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097: Conference Like the Pros – How to Plan, Network, and Win

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.


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.

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.

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.

At the Conference

Making Connections

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.

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.

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.

And be sure to take notes on what you see. Sometimes, even a disappointing presentation can have important lessons:

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!

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