Categories: News, Newsletter, Newsletter Issue 2024:2

A Guide to Conferences for Health Economists

By Anne M. Burton and Barton Willage

You are no doubt familiar with ASHEcon but there are many other conferences both local and international that can provide great opportunities for presenting your research, learning about new work in health economics, mentoring, and networking. In this article, we highlight different types of conferences, typical roles at conferences and benefits from participating, and non-research aspects of conferences like mentoring and professional development opportunities that can be particularly valuable.

What are different types of conferences that are out there?

No matter what type of conference experience you are looking for, it probably exists. If you want a conference that is entirely about health economics or health services research, the main ones are ASHEcon, iHEA (every other year and usually in a non-U.S. location), and AcademyHealth. There are also smaller health economics conferences that provide a more structured conference experience and more close-knit interactions. Examples of these include the Annual Health Econometrics Workshop, the Midwest Health Economics Conference, the Southeastern Health Economics Study Group, the Annual Workshop on the Economics of Risky Behavior, the Essen Economics of Mental Health Workshop, and the UK Health Economics Study Group. For a big public-policy focused conference with a lot of health sessions, there is APPAM. This conference includes other topics such as education, public and nonprofit management, crime, and family policy. The regional economics associations also put on conferences every year: these are the Easterns, Midwest, Southerns, and Westerns. They are also big conferences with every field of economics represented. You may be wondering how you could possibly keep track of all of these conferences. Fortunately, you don’t have to! For the past several years we have maintained a spreadsheet of economics conferences with dates, deadlines, and other important information: link.

What are the different roles that people take on at conferences?

There are several different potential roles when participating in a conference. Each takes a different amount of time/effort, requires different skills, and has different benefits. 

  • Attending (no active participation): If you want to get the lay of the land, hear some interesting presentations, and meet researchers a bit further along in their careers, then attending a conference without actively participating can be a great first step. One benefit of attending before participating is you can see the format of sessions and do some learning before jumping in. You usually have to pay the registration fee, but these fees tend to be fairly low for graduate students.
  • Presenter: This is probably what most new researchers think of when they consider attending conferences. In this role, you present your research orally, usually in a session containing 3-4 papers. The benefits of this role are dissemination of research and receiving feedback. Many conferences include discussants, which is a main way to get feedback from a conference (see below). Be aware that for some conferences, many submissions to present are not accepted. See here for suggestions in writing submissions to conferences.
  • Poster: This is similar to presenting, but instead of a (usually) 10-20-minute oral presentation, you use a poster and converse one-on-one or in small groups. There is more engagement with people if they approach you and your poster, but sometimes very few people will look at a poster. Often conferences incentivize attendees to engage with posters by having poster sessions where food or beverages are provided. Additionally, posters may stay up for much of the conference for passers-by to peruse, even when you are not tending it. These posters are quite large (the conference will provide exact dimensions), but be very careful with the design of your poster and do not try to force too much information to the point that no information can be absorbed by others. If you take a stroll to meet other poster presenters and learn about their work, it’s a great way to find people with similar interests or at a similar career stage and to give others an audience for their work. 
  • Discussant: As mentioned above, one way presenters receive feedback is from a discussant. This role involves reading one or two papers in a session, and presenting context and feedback that benefits the author and the audience who usually have not read the paper. This is a good way to engage with research and contribute to the conference even if one does not have a research project ready to present themselves. See here for suggestions on how to be a good discussant.
  • Session organizer: Session organizers offer real value-added while requiring relatively little work. In this role, you think of a theme or topic for the session. Then, you reach out to other researchers who work on those topics to see if they are interested in joining a session for a conference; most sessions have 3 or 4 presentations. You will also need to recruit discussants and a session chair (see below; often session organizers serve as session chair if they want to). People often like to join an organized session, instead of submitting individual papers, because, at most health economics conferences, organized sessions are more likely to be accepted and tend to be more focused on a theme (note that part of the higher acceptance rate might be due to quality of papers in organized session and not just the effect of a pre-organized session itself). One big perk of this role is inviting people you want to meet to participate in your session, which is a good way to network and see their research. One pitfall is that you might have to send several emails if potential presenters and discussants do not plan to attend the conference or are already in other sessions. When organizing a session, you might participate as a presenter, a discussant, a chair, some combination, or none of the above.
  • Session chair: Chair is the lowest effort role. Usually this involves sending a couple of logistics emails, reminding presenters to send their papers to the discussants, and managing the time during the session. It is a nice thing to do, and it is a line on your CV. You can also organize a social meeting (lunch, drinks, etc.) so the participants can network a bit more than they would in the few minutes before and after the session.

What types of mentorship opportunities are available at conferences?

Mentoring opportunities, particularly for graduate students, are another great feature of many conferences these days. ASHEcon has a mentoring program the afternoon before the conference for both graduate students and early-career professionals. The article in this issue by Preeti Zanwar has more detail on that. For women and non-binary graduate students, CSWEP puts on a 1-day mentorship workshop at Southerns the day before the conference. APPAM also has a mentorship component during the conference that is available to all graduate students. For upcoming job market candidates, Westerns puts on a small-group job market bootcamp with mock interviews and a practice job talk. While the exact details of these mentorship opportunities differ, they all provide ways to learn about the hidden curriculum, network with those more senior in the profession, and many offer a chance to get feedback on your research.

In addition to formal mentorship opportunities, another way to receive advice or just get to know a senior person is to reach out before the conference and ask to meet up for coffee, breakfast, or a walk. Emailing people ahead of time is a common way to meet researchers in the same field.

What other types of sessions do conferences typically have?

In addition to the mentoring opportunities mentioned above, many conferences hold events beyond the normal presentation sessions. These can include panels, pedagogical training, and professional development. I will focus on ASHEcon, but many other conferences have similar opportunities. A good place to look for these kinds of sessions/panels/events is under “Special Events” and “Spotlight Sessions”, though they might be with other session types as well. If you happen to have professional development funding and are low on research funds, requesting financial support around these opportunities can be a way to access other sources of money from your employer.

First, make sure not to go to events that are by invitation only. For instance, journal editors as well as conference/professional organizations have meetings on the schedule; these are usually closed-door. Second, some events require pre-registration, which usually is done during conference registration. Make sure to pre-register if you want to attend. Many conferences have pre-conference workshops, including ASHEcon. Last year’s focus was “Translating Good Research into Good Policy”. These often change year-to-year, so there’s usually something new to learn. Other kinds of professional development opportunities include panels with journal editors and funders, discussions about working as a health economist in different sectors (e.g.,  industry, think tanks, and government), and learning about new econometric methods. All of these topics have been the focus of panels and sessions at ASHEcon last year and this year.

Don’t skip receptions and free breakfasts/lunch. Most conferences have an opening reception. Get in line for food or a drink and talk to someone in line next to you. Some conferences have other receptions as well. APPAM and ASSA have receptions hosted by universities and other organizations. ASHEcon has several free meals, which is a great time to meet people. 

Lastly, there are sessions on teaching. For instance, this year there is a session on “AI and Teaching: What Works, What Doesn’t, and What Else Do We Wish We Knew?” These kinds of sessions are a great way to hone one’s teaching, especially for those of us who received relatively little training in instruction.