In 2014, I was fortunate enough to serve as Conference Co-Chair alongside my two esteemed friends, Pamela Kaliski and Javarro Russell. I can’t remember who started it or when it happened, but at some point, we all decided that “our” conference was going to be the biggest and best ever. This is likely a belief to which all co-chairs adhere, but I have never actually conducted a survey. Nevertheless, we looked at every aspect of the way conferences had been organized in the past and continually asked ourselves if that could be improved in either an incremental or revolutionary way. After months of work, more than 400 professional and graduate student members had registered for the conference in October – the highest number we could find on record. It seemed like our efforts had been a success.
As you may have noticed, in recent years, there has been a decline in NERA membership and conference attendance. During discussions at Board or Business meetings, I have often heard people pose hypotheses about this, ranging from budget issues at regional universities to conflicts with other events to failing to appeal to certain sectors of the educational research community. Others, who may have been learning about NERA for the first time, have suggested actions of inquiry, such as a survey of former or potential members to determine what could be done to improve engagement.
Having served on the Board shortly after my term on the Conference Committee, I have been intimately aware of the challenges faced and efforts put forth each year. Before going any further, I want to say that this message is in no way meant to question the intentions or efforts of anyone who has come before me. What’s more, I am not ignorant of the issues mentioned before, such as limited travel budgets, or those yet to be discovered, and I am eager to hear of any issues our members face and ways in which NERA can work to address them.
Instead, I wish to discuss how I have internalized all of the information of the last several years in order to develop a plan for how we can move forward, building an organization and conference experience that continues to thrive. In the short time since taking on the Presidency, I have articulated this in two key ways.
First, we must build an experience that appeals to all of our members. The lifecycle of a long-time NERA member is quite common. Most people enter as graduate students, existing in this larval stage for several years, and attending NERA for the incredible learning experiences, social connections, and opportunities for growth. Once entering the field, a secondary stage of life emerges. As young professionals, we may be less likely to attend as geography prohibits our travel, autonomy inhibits our ability to develop research, or budgets dictate we attend other conferences. After several years, however, we emerge as fully seasoned professionals. Now with control over when and where we travel, we remember NERA fondly and take the time, effort, and resources necessary to come back to NERA. We serve as discussants, mentors, or panelists on the most fun and interesting symposia. We enjoy the social aspects as an opportunity to give back, mentor new graduate students, and begin the cycle all over again.
One of the major guiding principles of this year will be to reconsider the NERA experience for each of these three stages: (1) the graduate student, (2) the new professional, and (3) the seasoned professional. We will be continually asking how belonging to NERA and attending the conference enriches the professional lives of these sectors. As I say this, you probably are beginning to see how NERA has always served the graduate student population well but has somewhat neglected the perspectives of these other two populations. One example of action in this umbrella will be to identify more invited speakers and workshops very early in the year. This will allow us to promote the conference to newer professionals better so that they can justify their attendance amid competing priorities. However, this leads to a second challenge that we must face as an organization.
Once we have built a great NERA experience, how will people know? For many of us who work as researchers, we often focus on the research project. Literature review, study design, sampling, analysis… these are the issues on which we concentrate our efforts. When it comes to dissemination, we certainly care about the visibility of the journal to which we submit, or the prestige of the conference at which we present, but these are questions that usually come second to those about the research itself.
Similarly, marketing the NERA experience has generally received less attention than focusing on the quality of the experience itself. Certainly, it is critical to focus on quality, but if no one knows about that quality, how can it help us improve attendance? They are efforts that must work hand-in-hand.
This has led to an intentional and strategic focus on membership and outreach. Throughout the year, the Conference Committee will be working actively with Membership and other committees to ensure that we have a strategic plan for outreach to each of the three sectors of NERA membership mentioned above.
To address these two issues, I am thankful to have a distinguished and capable Conference Committee in place: Andrew Jones from the American Board of Surgery, John Rubright from the National Board of Medical Examiners, Madison Holzman from Curriculum Associates, and Thai Ong from the American Board of Internal Medicine. They have all been on board for over a year now, and our efforts are in full swing. I am grateful for their willingness to give their time and energy and am confident in their ability to succeed.
In the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact me with thoughts, ideas, or, most importantly, a willingness to get involved. I wish you a happy and fruitful 2020 and look forward to seeing you back in Trumbull, CT, later this year.
Ross Markle

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