finch ecrs at conference featured

BOU conferences provide a fantastic opportunity for early-career researchers to absorb cutting-edge science and form connections with other ornithologists

Each spring, the BOU hold their annual conference, a two-and-a-bit-day meeting of ornithologists from across Britain, Europe 🙁 , and the world. This year’s (2016) theme was urban birds, an area of research which, if I’m honest, I’ve never paid much attention to. Nearing the end of my PhD, I was running pretty low on time and money (not to mention energy and enthusiasm), so for a while I was considering not attending this year’s meeting. But I recalled some past experiences of BOU events: it’s often the talks which seem least relevant to your work that turn out to be the most memorable; BOU conferences are about much more than presentations and poster boards; and the ECR member rates are ludicrously affordable. Besides, these urban birds couldn’t be so different from their rural counterparts, and I needed a break from writing my thesis. So, off I went.

This was my third BOU conference since joining the Union at the start of my PhD, but my first time not giving a talk; a perfect opportunity to relax and make the most of what was on offer. I think it’s safe to say that everyone has a good time at BOU. As well as absorbing world-leading ornithology – presented via oral presentations, posters and, more recently, pre-recorded talking posters – these events provide a great opportunity to make new connections and reconnect with familiar faces over coffee or beer. I suppose these properties are true of many scientific conferences, but the ornithological community is pretty small, and super friendly (more on this below).

finch ecrs at conference fig 1

BOU conferences also stand out for the specific opportunities they provide for early-career researcher (ECR) attendees, above and beyond the discounted rates (£75 all-in for ECR members) and best talk / poster prizes. The BOU have been driving a successful campaign aimed at making their events (and the Union in general) more accessible, attractive and valuable to the next generation of ornithologists (more on this here). This year’s conference was no exception, incorporating two events aimed specifically at ECRs: a new-format pre-conference workshop and the usual mid-conference ECR event.

The workshop – attended by around 25 ECRs and led by Dr. Rob Robinson from the BTO – was aimed at guiding us through ‘how to review a paper’. As scientists-in-training and hopeful authors, navigating the peer-review minefield is a frequent topic of discussion, but this was the first time I’d been taught about peer review from the referee’s side of things. Clearly, peer review is an essential service – in order for the system to balance out, we should be reviewing at least two papers for every one that we submit – but one for which training is rarely provided. So, under the guidance of Rob, alongside Drs Ruedi Nager, Shelley Hinsley & Staffan Roos, we discussed our responsibilities as referees, learnt how to structure a review, and had a lively chat about whether or not to sign. I was reassured to hear that a handling editor will, in general, probably have picked you out for a reason; if you’re not an expert in Bayesian hierarchical modelling, then the other referee probably (hopefully) will be, and you’ve maybe been chosen to give a more general overview. Finally, we heard from Staffan about the alternative peer review model offered by Peerage of Science. It’s anonymous, and your reviews themselves get reviewed; given that many PhD students don’t get a chance to review a paper by the time they graduate (see below), Peerage of Science perhaps presents the perfect opportunity for us to get some practice in.

The mid-conference event was a more informal evening bash – previous BOU conferences (as well as the biennial meeting of the European Ornithologist’s Union) have held similar BOU ECR events on topics including scientific publication and non-academic careers. They usually involve a panel of experts, some discussion (lubricated with a free bar) and the famous BOU goody bag. This year was basically an academic speed-dating session, where we discussed networking and social media. A lot of the focus was on using Twitter and blogs to promote research – we talked about Altmetric, the BOU Blog and Tweetdeck, and I think some Twitter-phobes were won over! We also discussed real-world networking, towards which the overarching emotions were basically fear and loathing. But there were plenty of examples of tangible benefits – job offers, collaborations, etc. – of putting oneself out there. So networking is probably as valuable as being able to write a decent peer review, and both, I think, require a bit of confidence.

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For me, one of the key draws of the BOU conference is its moderate size (maybe a few hundred attendees, and no parallel sessions), as well as the regular faces. BOU has a real sense of community (cliché klaxon!), making the networking a bit less intimidating (though no less rewarding), and helping us develop confidence. Finally, I think the BOU’s online presence plays an important role in maintaining and strengthening these connections through the dark & lonely months between conferences.

You can find out more about upcoming BOU conferences here.

If you want to write about your research in #theBOUblog, then please see here.