I recently returned home from a conference held in the Washington DC area right before the 4th of July weekend. I was super exhausted when I got home after four days of science and meeting new people. Though I attended a few conferences during undergrad and while I was doing my Master’s, this was probably the first time I really went to everything, including all scientific sessions, plenaries, and networking events. (Ahem, besides that 2-hour window after my talk when I went to Nando’s Peri Peri Chicken… Yes they have come to the US! And, no, I am not proud of this obsession.)
I’m definitely still learning the best way to approach these events and actually get something out of them. But here are some things that I’ve learned and some bits about conferences that I still don’t understand.
Really plan what talks you are going to attend. I did more pre-planning for this conference than I did previously and I think it helped me stay engaged. When you are on your 15th scientific talk of the day, you really need to give yourself a reason to be there and not completely zone out. That said, once you are in this zone, you probably need to just take a break!
You will know you have entered this zone when you begin flipping through every picture of your cat (or dog, or child) that you have on your phone. Here are some representative photos I found myself scrolling through… #proudcatmommy.
Read abstracts before going to the talks. This goes along with the planning piece, but requires a slightly deeper level of commitment. Abstracts for each talk will be provided in a database or PDF on the conference website. Since titles are misleading, it can be helpful to search for keywords in the abstract booklet instead of just the list of talks. And actually reading the abstracts/papers beforehand will obviously give you a better understanding of each study. If you don’t have time to read them all beforehand (I didn’t!) you can also go back afterward and read up on talks that catch your interest.
Wear comfy clothes. Don’t attend the conference in sweatpants, but do pick out your comfiest conference clothes. This will be pretty individualized, but I like anything that fits me really well and shoes without heels. I’ve never been a fan. And don’t forget your cardigan or jacket because the conference venue will be freezing.
Square away lab things before you leave. This is important to do so you can focus on absorbing information at the conference. Although it can be difficult to do, at the very least don’t leave experiments half-finished. Ideally, don’t work on lab stuff at all while you are there. Unfortunately, I did not follow this advice while I was at my most recent conference and found myself finishing up a poster between sessions. Whomp whomp.
Drink the free coffee, but don’t overdo it. Side effects include, but are not limited to, dehydration, spaz attacks, and moodiness. I learned this the hard way during a conference in 2013 when I drank coffee basically every time they gave it to us and crashed hard from that caffeine high…oops.
Talk to new people. I generally like meeting new people, but I tend to get overwhelmed at conferences when there are SO many new faces. It all becomes a blur and I don’t remember anything. Sometimes I set a goal of meeting two new people each day, actually remembering their names, and getting their contact information. This helps me stay on track a bit. The conference I recently attended had speed networking sessions that I found helpful. You get to spend 5-15 minutes talking one-on-one or in a small group with a specific person. It was great because networking was the primary goal, so no one got distracted by other things going on at the conference.
Attend some talks outside of your immediate research area. Clearly you want to hear what is going on in your research space, but it can also be fun to see what is happening just outside of it. My talk was in a session with quite a bit of diversity of research topics, which was really interesting to hear about.
Don’t get overwhelmed by everyone’s cool research and #hustle. It’s easy to feel inadequate when everyone is selling their research, searching for their next job, and lookin’ fly as they wield the laser pointer with ease ;) But don’t worry, behind the smile and bold words, many people are just as nervous and worried as you are. So be kind to people and proud of what you have done thus far.
Have fun! Since the conference I attended was in the DC area, we took a water taxi over to Alexandria, VA for dinner one night. Even though I was pretty tired every evening, I’m glad we took time to do a little exploring!
What tricks do you have for conferences? Is there a tip that makes your experience better and more productive? Share in the comments!