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Mastering Your Ph.D.: Making the Most of a Conference

For months--maybe years--you've been holed up in the lab, working in isolation. Outside your research group, your interactions with the scientific community have been limited to reading the literature. But that's about to change: You're going to your first conference.

Attending this conference and making the most of it are important investments in your future. A well-chosen conference will bring you up to date with the latest findings in your field. The feedback you receive on your poster or presentation will give your research a boost. Most important, probably, is the opportunity it offers to start building your scientific network, which will yield benefits in the form of scientific collaborations, recommendation letters, postdoc appointments, and so on.

Conferences can be overwhelming, however. A lot is packed into a few short days. This article offers some tips on how to make the most of your first scientific sojourn.

Picking the right conference

Your adviser will probably choose your first conference, but you might have some influence on that decision. Choose a conference where you'll be able to present your work as a poster or an oral presentation. When you present your work at a meeting, you become an active participant in the field rather than a spectator. You might feel uncomfortable presenting if you haven't completed your research project. But, especially at poster sessions, an interim progress report is more than welcome. The discussions that occur during (and after) poster sessions likely will yield valuable suggestions for moving forward and will help you start building that network.

You might even be asked to give an oral presentation. In an earlier article we discussed how to prepare and give an effective oral presentation.

Networking with conference attendees is just as important as presenting your work, and workshops and small, well-chosen conferences with fewer than 100 participants are ideal for establishing close relationships with other researchers in your field. Once you have a sense of what others close to you (in the scientific sense) are doing, you might consider attending a bigger, broader conference.

If you have a choice, try to pick a conference in a pleasant location. Enjoying a conference can provide extra motivation to work hard at your research. Even the top scientists in your field will be more relaxed and--often--willing to involve you in scientific discussions.

Good preparation is key

Preparing for a conference can eat up a lot of time. Two tips can help you organize: Work with a checklist, and pay particular (and early) attention to preparations that require some lead time and rely on responses from other people.

On the checklist, write down everything you have to do, such as buying tickets, registering for the meeting, sending your abstract to the organizers, preparing your presentation, and defining your goals for the meeting.

Some of these items require lead time. For instance, before you send in your abstract to the conference, it needs to be reviewed by your co-authors, including your adviser. If they do not respond immediately, you may become nervous as the deadline for submission approaches. Even if you give them plenty of time, you may still have to nag them a little. Do it politely.

Keeping things running smoothly while you are away should be an item on your preparation list. Leave a note on your desk informing others that you are out of the lab and how you can be contacted, and either keep tabs on your e-mail from the conference or turn on your out-of-office e-mail reply message. Think about the status of your ongoing projects and, if necessary, give clear instructions to an undergraduate or lab technician to keep your experiments running while you're gone.

Tackling the program

Getting a handle on an overwhelming conference program is an art in itself, in particular if you attend a large conference with plenary lectures, parallel sessions, multiple poster sessions, and industry booths. Planning an aggressive schedule can be counterproductive. Try to find the proper balance between attending the most important presentations and leaving some slack in your schedule to rest and network.

Say you arrive at the conference Monday morning eager to attend a session in every time slot. The Monday evening poster session seems only marginally relevant to your research, but you go there anyway as you're determined to get as much out of the conference as possible. By Tuesday afternoon you've faithfully attended every presentation and are beginning to feel tired. Wednesday, you're exhausted as you zigzag through parallel sessions. You may be having a hard time following the lectures--not always easy even under the best of circumstances.

During the week's second half, your energy flags, and the amount of information you retain starts to decline. You're too exhausted to interact with other scientists during breaks. You start to spend more time in your hotel room; too bad you missed the very interesting and relevant talks on Thursday. You've learned, perhaps too late, that a weeklong conference can be very long indeed.

So, if you want to get the most out of a weeklong conference--and you do--plan to skip a good fraction of the program right from the beginning. Schedule time to relax, talk to others, and digest the information you have taken in so far. Don't forget to attend other poster sessions, where you can absorb the presented work at your own pace. The more relaxed you are, the easier it will be to get to know other scientists.

Strategies for attending a session

Once you've chosen a session to attend, plan to stay for all the presentations. Some presentations are easier to digest than others, but the easiest to digest may not be the most important. Take notes on key points; this will help you recognize what you understand and what you don't. Prepare a question, even if you don't get to ask it. Preparing questions will make you a better, more active listener. There might be an opportunity during the break to discuss the question with the speaker. Most speakers appreciate it when people approach them after the session.

If a particular talk in a session is less interesting than expected, do not despair, and don't leave in the middle. The best way to deal with a boring talk is to ignore the presentation, rest your brain a bit, and then give your full attention to the next one.

Network, network, network

Building a professional network is one of the most important reasons for going to a conference. Consequently, the breaks can be as valuable as the presentations. People tend to showcase their successes during a presentation. It is only during the breaks that you might discover something about researchers' missteps and failures. Those stories provide a critical sense of perspective. Informal discussions may also yield useful feedback on your project and strengthen your connections. It always helps to know that you are not working on a problem in isolation. It is also useful for others to know you exist and, at least in broad terms, what you're up to.

When you finish your Ph.D., you might want to continue doing research as a postdoc. Meeting people from other labs will help you make a more informed decision about where to go next. Moreover, it provides you with opportunities to learn what other labs are doing and for other lab heads to get to know you. One (or more!) of those other labs may be a future employer. And informal chitchat can be a welcome break from hours of staring at PowerPoint slides. Having a cappuccino on the steps of the conference building can be more productive and enjoyable than fading away in boredom at yet another high-level lecture.

Also, social activities in the evenings are quite important. Having dinner with people from other labs and going for a drink with them outside the conference venue are all integral to successful networking at conferences.

Postconference reality check

At last, the conference is over, and you're back home. Once again, you're overwhelmed with things to do: Your e-mail inbox is full, you have a lab to teach later in the week, and you want to socialize with friends you haven't seen for a while. In no time, the conference becomes a distant memory. All the new ideas you picked up start to fade.

Before this happens, take the time to go back through the conference program and look at your notes. Convert your ideas into actions: Make a list of things you want to do or want to stop doing. Prioritize the items on the list and schedule the actions into your agenda.

Starting the conference well prepared and maintaining a proper balance between presentations and coffee breaks can make your conference experience a source of inspiration. This will ensure that your experience of the conference is what it should be: an important scientific tool and one of the pleasant perks of working in academia.

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