‘Attending conferences generated opportunities to reflect on several elements of my research’

Sarah Chadwick, Psychology, Lancaster University (2018 Cohort)

A key part of a PhD is attending conferences – both to learn more about, and engage with, others’ research and to disseminate your own. I was recently fortunate enough to attend two online conferences, with the cost of attendance covered by the Research Training Support Grant (RTSG). Reflecting on my experiences of attending these conferences here, I hope to encourage others to recognise the value of attending conferences and to consider making use of the RTSG to do so.

The first conference I attended was the Simulation Workshop – a week-long conference focusing on simulation organised by the Operational Research Society. It’s free to join the OR Society as a student member, with discounted rates on conferences and training sessions, as well as free seminars. The Simulation Workshop was of interest to me because I use data simulation in my research to help with experimental design. Specifically, I use simulation to consider whether my empirical studies are adequately designed to effectively capture effects of interest, assuming such effects exist. However, simulation is a broad area, and the Simulation Workshop offered the opportunity to learn more about how simulation is used in an operation research context and how elements of this may transfer to my own work.

What stood out at the Simulation Workshop conference was the wide range of scenarios in which simulation is used to solve problems – from simulating the through-put of ventilators produced for the UK government as part of the COVID response, to effectively addressing capacity to handle patient telephone enquiries for a GP surgery. In a particularly interesting poster presentation, a delegate highlighted important issues in conducting and reporting simulations that cut across all situations where simulation is used. This was directly transferable to my work and made me more aware of relevant concerns. There was also a greater focus on the value of validation of simulations after a decision has been taken, which is something I hadn’t previously considered but would be an interesting point of discussion for my work.

The second conference I attended was the International Conference on Communication in Healthcare (ICCH) – a two-day conference, during which I delivered an oral presentation. My presentation was a ‘work-in-progress’ talk which discussed two studies completed to date. These studies examined the accuracy of judgements of understanding on health-related texts, in order to evaluate whether such judgements are actually helpful in producing understandable patient information. Currently, as part of the production of patient information, the NHS makes use of judgements of comprehension. Existing research suggests that the accuracy of these judgements vary considerably across people but are generally inaccurate. So far, my studies indicate that people’s accuracy is limited, but people don’t appear to vary a great deal in terms of their accuracy.

One of the most useful elements from the ICCH conference was the opportunity to discuss my work with a range of researchers of health communications who benefited from a great deal of experience of conducting communication research and working directly with patient populations. During a discussion, the importance of a patient’s perspective of obtaining a sufficient feeling of understanding, in order to feel empowered and motivated to manage their health condition or make decisions, was highlighted. This is a dimension of health-text comprehension which I had previously given limited consideration – focusing instead on the practioner-perspective. It was an important reminder that it’s not always enough to understand the information you are presented with and my research considers only one of many influences on individual’s health behaviours. Discussions with other researchers who have broader interests is hugely valuable – it can remind you of the importance of the real-world applications of your work and that research is more than findings – it’s often about trying to improve things.

In all, attending these conferences was really useful and I would encourage anyone to seek out opportunities to attend relevant conferences. For me, attending these conferences generated opportunities to reflect on several elements of my research and how I can continue to build on my work going forward. In addition, both sessions were useful for seeing where I might go with my research in the future and potential career directions which may be available.

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