With summer approaching, conference season is just around the corner. For many, that means fun opportunities to meet people, develop ideas, raise visibility, and get inspired. But conferences can also be intimidating and overwhelming. So, to help you develop your strategy for a successful conference experience, Science Careers asked scientists at various career stages to share their tips and tricks. Their responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
First of all, why do you go to conferences?
I find conferences rejuvenating. They are inspirational and energizing opportunities to connect with the greater scientific community, think about new strategies to approach my research, contemplate the bigger picture, and establish collaborations. A good conference has the capacity to bring a scientist, no matter their career stage, out of a slump.
- Tenaya Vallery, doctoral candidate in molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University
For me, the main benefits are meeting people, honing my communication skills, discussing ideas, and getting input about my work. Often, the inquiries I receive about collaborations and job openings are from people I met at conferences.
- Nonne Prisle, associate professor in atmospheric science at the University of Oulu in Finland
Papers usually make it seem like the experimental results discovered themselves, and going to conferences allows me to find out about the human motivation and broader context. I also like getting new perspectives on science, making new friends (as life as a graduate student can be a little insular), and the chance to discover a new city.
- Julian West, doctoral candidate in chemistry at Princeton University
Conferences offer an important reminder that you are not on your own, which is particularly helpful if there aren’t a lot of people at your institution conducting related research. I also find them very helpful for learning about new areas and publications. As a speaker, I am always keen to get feedback from the audience. It is a way of testing out ideas and my thinking before I write a full journal paper.
- Kate Sang, associate professor in management at Heriot-Watt University in the United Kingdom
I enjoy building connections with people, on a social level as well as a professional one. The one-stop shop venue also brings unique advantages. For example, when I presented a poster recently, I was able to immediately act on a suggestion I received about using a particular experimental platform by speaking to the vendor, who was also at the conference. Finally, I love the opportunity to travel to new places, eat new food, and take a break from the daily research grind.
- Kevin Boehnke, doctoral candidate in environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor
Conferences are a good way to keep abreast of the latest techniques, get new ideas for your research, and meet other groups working in your area. You can also find out about job openings and connect directly with potential employers, which can make the difference between getting the position or not. Impressing the audience with a good presentation helps, too.
- Javier Castro Hernandez, postdoc in rheumatology at the University Hospital of the Canary Islands in Tenerife, Spain
I enjoy presenting my research, catching up with old friends and making new ones, and being exposed to new ideas. I always come home feeling inspired. I have also made important contacts with publishers, and I have been privileged to travel to some amazing places.
- Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire in the United Kingdom
I enjoy getting feedback, for example by asking my poster visitors for suggestions about statistical analyses or follow-up studies to make the work more compelling. I also enjoy making connections with new people, especially people whose papers I have read or who work at institutions I might be interested in working at in the future, and catching up with collaborators.
- Cecilia Sánchez, doctoral candidate in ecology at the University of Georgia in Athens
For junior scientists, delivering an amazing talk is hugely important for one's career. Today, as a more senior scientist, I mainly give talks to sell an idea that isn't well known or isn't well accepted. Other than that, conferences keep me in touch with my colleagues whom I otherwise wouldn't see on a regular basis. This is how people know that I'm part of my field.
- Terry McGlynn, professor of biology at California State University in Dominguez Hills
The main benefits I get out of conferences are feedback, collegial support, a sense of intellectual community, and time to talk to friends and colleagues about collaborative projects or institutional developments. Probably the most important takeaway is a motivational high for the next fortnight to plough ahead on new or dormant ideas.
- Sebastian Pfotenhauer, assistant professor of innovation research at the Munich Center for Technology in Society at the Technical University of Munich in Germany
How do you decide which conferences to go to?
I attend the main conferences for my subject area. These tend to be quite broad though, so I also try to go to conferences that are more directly related to my specific subject and more interdisciplinary.
I try to go to smaller conferences (a few hundred people) to interact with other attendees, as it can be easy to get lost in the crowd at big conferences. As a student, you also sometimes have a better chance of getting to present a talk at a smaller conference, which offers valuable practice and visibility and can help with securing travel funding. Conferences that defray costs for students are also appealing.
I select conferences based on tradition in the field and on how well the topics match what I am currently working on (if I want to present my research) or what I plan to work on in the future. Another important factor is whether people I know are attending, especially if I plan to discuss specific matters or have ideas to pitch. I also consider whether my teaching duties, other trips, and family life can accommodate it. A conference is a fairly large investment in terms of time, energy, and money, so you need to weigh the expected benefits against the costs.
I attend mainly two types of conferences: those where I want to present my research to a community that I wish to influence or be part of, and those where I already feel at home. The former tend to be larger and require more preparation, but they are a good opportunity to challenge myself and explore new ground. The latter are smaller and less stressful, and they are a good way to get important feedback and reassurance.
I mostly ask my advisers and colleagues for recommendations. However, sometimes I get an invitation to speak at a relevant conference or try to go to conferences put on by professional societies to which I belong.
I was advised that you should go to the same conferences every year so that you'll get to know people. I think there is a lot of truth to that, so there are certain conferences in my field that I always try to go to. However, sometimes I also like to go to new conferences where I can learn about my area of research from a different angle and meet new people—although sometimes there are a surprising number of familiar faces too.
I’ve found myself making conference choices for different reasons at different times. However, there are a few questions that I always ask myself. In no particular order: Do I have any conflicting commitments? How big is the conference? What is the focus? How likely am I to get a slot for an oral or poster presentation? Where is it? Is anyone I know (or would like to know) going? Can I get any travel or accommodation reimbursed?
There is a lot going on at conferences, and you may also have other commitments you need to take care of too. How do you manage it all?
I like to make a plan in advance based on the session titles and recommendations from others. This gives me the security of always having at least one good option for what to do at any given time. At the same time, cultivating an element of spontaneity helps me stay engaged over what can be a bit of a marathon. So, if I am looking to shake things up, I’ll search the conference hashtag on Twitter and see what pops up, which can lead me to interesting sessions that I would have otherwise missed. Bigger conferences also tend to be demanding from a social energy perspective, and it can be therapeutic to trade the crowded and noisy hallways for an hour of rest and decompression. A lull in the middle of the day can also be a good time to deal with any pressing work or to chip away at some of the emails that have piled up.
I try to go with the flow and not plan too far in advance. If I catch a talk, that’s great, but if I'm talking with people or in other talks instead, that's fine too. I search the program app for a few keywords and follow the meeting on Twitter, which allows me to keep up with things happening in other rooms when I have scheduling conflicts. If I have down time, I'll sit in a corner and get caught up on some work. I've had family members tag along to a couple international conferences in cool places, but I think it's hard to get a lot out of a conference with a kid in tow. So usually, when I go to a conference, my spouse stays home to parent, and then when my spouse travels for conferences, I'm parenting at home.
Be selective. Having said that, sometimes go to talks that are not necessarily within your area—you may be surprised. And pace yourself. Many students set unrealistic schedules for themselves that don’t include time to unwind and socialize. Also, try not to do too many things at the same time. For example, I usually do not tweet during presentations so that I can focus on what the speaker is saying. When I need to read my emails and catch up with urgent issues, I hide away in my room and spend a couple of hours working. And while taking friends and family to conferences may work well, there can be a drawback, as you can sometimes feel pressure to spend time with them rather than at the conference.
I plan which sessions or talks I will attend ahead of time. During breaks, I distill each talk down to a one- or two-sentence summary and connect it to my work or the greater direction of the field to help digest and retain what I’ve learned.
I learned to accept that, of 50 presentations I attend and 50 conversations I have at a conference, maybe two or three of each will really make a difference to my future work and thinking. The rest might be interesting, but it’s something you can ultimately learn in journals as well. So there really is no point in trying to squeeze in as much as possible. My suggestion: Skip some talks to be rested for your own session; skip some more talks to have a coffee with someone you are really interested in or who you won’t meet in person again for another year. I try to keep other work commitments down to checking emails. Bad sessions can be extremely productive for this. One should still be respectful to the presenter, however, so if it’s a decent presentation, there are only three people in the audience, or the person is young or nervous and looking for support or interesting questions, I will always pay attention.
The first time I went to a conference, I tried to attend all the sessions I could because that would get me the most benefit—or so I thought. When there were two sessions at the same time, I went back and forth from one to the other. This was a terrible mistake. It was not productive at all, and I finished exhausted and stressed. Now, I carefully study the program in advance, tailor my own program based on the summary of the sessions, make notes about researchers who are attending, and think about productive questions to ask them.
- Castro Hernandez
I try to finish up everything that needs my immediate attention before leaving for the conference so that I’m not distracted. I also like to have a rough idea of the sessions I’m interested in, because otherwise I get really overwhelmed by the options. Once there, I make sure I adapt my schedule if I meet someone who has great ideas or is making good recommendations. I only go to the exhibition hall when I have an idea of what I’m looking for, as it can be overwhelming. Finally, I’d recommend that you don’t try to spend all your time at the conference, as you’ll likely burn out. Take time to enjoy the city and the company of your colleagues or new friends and to take a deep breath away from your daily grind.
Do you make a point to talk to people at coffee breaks and go to social events?
Definitely. The social side of conferences is just as important as the scientific content. The best conference I ever attended was one where I didn’t know anybody. I was forced to talk to people and made lots of new friends. Many conferences have special events for students and new conference-goers, which can be effective.
As a young scientist, talking to people can be intimidating because you worry that they might ask you something you do not know how to answer. But talking to people will help you build your self-confidence, and you need to be out there to absorb the creative atmosphere of a scientific meeting. Coffee breaks are a great time to have a relaxed conversation about work or just meet people and friends. Scientific careers are no easy path, but it becomes easier if you secure support and empathy from peers.
- Castro Hernandez
I force myself to go to at least some of these events, but I actually hate this bit. I dislike having to stand in a crowd in search of someone to talk to. It has become easier as I advance in my career, though, as I now tend to know people at conferences, and presenting your paper gives others a starting point to talk to you. But taking part in large social networking events may not be possible for everybody. For example, being a woman in a male-dominated field can make this aspect of conferences somewhat uncomfortable, and for those with chronic health problems or disability, it may be beyond what they are capable of. So it’s important to recognize that there are also other ways to meet people. For example, I live tweet during conferences, and quite often I end up setting up face-to-face meetings with other attendees I've been chatting with online.
If I have a question about a talk, a poster, whatever, I think it’s best to discuss it with other people, and coffee breaks and social events are great for that. I also go to young scientist events. I’ve met good people there, and it’s nice to hear different perspectives about how to pursue specific careers and balance work and life. And they typically have food!
I make a point to develop a personal connection to my peers, as I know that many people I meet at conferences will be my future colleagues, collaborators, reviewers, and any number of other roles that will affect my science and career. Social events in the evening are valuable in this respect. One hard-learned lesson, though, is that it’s not essential or even advisable to stay out into the early morning every night; once or twice is usually more than enough.
What do you do after a conference is over to make sure you’re maximizing the benefit?
One of the things I’ve found the most helpful is following up with new contacts. Another is writing down the most exciting and important ideas that came to my head, as they’ll often slip away soon after I leave that creative environment.
I often leave a meeting with specific collaboration plans, so I write a follow-up email, do the preliminary work that I've committed to, and make sure that the plans we cooked up at the meeting still make sense for all of us.
I select the key themes and breakthroughs from the conference and present them to my labmates. This process helps me retain the information and challenges me to think more deeply about the key findings.
I usually start following the researchers I met on social networks such as ResearchGate or LinkedIn. Sometimes I send an email to keep in touch, and I definitely read their work.
- Castro Hernandez
Do you have any further advice or suggestions of mistakes to avoid?
Probably the biggest mistake I see people (including a younger version of myself) make at conferences is only hanging out with your labmates and colleagues from your department or university. It is fun and easy, but it means missing out on the opportunity to build new connections. With time, I’ve learned that hanging out with old friends and meeting new ones aren’t mutually exclusive.
At the social events, remember that you are still interacting with professional colleagues. Don't start telling overly personal stories or drink beyond your limits. And if you're an introvert, it's okay to give yourself some quiet time away from people, even if that means skipping some talks or social events. You probably won't miss anything earth-shattering, and you'll be refreshed for later interactions.
Pick a hotel that fits your needs. Find out if it is in a quiet area of town and close to the venue. If it is important to get sleep and practice your talk, consider spending a bit extra on your own room, as opposed to sharing. And don’t forget to bring your business cards!
I remember once seeing a Ph.D. student get so drunk at the conference dinner that they were not able to make their presentation the next day. This was unprofessional, and it caused inconvenience to the organizers. It's important to have fun, but remember that you are there to work.
Some students can be starstruck by meeting scientists whose work they admire and cite heavily, but most people—even if they are relatively big names—are glad to talk to you about your work and interests. On the other side, I sometimes see people shamelessly working to schmooze famous people. Remember that the most functional and resilient network is one with many genuine connections to everybody in the community, regardless of rank and status.