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Sure, scientific conferences are not a competitive sport, but the sheer volume of information, introductions, and events can leave you feeling like you just lost a round of rugby.
This week, we share some sage advice for making your next conference the best one yet.
Listener Matthew writes:
I have a topic that I think would be interesting for graduate students of all years to hear more about: how to be effective at conferences. I usually make it to one or two conferences a year, and the first time I went I had no idea what to do, where to go, how to plan to see what I should be seeing let alone finding time to properly network. For students who have an absent PI this can be daunting particularly if you are presenting papers and posters as well.
Matthew is exactly right – a scientific conference is often an overwhelming place. There are myriad talks, hundreds of posters, and vendors packed wall to wall in a room the size of an airplane hanger.
We took to Twitter to ask other scientists how they approach the opportunities and obstacles of a scientific conference.
Hey #sciencetwitter – what tips do you have for making the most of a scientific conference? (Specifically, advice for students.) #PhDchat
— Joshua Hall (@jdhallphd) July 21, 2018
Here’s what they said…
Before You Go
Set Some Goals
Step one is to think about why you want to attend this conference, and that may change with your career stage and current projects.
Some attendees will be looking to begin a collaboration. Some will hope to find a postdoc position. And some may just want to learn more about the latest technologies in the vendor showroom. Whatever your reason, jot down a few ideas about what you’d like to achieve.
Set a conference goal! When I go in with a defined goal (i.e. Ask a question in a session, Give a good talk, Hand out 5 business cards, Meet with collaborator) I find that I feel more accomplished and do more work than if I have a vague idea like “Network.”
— Alex Dainis (@AlexDainis) July 21, 2018
Make a Plan
Since it’s literally impossible to see everything, your first order of business should be to make a plan.
Take a few minutes to reach out to colleagues you’d like to meet while attending the conference. Set up a time and place to meet for coffee or lunch before you arrive so you’re guaranteed to make the connection. At a large conference, you can’t expect to ‘run into’ your collaborators by accident.
If you’re applying for grad school and are interested in a PI, see if they’ll be there to chat. Making those connections is key and they’re usually very enthusiastic!
— Griffin (@octopaqueen) July 21, 2018
Ultimately, conference organizers will release a schedule with poster and presentation titles. Fire up your trusty highlighter and mark the must-see events. Prioritizing these events will help you ensure you get the most important content. You can fill in the remaining time with meetings, posters, or quiet reflection.
Many Twitter responses encouraged attendees to step outside of their comfort zones when choosing talks and posters.
Do at least one session in a topic that you find sort of interesting but isn’t your current specialty. Fields evolve so fast today that if you stay in the game you will eventually need to change topic. Pays to know what’s happening in other fields.
— Adam Micolich (@ad_mico) July 21, 2018
At the Conference
Though many of us hate the word ‘networking,’ there’s real value in the relationships you forge at a scientific meeting. Arguably, it’s the most important part! Otherwise, it could just be done through papers and webinars.
Network even if it isn’t your style. Ask people about their work–they are always happy to talk about that. Once you know a few folks the conference won’t seem so large and intimidating.
— Mark Peifer (@peiferlabunc) July 21, 2018
It’s okay to miss some talks to socialize. Don’t just hunt for PIs. You and your peers are doing the cutting edge work. Network with them. Those links will last a lifetime.
— Dr, Ellen L. Simms (@eswillwalker) July 22, 2018
If a contact hands you a business card, jot down a few notes when the conversation ends so that you’ll remember what you discussed. A stack of cards after a long week away is pretty tough to parse without notes.
A great way to cut the ice is to start the conversation on social media. Most events will post a conference hashtag – use that in your Twitter posts to connect with other attendees in the cloud.
Join Twitter and use the conference hashtag to connect with people even before the meeting starts! Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to others and ENGAGE them. Make them remember you.
— Efraín Rivera-Serrano 🔬 (@nakedcapsid) July 21, 2018
Posters and Presentations
We’ll save the discussion of how to prepare an awesome poster or presentation for later. As an attendee, there are some tips for navigating the flood of information you’re sure to encounter.
Spend time at the poster sessions and ask people to take you through their posters. They’ll be trainees too, mostly, and will greatly appreciate it, plus great networking and lots of new science.
— Dr. Kim Barrett (@jphysiol_eic) July 21, 2018
Walk through posters ahead of poster session when it’s quiet. Choose the ones you are most interested in and target them during poster session. Maximizes your interaction time.
— Glen Pyle (@glenpyle) July 22, 2018
And be sure to take notes on what you see. Sometimes, even a disappointing presentation can have important lessons:
1. Even the worst talk can teach. Record in yr notebook “I will not…” building a list of practices to avoid. Review b4 *yr* next talk.
2. Take frequent breaks to sit by yrself w yr notebook. Assimilate. Daydream. Scribble new ideas.
Bonus: Always carry yr notebook
— Mike Kaspari (@MikeKaspari) July 21, 2018
When You Get Home
First off: relax! You’ll probably need about a month to recover from all that you did at the conference!
When you feel rested, flip through your collected business cards and reach out to your new contacts via email. Business cards get lost, but inboxes are forever. In a few months or a few years when you reach back out to that contact for reagents or a postdoc position, your prior conversation will be there ready to review.
And finally, look over the goals you set for this meeting. Did you make some new friends? Did you ask a question in a room full of strangers? Give yourself a pat on the back…
…And get ready to set some new goals for your next conference!
Big Not Bad
Our advice this week came from Twitter, but our beer came from Utah! This week, we open a generous bottle of Big Bad Baptist Imperial Stout from Epic Brewing in Salt Lake City. It’s slightly sweet, slightly bitter, and dangerously delicious. Brewed with cacao nibs, coffee, and aged in a whiskey barrel, you’ll want to sip this murky stout from an elegant wine glass.
At least that’s what we did!