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Survive and Thrive: The Word on the Street

You defined the project. You did the experiments. Now the results are pouring (or at least dribbling) in. And they are exciting! There is only one problem. Outside of you, your adviser, and a few close acquaintances, no one in the world has any idea of what you have accomplished. The time has come to get the word out to the street.

Writing a paper is usually the first thing that comes to mind when graduate students start to think about disseminating their work. Although I agree that publishing your research is an important part of scientific communication, I don't believe that it is the best method of getting the word out. And it is doubly bad for graduate students.

The problem is that very few overworked (shed a tear; play that violin ...) scientists spend much time reading journals. Sure, they all know they should, and they all claim they will catch up on it at the end of the semester, but don't be fooled. They rarely do. And if you get to be a hotshot academician, you probably won't either. There are just too many articles published each year. So most people skim a few articles from well-known researchers or the highest profile journals and call it a day. Papers written by graduate students rarely make that cut, and so their articles tend to languish in obscurity. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't write the articles, only that you would be wise not to count on them to raise your visibility.

But there is one place where even a lowly graduate student has a chance of being heard: at a conference. Conferences are a great equalizer. Everyone, excepting the odd keynote speaker, gets a 10- or 20-minute time slot or a few square feet of wall space. Use your allotment well, and you could generate a lot of interest in your work--and maybe make a few professional acquaintances in the process.

The Conference Desk Staff

Almost anything you need to know about a conference can be found by asking the enthusiastic people who operate the ubiquitous conference desk. Wondering where the next session on young scientists' careers is being held? They will know. Lost your badge? They can whip you up a new one. Unsure about which face goes with that famous name you are trying to meet? They will be able to point out all the prominent scientists.

So be kind to the desk staff. Introduce yourself when you register. Thank them when they are helpful, and at least be civil when they are not. Everyone has bad days. You never know what boons your kindness may bring. Maybe a free extra ticket to the banquet ... maybe an introduction to a science journalist who needs an expert opinion ... maybe an introduction to the managing editor of the niche journal in your field ... or maybe just a friendly smile after a tough day in the trenches.

The first rule is to prepare. If you are giving a talk, practice it before a live audience, preferably one composed of scientists who are knowledgeable about your field. This is the time to welcome tough questions. They will help thicken your skin and sharpen your wits. And if you are presenting a poster, assemble a draft version ahead of time and hang it on the wall. Can you understand your own poster? Can you read the small print? Ask your adviser to stroll by. Can he or she understand what you are trying to say? Then take those comments to heart and revise, revise, revise.

Reality, however, may intrude. As Next Wave managing editor Crispin Taylor puts it, "This is a nice idea, but I've never seen it happen. In my world, it was typical to be still at it at 3:00 a.m. the day before the conference--struggling with glossy 8-by-10s and the formatting of the bulleted list of conclusions that had to fit in the miniscule space available just a few hours before the flight left." And I will admit that this scenario is often closer to typical than my recommendation. That said, this column is about learning from the collective mistakes of your predecessors, so, if you can, do it in advance.


If you do your preparation well, you can pretty much ignore your presentation once you arrive at the conference, particularly if you made a poster. All you have left to do is stick it on the wall and stand by it during the specified time slot. If you are giving a talk, it might be wise to read it through once or twice, but don't overdo it. If it gets too familiar, it will come out flat and boring.

Having your presentation well in hand before you get to the conference also leaves you free to engage in the most important aspect of the conference: networking. Without a doubt, the best way to drum up interest in your work (and, by the way, to enhance your career prospects) is to meet other scientists. If your adviser is also at the conference, stay close and ask to be introduced to your adviser's networking contacts.

During the coffee breaks, take a tour of the poster sessions, ask questions, and introduce yourself. Don't be shy. As you may already have learned by standing in front of your own poster, no one--including the department head from Bigtime U.--likes to be ignored.

When you make your grand tour of the posters, take along some business cards, or a pile of preprints with your name, phone number, and e-mail address on them--anything you can give to people so they will remember you when they get home will do. And try to get a business card (or whatever) from each person you meet. You'd be surprised how fast you can forget the name of that friendly person who's doing that fascinating work on ... you know ... that subject.

And, of course, when your poster is on the wall, or when your talk is coming up, be visible. Hang around the poster and mingle after your talk. Make eye contact. This is the best time to meet new people because you are (somewhat) on familiar ground and (somewhat) in the spotlight. Make the most of it.

One last word to the wise: Try to get enough sleep. I know from experience that it might not be easy. The anxieties of presenting your work to a bunch of strangers can make it difficult to rest in your own bed, much less in a strange hotel. And the excitement of seeing old friends, and making new ones, will tempt you to stay up late. I generally try to give in to a little bit of the temptation (all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy), but not all.

Take care until next month, when we'll wrap up your graduate career and get you started on the next phase of your life.