8 tips for mastering your scientific conference

Conferences are not only one of the best parts of being a scientist, they are also crucial to build and keep up your oh-so-important network.  This is the time and place where your (inter)national colleagues get to see the face behind the name or - in case you just started - the new student of that famous professor. Since conference visits are a crucial and fun part of your scientific life, you should treasure them!

The tips below are based on my experiences going to (cognitive) neuroscience conferences. Be aware that some might not always apply to all the research areas and conferences out there. Nevertheless, I hope most of these tips are universally applicable.

1. Getting there

To be able to attend a conference you need to have something to present. Most professors will not let you go or pay for your expenses before you have some results. This means that unless you are willing to spend your own money, you are reliant on your research going well. If your professor will let you submit an abstract you are already halfway there. Depending on the field, your abstract can still get rejected, but in my experience this rarely happens if your data is solid. If funding is tight, choose your conferences wisely (I prefer smaller, more tailored conferences) and try to cut down on expenses.

Try to get your own travel money, even if your professor is willing to pay for your expenses. A travel grant makes you more flexible, it looks good on your CV, and sometimes it is just a matter of checking an “I want to be eligible” option. Most of the time though, you’ll have to put some work into it. Explaining why this conference is the best option for your next career move and getting your supervisors to write you recommendation letters, it can be a pain but it might work out!

2. Prepare

Before you leave, check the conference schedule to see who will be at the conference, and which sessions you want to attend. For the people that you admire, both professors and students/postdocs, you can prepare by browsing through their latest paper or check their websites so that you have an idea about what they’ve been doing lately.

Bring these articles with you on a tablet or computer so you can revisit if necessary. Take into account though that your battery might run down quickly. When you run into the people in question, tell them you liked their most recent paper or ask them a question about it. No one dislikes it when you are genuinely interested in their research!

3. Schedule meetings

If you really want to meet a specific person, email them to schedule a meeting in advance. Again, this does not need to be a professor; it can be just as enlightening and beneficial to meet with a fellow grad student or postdoc! Especially larger conferences can be pretty chaotic, making it challenging to speak to that one particular person.

Poster presentations can be very busy as well, so don’t count on being able to engage in a deep discussion with someone during their poster presentation. So, if you really want to meet that one person, plan in advance or try to catch someone at the beginning or the end of their poster presentation. Some conferences even offer after-poster drinks!

4. Wander around

It is of course very safe and fun to hang out with your lab mates during the conference. However, you can see them all the time at home as well. Try to drag yourself away from your crowd and wander around by yourself or choose one person to wander around with. You never know who you’ll run into! With the current advances in mobile and internet technology (though be aware that WiFi might be extremely poor) you will never lose your lab mates anyway. And otherwise you can just meet again the old-fashioned way: at a certain time at a certain place.

5. Keep track of the “informal program”

Many things that happen at conferences are not on the program. In my experience, the conference-organized parties and get-togethers are not always the most fun options. Keep your eyes and ears open to hear about informal program items such as parties and lunches or receptions with a certain theme. Often these things might have a certain special feel to it - especially when people start handing out tickets - but often they are pretty much open to anyone. If you happen to speak to the right people, that is.

6. Nail your (poster) presentation

Some things I find really helpful when preparing and doing my poster presentation:

  • I’ve gotten rid of adding hand-outs because I noticed people just grab them and you run out quickly. Instead, I now add a list where people can write their name email address to get the poster sent. This has three advantages: you know who is interested in your poster, you get to follow up with them, and your poster will end up on a folder in their computer and has a higher chance to be revisited than in a physical folder.
  • In line with the current technological developments, I also really like the extra option of putting your poster online and hanging a QR code that directly links to your poster so people can get the digital copy instantly. Business cards work well for some people as well!
  • Always have a 5-minute-max pitch ready. People want to see more posters in the allotted time frame and will get annoyed when your story is too extensive. You can always add more information in case the background of the visitor does not match up or when they ask questions (and don’t worry, they will!).
  • Don’t add too much text on the poster. I tend to pass by posters that have too much text. I do not come to a poster session to read papers, I come to engage with people about ongoing research.
  • Keep track of people visiting your poster and try to accommodate everyone as much as possible. For example, when someone keeps sticking around and you see another person patiently waiting, engage them in the discussion or ask them whether you can guide them through.
  • In line with what I’ve written before: when you really want someone specific to visit your poster, let them know in advance or schedule a meeting with them separate of the poster session to tell them about your research!

For how to design your poster, you can check these or these tips. And if you are lucky enough to get an oral presentation (though there are pros and cons to either presentation type), please check this website!

7. Make use of social media

I have recently started live tweeting during conferences and I must say I like it and it brought me a lot (though they now control it at certain conferences). It helps you to better catch interesting snapshots and take-home messages in interesting talks, and forces you to get through boring talks so you’ll have something to say about them. Sometimes the latter even turn out more interesting than you expected them to.

On top of that, you get noticed by other conference tweeters and bloggers, and perhaps journalists and other interested people as well. Sometimes even people in your field interested in hiring people. Again, be careful that your battery does not run out before the end of the day or make sure you bring your charger!

8. Some practicalities

  •  Dress comfortably. Bring layers for outside and A/C rooms and wear (or bring) comfortable shoes, you’ll need them! I always try to dress a bit more formal when presenting, but opinions do differ about formality at conferences.
  • Get a place to sleep as close to the venue as possible so you can sneak out during a dull moment in the program to get some critical nap time (cause even if you don’t go to all the parties, you’ll be exhausted every day!). AirBnB is often a good bet to find something affordable. Sharing a house with colleagues is a very nice option as well.
  • Make sure your name badge is always clearly visible and does not get stuck at an awkward place. They tend to turn around or get strangled and yes: people do look at your badge to identify who you are and where you’re from!

And most of all: enjoy it while it lasts! Towards the end of the conference you’ll feel more exhausted, but it’s absolutely worth it to attend both daytime and evening events. I promise you won’t regret it!