Authors: Nikhil Pawa, Jerome Davidson
Publication date: 21 May 2008
Nikhil Pawa and Jerome Davidson give their tips on submitting abstracts and attending conferences
Presenting at conferences in either poster or oral form is a common task for senior trainees (research or clinical fellows), with increasing interest from senior house officers tweaking their curriculum vitae before embarking on registrar application.
With the introduction of Modernising Medical Careers and national application forms, sections on presentations and publications are now included in all forms at all levels. This has led to increased interest from trainees of all levels, including medical students.
Without support from consultants or other experienced colleagues, writing the first abstract for a conference and preparing the presentation can be daunting. With a brief learning curve, trainees can learn the basic rules applied in all specialties and at all levels, and hopefully develop a taste for this area of their training.
Where to present
Conferences are held at three main levels: regional, national, and international. All levels have advantages and disadvantages (box 1).
Regional conferences are usually low key and in central localities. They often cover more than one specialty—for example, all surgical specialties. Lasting a day or less they offer the opportunity for many short oral presentations and a chance to network. Many regional meetings allow previously presented work to be submitted (with declaration) and offer research prizes, which are great for the CV.
National meetings often last for more than one day and entail further travel. Increased opportunity for poster presentation is available, with some conferences publishing abstracts in a supplement to a peer reviewed journal. National conferences do, however, require registration fees (commonly between £200 and £400).
International oral presentation has always been a subject for discussion at interviews, confirming a dedication to a specialty. They are often held in desirable locations. Registration fees are usually similar to those for national conferences, and, as with all conferences, the occasion to network should always be used.
Remember to submit abstracts to all levels of meeting. It is important to fill the boxes in each category and not just go for the prestigious international meetings.
Gathering information about conferences
Begin by asking your consultant about upcoming conferences. Often he or she will be on national committees linked to conferences and will encourage you accordingly. You may even find your consultant has a good idea for a study. Otherwise make contact with research fellows—they will be up to date and may be looking for a willing worker.
Alternatively, useful websites have been developed to keep you updated on worldwide conferences in your given specialties, theconferencewebsite.com is an extensive database of worldwide conferences. Registration allows you to save conferences and receive emails of relevant specialties and newly posted conferences, [Link] is another website providing information and reviews of conferences with RSS feeds.
Writing an abstract
The most important point is to follow the instructions for abstract submission carefully, paying attention to subsections, word count, and the deadline date and time (for example, Eastern Standard Time).
Some conferences receive thousands of abstract submissions, and reviewers may spend less than a minute on each. So the title, introduction, and conclusion are the most important sections; most abstracts are between 200 and 400 words.
The title is crucial and should sell the abstract—keep it short and punchy. The introduction must set the scene clearly: a sentence explaining the problem, perhaps a reference to a recognised statistic, and a clear aim of the study.
The methods should provide a succinct description of the study: prospective or retrospective, number of patients or samples used, time period, and primary and secondary outcomes measured.
The results section is often difficult as there is usually much more information to choose from than the 50-100 word allowance. Try to give basic patient demographics (median, range) and then include those results which relate back to the aim or show statistical significance. Statistics can pose a problem; try to seek help from more experienced colleagues. Alternatively, various websites provide easy statistics for trial downloads: [Link] has a comprehensive software program for download called Prism, with another free resource called Quickcals available for online use.
The conclusion is commonly the shortest section. Include a sentence summarising the important findings from the study and why they are exclusive, and relate them back to the aim. The common flaw here is to drift from what was originally set out in the aim. Finish with a sentence explaining the greater relevance of the findings of the project.
Creating a poster
Most acceptance emails comment on poster size and presentation times. Some conferences ask for a one to two minute oral presentation of the poster to a small panel, while others ask for associated PowerPoint slides. However, in most cases the only requirement will be to stand beside the poster at certain break times.
Poster design can be done on either Microsoft PowerPoint or Adobe design software. Ask your department for any templates or logos etc. Try to avoid adding too much text to posters—remember, you are not writing a paper. Include tables, charts, and photographs or other images.
Some departments will have printing links via medical photography units. If not, many high street shops will offer printing in a few days at minimal costs. A recent website, [Link] , offers poster design (£115 plus postage and packaging) or printing (£38 plus postage and packaging) with rapid turnover. They are up to date with the requirements of conferences and are now introducing e-poster slides. Similarly, [Link] allows scientists to upload the pdf image of their poster after a conference, which is made freely available on their open access journal website.
Presenting at a conference
Try to practise presenting your work before the conference. Consultants contributing to the study will be keen to see the presentation beforehand. Use local audit meetings or the end of teaching sessions as opportunities.
Begin with a strong, concise introduction to capture the audience’s attention. Use visual aids where possible, remembering a picture is worth a thousand words and is more interesting than text. Avoid complex animation sequences. Use presenter view in PowerPoint to preview text for the next slide and make use of speaker notes. Practise the timing at least once; panels may be unforgiving and stop you before you reach your conclusion. 
Giving an oral presentation at a major conference can be a rewarding experience, and if you do it well you may catch the eye of senior academics in the community. Many associations will encourage the authors of presentations to submit the complete paper. The nerve shattering questions that follow your presentation provide excellent feedback.
Always read up on your subject. There is nothing worse than revealing enormous gaps in your knowledge. People will ask questions, so be prepared.
Costs and funding
Average costs for national conferences including stay and travel are close to £500. International conferences will vary, so make a holiday of it. Note that conferences are now blacklisting authors who have abstracts accepted but do not attend, so make sure if you submit internationally that one of the authors will definitely attend.
Funding remains a slightly unpredictable area. The first place to approach is your local department as they may have a research fund and would be keen to support the presence of their department at a major international meeting. Study leave budgets are currently an area in disarray, with allowances dropping heavily. However, some trusts will allow money to be allocated as registration fees for meetings, so ask.
A few larger national societies offer bursaries for presenters to attend their annual congresses.External sources are also available, including pharmaceutical and surgical equipment companies. Poster and oral presentations at regional, national, and international conferences have now become a fixed section on most job application forms with up to two points being allocated in shortlisting for one international presentation. With increasing competition in certain specialties this is an area worth pursuing at all levels. Submitting the right study to the right conference and writing an engaging abstract are useful skills that will come quickly with experience. Delivering a slick, smooth presentation of your own work to a large crowd and surviving the onslaught of questions from academics can be very gratifying.
Box 1: Advantages and disadvantages of regional, national, and international meetings
Good for networking
Often offer prizes
Sometimes easier to get accepted
Good for networking
Abstracts often published
Posters and oral presentations
Good for networking
Abstracts often published
Box 2: Tips on writing an abstract
Read instructions to authors carefully: word count, format, deadline
Provide a short, punchy title
Follow a format (introduction/methods/results/conclusion)
Make it interesting
Don’t drift from the aim of the study
Box 3: Tips on creating a poster
Follow the rules (stick to the size and orientation)
Use a simple, interesting background
Pictures and graphs are worth a thousand words
- Watson NFS. Tips on submitting a conference abstract. BMJ Careers 2005 doi: [Link] .
- Richardson J, Raj V, Saweeres ESB, Aulakh T. Making PowerPoint presentations work BMJ Careers 2008 doi: [Link] .
- Easton A, Easton G. Stand and deliver. BMJ Careers 2007 doi: [Link]
- Modernising Medical Careers. [Link] .
Nikhil Pawa year 2 specialist trainee in general surgery
Colchester General Hospital, Colchester
Jerome Davidson year 2 specialist trainee in trauma and orthopaedics Milton Keynes General Hospital, Milton Keynes