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Yay, it’s conference time! Navigating the bizarre world of scientific meetings

It’s been a weird trip so far. You’ve printed papers to read on the plane. You’ve lugged a poster tube through the airport, self-conscious that security thinks it’s a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher. You’ve requested a receipt for a muffin (mmm … reimbursable muffin). And it’s only going to get weirder.

Last month, we discussed how to prepare for a conference. This month, here’s some advice to help ensure you have a successful conference once you’re actually there.

As you enter the conference center, find the registration desk. This is the place where you’ll get your badge assigned, printed, and—if you don’t put all of those pens back right now—ultimately revoked. Those pens are for everyone.

You now face your first dilemma: How should you wear your badge? You could safety-pin it to your clothes, but you’re wearing nice clothes that you don’t want to damage with pinholes. You could wear it on the commemorative lanyard around your neck for the duration of the conference, because that’s totally neither annoying nor dorky. Or you could just keep the damn thing in your pocket, which practically guarantees you’ll forget it’s there and get stopped by security every time you try to enter the vendor fair. Probably the best approach is to walk around with the badge proudly aloft, yelling, “Registrant! Hey, registrant here!”

You’ll also get a stack of super-interesting conference proceedings, a hastily printed bright orange flyer advertising a room change for a talk you weren’t going to attend anyhow, an ad from the local tourism board that falsely presupposes you’ll be engaging in tourism, a spiral-bound booklet of late-breaking abstracts that’s less exciting than the term “late-breaking” would portend, and an insert reminding you to discard all of this and just use the website.

Once you have the schedule, grab a pen—just one—and start planning your agenda. In theory you could have done this before you left, but that would have required planning, so … no.

If it’s a small conference, you may only have to choose between attending the talk versus—well, not attending the talk. But if it’s a large conference, there may be several simultaneous seminars. Don’t worry about what you might be missing by selecting one over another. Many conferences now record sessions for later streaming on the web, and you know there’s no way you’ll deprioritize that when you get home.

Review what you’ve just circled: 9 a.m. breakfast, 10:30 a.m. coffee break, 12 p.m. lunch, 2:30 p.m. coffee break, 4:30 p.m. reception. Sounds like a full day! Better not schedule anything else.

Next, mosey over to the job board. Some conferences include a bulletin board where potential employers can advertise open positions. At first glance, the sheer number of posted flyers will give you hope about the burgeoning market for science careers. But read closer and you’ll see that they’re all unfunded, time-limited postdoctoral fellowships at small liberal arts colleges. So maybe “job” isn’t the right word. In fact, maybe it’s exactly the wrong word.

Nearby, you’ll find some sort of social media gimmick, such as a speech bubble proclaiming your excitement about the conference that they want attendees to take selfies with or a big poster telling everyone how to hashtag the conference on Instagram, Snapchat, and Tinder. This was probably put together by the conference’s social media intern; you can recognize this person because they will be the only one posting cheesy dispatches of enthusiasm about the conference on social media.

Once you’ve made it through all of this, you’re ready to attend an actual scientific session! The most important session to attend, for many reasons, is whichever one has your adviser as a presenter. Sit right in the front row, show that you’re taking notes, and remember that the end of the talk is the best time to throw roses onto the stage. Don’t embarrass yourself by throwing them early!

If it’s a talk given by someone in your field but not your boss, your attendance and adulation are less compulsory. Sit anywhere in the room, take notes if you wish, stay until the seminar ends, and fill your seat cushion with coffee farts.

If it’s a random talk by a random presenter on a random subject, come and go as you please. Have loud conversations in the back. Doodle. Juggle. Catch up on Netflix. As long as you remember to obscure your nametag, you’re in the clear. (Don’t actually do these things. And if you do, don’t say I told you to.)

Now that you’ve spent the day growing as a scientist, it’s time to network! Look on the conference schedule for something called a “mixer.” This is an opportunity for you to mingle with friends you already have, in the general proximity of other people. Before the mixer, review the online profiles of the most prominent scientists at the conference so that you don’t say “Hi, and you are … ?” to a Nobel laureate.

When the conference ends, it’s time to figure out what to do with all the stuff you’ve accumulated. Some people keep their badge and lanyard, which are useful if you ever need the saddest possible Christmas ornaments. Your spiral-bound conference proceedings should go onto a bookshelf for permanent preservation, because it’s super likely that, 12 years from now, you’ll care deeply about nostalgically perusing the abstracts. As for the piles of stress balls, pens, and LED flashlights with corporate logos, ask yourself whether they spark joy. Then keep them anyway.

You have now completed your first scientific conference! On the trip home, you can sit back, relax, and wonder why everyone on the plane is looking at you strangely—until you remember that you’re still wearing your badge and lanyard.

But be prepared: When you get back to work, your boss may ask you to publicly tell your colleagues what you learned. This is a way of verifying that they didn’t waste money sending you to the meeting.

Fear not, for you surely have spellbinding tales of scientific inspiration and networking successes! Tell them of your wondrous adventures! Tell them of your escapades and exploits in the seminar rooms of legend! Ask who among them has ever experienced such fulfillment!

Then ask whether any of them knows how to get reimbursed for that muffin.

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