How important is discussing papers and being a moderator at conferences?

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Attending conferences is a good way to network for future research projects, and is also a good way to advertise yourself to potential colleagues, reviewers, and employers.

Sectional leaders are often always short on discussants and moderators during conferences such as the AAA annual conference. If you are able, be sure to volunteer for these assignments when you sign up for conferences. When you receive assignments to be a discussant or moderator, be sure that the presentation times don't conflict with other events (for example, if you are also presenting in different session in the same time slot), because the AAA system at present doesn't check for conflicts.

When Serving as a Moderator

As a moderator, show up early to the session and greet the presenters as they arrive. If you have one, bring a "clicker" that they can use for their presenation. Review the ground rules with them (there are no set rules, but for AAA meetings, 20 minutes for the presentation and 8 minutes for the discussant are typical, and this will leave about 5 minutes for questions from the audience at the end of the 1.5 hour sessions. Have the presenters and discussants place their slide files on the laptop before the session begins. I find it is best to have the paper presentation followed immediately by the discussant, as then the paper is fresh in everyone's mind. Give a 2 minute warning to presenters and discussants, and then direct the Q&A session at the end. Conclude by thanking the particpants at the end.

When Serving as a Discussant

As a discussant, carefully read the paper and provide constructive feedback (start with the the good, and then the bad). Remember, your comments will be viewed and evaluated by an audience that has likely not read the paper but has just heard the presentation. A good discussant will begin by discussing the paper's context and overall research field, and then how that particular paper adds to that stream of research. In criticising the paper, remember that your job is to (1) to help the author(s) improve their paper, hopefully into publishable work at a top journal, and (2) help the audience digest the paper. Making yourself look smart is not in that set (although that will happen by default if you execute 1 and 2 well). A thoughtful discussant will share his slides with the presenters before the session (although time constraints may make that difficult in all situations). If there are serious flaws in the paper, I suggest bringing them to the author's attention before the session. If you feel they should be presented as part of your discussion, do so as nicely as possible. No one likes a kitten-killer, even if he's right.

Closing Comments

In both roles, look the part by dressing up and not down. A typical conference session can get pretty dry, and sometimes some appropriate humor can help break things up. After the session, where possible, stick around and offer any follow-up comments to the presenters, and have some business cards ready in case there is someone there you may want to work with in the future.

If a situation beyond your control comes up and you can't fulfill your assignment, let the section leader know as soon as possible (and, if you can, find your own replacement). Unless you're dead, never be surprise no-show. Let people remember you as a great potential colleague...someone they would like to work with if they had the opportunity!

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