a sandwitch, crisps, and a fruit served to each participant. Participants chat to each other, talking about which paper was interesting etc. From 2 to 3:40pm, the third session, followed by a 20 minute coffee break, and the final session until 5:40pm.

From 6pm, a buffet dinner begins with poster presenters (I was one of them; that's why I posted this last week) standing next to their poster describing their research. Participants may go to a poster for which they're interested. Or they simply just chat with their friends, possibly on future joint research.

By 8pm, the conference dinner is over. Participants are separated into several groups, each going to a bar etc.

Attending an academic conference is simply tiring unless you are naturally smart. It's difficult to make new friends unless you manage to give smart comments to paper presenters. Young, up-and-coming researchers try to talk to senior researchers by overcoming their intimidation by presence.

But I have learned. It's a matter of getting used to it. This is the second conference for development economists that I attended since I started a job as a researcher. I see several people for the second time. I manage to talk to some of them this time even though I couldn't last time. What's important is to keep attending this kind of conference. It takes time to build a network.

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