Academic conferences are regular gatherings of researchers and other interested parties to present (and debate!) the latest research findings and to learn from and connect with others in the field. They represent a unique opportunity for undergraduates to showcase your own research as well as learn about other cutting-edge work happening around the globe. (You can choose to simply attend a conference or attend as a presenter.) In addition to exposing you to a diverse set of viewpoints and innovative ideas, conferences enable you to expand your professional network and build your reputation as a scholar. To figure out what conference is right for you, consult faculty mentors, graduate students, post-docs, and peers in your field. If you'd like to present your work at a conference, speak with your research mentor to gauge the presentation-readiness of your project, which conferences may be appropriate, and/or whether they would be comfortable with you serving as the presenter for the research group. There are also a number of undergraduate-only conferences to consider, see the Illinois Office of Undergraduate Research Conference Opportunties database or conduct a Google search.
Applying to be a presenter
You can absolutely participate in a conference without presenting. However, if you want to share your research you will need to apply to be a presenter. This process typically involves submitting a short one-paragraph research summary (research abstract), shortened clips of visual audio/visual content you intend to present (if your research involved production of these media), or other materials. Read the instructions for submitting and formatting conference materials, since every conference format varies.
Funding for conferences
Conferences typically charge a registration fee and may require you to travel. Your research advisor may have limited/no funding to support your travel, though, and there is limited funding at Harvard for students to attend conferences. (Some funding for conference presenters is available through URAF, the Science Education Office, and departments like Global Health and Health Policy.) If you do need funding to offset conference expenses, you should investigate these options as soon as possible, as much as 3-6 months in advance. Some conferences offer travel awards for students who submit exceptional abstracts and who are selected for oral or poster presentations and some conferences waive participation fees for students who offer to volunteer at the conference.
Presenting your research
Depending on the conference, attendees may be asked to present their research through an oral presentation or with a poster (sometimes both). Oral presentations may involve presenting your work through PowerPoint slides or reading your paper as a part of a panel. Other oral presentations entail shorter ("lightning") talks, which only allow a few minutes to present. Poster presentations involve showing your work in printed poster or e-poster format. In these settings, you may be among dozens of presenters, even hundreds, asked to talk through your poster with attendees in a short amount of time. Some conferences will offer prizes for the best posters.
Publishing Your Research
Publishing your research in an academic journal is another way to share your scholarly contributions with a larger audience, expand your professional network, and build your scholarly and professional reputation. Faculty, post-doc, and/or graduate student mentors can advise you on what work is ready to be published and how to do so. If you've done significant, independent work on a research project, you might be considered the work's "first author." If your work contributes to a body of work pursued by a group of people, you may be considered a "co-author." Academic journals, managed by national and international professional organizations in various fields, invite submissions from researchers at every level, while others journals specifically publish the work of undergraduates. Review of submissions is conducted by a panel of "peer-reviewers," comprising of faculty, other researchers, and other members of the academic community who will judge the validity, soundness, and novelty of your work. Your work will likely receive feedback that needs to be addressed in another round (or several rounds) of submission before acceptance for publication. Not only is publishing a good way to practice academic writing, but it's also a great exercise in receiving and responding to professional feedback.
Instead of a research article, you might consider publishing a literature review with a faculty research advisor. In contrast to research articles, literature reviews give comprehensive syntheses and analyses of existing research in a field. Creating a literature review requires understanding what others have published about a topic, being able to articulate what advances have been made and what gaps and questions still remain. Composing these reviews, like research articles, relies on patience, attention-to-detail, and ability to communicate complicated findings succinctly and simply.
If you are thinking of publishing your research or a literature review of work in your field of interest, consult with your research advisors on how to get started. Publishing takes patience and hard work but is a worthwhile endeavor and celebration of your research efforts!