Have you ever wondered where it is that scientists and engineers actually present the posters and PowerPoints they're working on all the time? If you're in a STEM field, you've probably heard people mention "conferences" or "technical meetings" and how important they are. But what's the big deal?
With all the different types and sizes, and all the different events and activities offered, these meetings can actually be pretty overwhelming or, at times, downright intimidating (even if you've already been to one or two!). Here are some thoughts on just what a science conference is in the first place, and what you can do before, during, and after the meeting to make the most of your time (and money). Add your advice in the comments!
So...what actually goes on at one of these things?
A science conference is kind of like your stereotypical high school cafeteria...
It's where you start to build, and define, your reputation (in the scientific community). You make a bunch of new friends (colleagues/collaborators). Everyone checks out what the popular kids (old timers who have already made a name for themselves) are doing (researching). And, if you're lucky, you might even catch a fight or two (a debate over controversial data, hasty conclusions, or an outdated method, for example).
Really though, the whole point of a meeting is to talk about new science. It's the perfect place to find out what the 'cutting edge' research is in your field. In other words, this is where those 'knowledge gaps' your adviser is always talking about can be found. Most of the time, the presentations and posters include data or methods that haven't even been published yet! And you get the first look.
Sometimes, there are also special sessions that cover undergraduate research options, graduate research fellowship information, grant writing, or employment opportunities, in addition to career development workshops and seminars with tips to improve your research presentations.
Location: They're usually held at a large convention center or hotel, and hosted by an organization that specializes in a scientific field, like the International Association of Computer Science and Information Technology, the American Society for Mass Spectrometry, or the International Permafrost Association, for example. Some may be held in Indianapolis, IN and others in Sydney, Australia. Some organizations even try to switch the location each year to keep things exciting. :)
Host: The organization hosting the conference may be national or international, large or small, and focus on an entire field like chemistry or mechanical engineering, or be exclusively devoted to a specific field like those who study a single type of microbe or a certain animal behavior that follows a cycle or rhythm, for example.
Size: Some meetings may have only a few hundred attendees, while others can have upwards of 30,000! Who actually goes to these things? Students (at both the undergraduate and graduate levels), university professors, invited speakers, industry or government researchers, corporate sponsors or vendors, and even your occasional science aficionado or enthusiastic family member.
The general agenda varies of course, but you can probably count on at least four things:
1) 'keynote address' or 'plenary' lecture where one of the big wigs in the field talks about their most recent amazing science
2) poster sessions, sometimes broken up into one specifically for undergraduate students and another for everyone else, and organized by topic area
3) oral sessions, or seminars, usually in the form of PowerPoint presentations
4) and, the part that isn't always made obvious in the program, some kind of social event!
Sounds great, right? All I have to do is show up to this thing, and I get to meet a whole bunch of people, learn some cool stuff, and even drink a beer or two after the day is over?
Yep! Totally true. But, there are a couple caveats I feel I should mention.
Mentally and physically taxing: These conferences try to fit as much science as possible into as little time as possible. They usually span a few days to a week, starting around 7:00 am and lasting until the wee hours of the night (if you decide to try and make it to that social event). Also, you're not just staying up all day doing nothing. You're mentally engaged for that entire time; taking notes, asking questions, developing research questions, evaluating methods used in an experiment, meeting with potential collaborators or future employers, etc.
If it's one of the larger conferences at one of those big convention centers, you can also expect to walk miles in-between seminars and workshops, and stand for hours at poster sessions each day. The average poster session is 2-4 hours. Because of all this, it's not uncommon for people to return home sick--you may have traveled in an airplane to get there and back, probably stayed in a hotel, and you were inside a building all day surrounded by hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people. It's easy to pick up a bug.
Cost: If you want to present at the conference, you almost always have to be a member of the host organization first. This usually means an annual fee of some kind, BUT, students often get a discounted rate (yay!), and being a part of a professional society has many other really great benefits on top of the access to their annual conference. However, in addition to the membership fee to the organization, there is usually a registration charge for the conference itself--which gets you into the building and sessions--and sometimes even an abstract submission fee, assessed when you 'apply' to present your research. Finally, don't forget about first getting to the conference and feeding yourself while you're there. Airfare and meals (downtown in a large city) add up quickly.
But, hey! There are a lot of things that you can do to try and avoid these potential deal-breakers, and really get the most out of your conference experience.
Before the Conference
1. Apply for travel awards/funding.
There's almost always some kind of travel award offered by the host organization specifically for their annual conference, so check the conference website first. You'll probably have to apply for the funding, which usually requires a short essay or description of what you will be presenting. Universities also sometimes offer travel awards through the graduate school, financial aid offices, or individual departments, so ask your adviser or departmental secretary too.
Also, check the conference website for volunteer/work opportunities. Sometimes, in exchange for working the registration desk, directing people to correct meeting rooms, etc for 6-8 hours while you're there at the conference, the host organization will pay for your registration or abstract fees!
2. Read the program, and make a plan.
Every conference prints, and makes available online or through an app, a program that lists all the events, places, and times for everything that will happen at the meeting. It sounds a bit overkill, but trust me, you will want to plan every hour of every day before you even start packing. Take a look at a map too, and account for travel time between activities. Some events may even be in a different building with a shuttle ride in-between.
A lot of the time now, conferences will have online planners that can sync to your calendar making it a lot easier to remember your schedule. As you're reviewing the program, choose presentations and posters that sound like they may line up with your research. If you run into schedule conflicts, check to see if the host organization offers webcasts of the oral presentations or has PDFs of the posters online, so that you can go back later and see what you missed. Keep a look out for the free food and coffee too! It may be listed as 'refreshments,' 'hospitality,' or something of that nature.
3. Update your resume, and print some business cards.
Think it's too weird to have a business card already? Not if you're already going to conferences! You are going to meet a lot of new people at these meetings, and it's just easier (but also looks more professional) to hand them your business card to contact you in the future, instead of scribbling down your name and email in barely legible handwriting on a piece of notebook paper. Also, the poster sessions sometimes have envelopes pinned up next to the poster where you can leave a business card asking them to send you a print of their poster. This is usually how they ask you to do it anyway because, remember, a lot of this data is unpublished, and may even contain IP, so taking pictures is usually a big no no.
As for your resume, if you think you're going to be meeting potential employers, it never hurts to have a few copies handy in case someone asks, but a lot of the time, they won't have anywhere to put it. In the case that you do pass it off, make sure it's updated, and that it targets a fairly broad audience. Otherwise, get their business card, and send a copy via email after you've had a chance to research the company and tailor your resume to the position you're interested in.
4. Practice your 'elevator speech'.
You may have heard of this kind of thing in regards to employment--you're on the elevator at a big company and you're standing next to the CEO, what can you say to her in the next 1-2 minutes that will land you that promotion you've been wanting? An 'elevator speech' can be used almost anywhere though. And in science, this generally means you have a 3-5 sentence summary of who you are and what you're interested in, but in the most memorable way possible. At a conference, everyone's schedule is so packed, the conversations are usually very short and to-the-point. If you're meeting someone for the first time, you want to be sure to make a good impression, and you want them to remember you. Check out here and here for some tips!
5. Make sure to pack these!
- Comfy shoes; you'll be walking a lot! Make sure to break in those new dress shoes before the first day of the conference (or bring a few band-aids).
- Snacks; food is usually super overpriced, or scarce, so I always try and fit some snacks into my luggage wherever I can.
- Layers; it always amazes me just how cold they can get those huge exhibition halls to be, especially in the summer time.
- Small notepad; something that can easily fit in whatever bag you're going to have with you each day (purse, backpack, laptop bag, etc).
- Advil/allergy medicine; having a headache or feeling like you have to sneeze every few minutes during an important seminar is pretty much the worst thing ever.
- And, don't forget your poster! Poster tubes are definitely a carry-on item by the way. ;)
During the Conference
1. Don't JUST give them your 'elevator speech'.
It's important to know what you're going to say, and to try and be memorable when saying it, but the easiest way to do that is to connect with whomever you're talking to. Try and make them feel comfortable talking to you; like you've known them for years! Make eye contact, and smile. Ask them about their research, and what they've thought about the conference so far. Then, impress them with your 1-2 minute overview, hand them a business card, tell them to stop by your poster and that you'll be in touch after the meeting, and you're golden!
2. Write down everything.
Seriously, everything. Anyone you gave your business card or resume to, anyone interested in your poster or talk, and anyone you went to see present their research--write down their names, where they work, a few lines about what you talked about with them, and if you said you would get back to them. Definitely take notes during the oral and poster sessions too, and write down any questions that come to mind so you can ask at the end or in an email later on. Keep track of anything you wanted to go to but had to miss, too. You can check the conference website or look up the authors later to see if their poster or talk has been posted online. These things are usually about a week long and I don't know too many people who can remember that much information.
3. Approach the big wigs.
These are the scientists who have been in the field for a long time, racked up some ridiculous number of publications, and have research groups with more people than are in your extended family. Sometimes, they seem really intimidating, but most of the time, they're totally not! They're at this meeting for the same reason you are! Be confident, and don't be afraid to introduce yourself and ask some questions. Think of those questions beforehand though, and have your notebook out and ready to jot down a note or two. It probably wouldn't hurt to do a quick Google search for their CV either, so you know a bit about their background and interests.
4. Don't skip the social events.
At the end of the day, you may be exhausted, but if there is a group of people planning to go out for dinner and drinks, go along! If there's some kind of event planned as part of the program, definitely go to that (and don't forget to look for the free stuff!).
This is especially true for an international conference. Try and squeeze in some time to see the sights, eat the local food, and meet a few people. The social events are a totally different atmosphere for you to interact with your colleagues, so take advantage of them. Usually, everyone relaxes a little bit, and you can have a more detailed and candid conversation. It also helps you unwind after a full day of science-ing. :)
After the Conference
1. Summarize and save.
After you've returned home and had a night to recover, take a minute to review the past few days and write down the things that stood out to you most. It could be a new or interesting method/instrument, and idea for a future research project, or some notes about a really great presentation. Write it down (or type it up), and save it somewhere you can reference later.
2. Finally, don't forget to email everyone!
You brought your notebook, wrote down everyone you talked to and what you talked about; now, all that's left to do is follow up with everybody. It will definitely take a significant chunk out of your Monday routine, but take the time to reach out to everyone you spoke with. It's a great way to start building bridges with potential collaborators or mentors. If someone stopped by your poster and left a business card, you could forward them a copy of your findings if you want to. You spoke with a potential employer about an opening at their company? Polish that cover letter and send it off! Talked to a sales rep at the expo about that new fancy instrument? Thank them for the information and request a quote. Made a new friend at the social event? Drop them a quick line to broaden your network. Making a few more connections never hurts, and you never really know where your research may take you in the future, so why not? :)
I know I'm forgetting a whole bunch of other tips and tricks...help me out! What advice do you have for new conference goers?
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
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Science Conference Dos and Don'ts
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