The Scientific Conference Survival Guide

General

By: Amanda White, Research Technologist in the Department of Psychiatry

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Image credit: Marianne Weiss (Wikimedia Commons)

Scientific conferences are an important way to learn about the latest developments in your field and to meet people who can help you advance your career. They are annual meetings organized by professional societies that include poster presentations, oral presentations, and social events. Conferences often take place in major cities (like San Diego, Washington DC, or Chicago), though the location of each conference usually changes from year to year. Conference attendees include professors, medical doctors, industry representatives, graduate students, and occasionally undergraduate students.

Conferences  can be a lot of fun, but they can also be intimidating and overwhelming! I attended my first two conferences this year – Animal Behavior Society (ABS) in August and Society for Neuroscience (SfN) in November.

Here are a few tips and tricks that I hope can help you survive (and thrive) at a scientific conference:

Before the conference

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Image credit: Rorybowman (Wikimedia Commons)

Make a plan of attack. The conference’s website will typically post the final schedule about a month in advance.  Pick out talks that sound interesting and create a schedule for each day. SfN had a nice phone app for scheduling – I was able to search the sessions by time and topic and built a schedule for myself. The app buzzed me whenever a talk I was interested in was about to start.

It’s also a good idea to check out the poster sessions to see if there’s anybody you’d like to talk to. Poster sessions are a great opportunity for casual networking, but bear in mind that the poster might be presented by a graduate student and not the PI of the lab. This doesn’t mean that you can’t network with PIs! If you’d like to speak with the PI, you can always email them during or after the conference to say that you saw a poster from their lab and liked their work. It’s also fun to browse the poster sessions when you’re at the conference; you never know when something interesting might catch your eye.

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Packing your own snacks is cheaper and faster than buying lunch everyday. Image credit: AnotherLunch.com

Pack snacks. Food options at a conference can be pricey – I once paid $9 for a pre-packaged ham and cheese sandwich in the convention center. The cost of eating at outside restaurants can also add up quickly. You may want to pack granola bars, fruit, or other snacks for lunch. In addition to saving money, you will also save time by not having to wait in line to order food.

Assemble your outfits. Most people dress “business casual” at conferences. There’s a lot of variability, though – attendees can be spotted wearing anything from shorts and t-shirts to tailored suits. Most importantly, wear comfy shoes! ABS 2014 took place at Princeton University, and I spent a lot of time walking between the campus buildings. SfN 2014 took place in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C., which is a whopping 2.3 million square feet in area. Also, sometimes the unexpected happens and you find yourself having to climb three steep flights of an out-of-service escalator.

At the conference

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Image credit: copyleft (Wikimedia Commons)

Relax and don’t burn yourself out. A conference is a marathon, not a sprint, so be careful not to burn yourself out. I think it’s helpful to treat your schedule as a suggestion, especially if you tend to cram it full like I do. Your brain can only handle so much information at a time, and it won’t do you any favors if you attend 10 talks in one day but can’t remember anything about them. I found it helpful to take time in the middle of each day to jot down some thoughts I had during the talks or poster sessions. This will help you remember what you learned and will help you generate some topics of discussion for when you work up the courage to talk to that PI!

Acquire swag. Conferences are an excellent place to acquire all sorts of knick-knacks (as well as bags to stuff it all into). Industry representatives at a conference like SfN may offer free samples of their products. Also keep your eyes peeled for pens, USBs, coffee mugs, keychains, and even bottle openers. And, of course, you’ll get an extremely stylish lanyard that you get to wear all through the conference.

Have fun! Sometimes it can be hard to connect with people outside of science who don’t understand why you get so excited about hyena social structures, theoretical molecular modeling, or fluorophore colocalization. Everyone at a conference is as excited about science as you are, and being in that environment can be energizing and inspiring.

After the conference

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E-mail your new contacts within a week of the conference. Image credit: Antonangelo De Martini (Flickr)

Solidify the contacts that you made. Send a follow-up email to your newly-forged contacts within a week of returning from the conference. This will allow you to confirm that you have their correct contact information and will help both of you remember one another. If there’s a researcher that you couldn’t meet up with during the conference, reach out and share your thoughts or questions on their work.

Talk to your labmates. This will help you process the glut of information you’ve recently ingested so that you can head back into the lab and integrate it into your work. It can also get you and your labmates thinking about where your work fits in with the rest of the field, additional research questions that you could pursue, and new methodologies.

Thank you to all the professors and graduate students who shared some of these tips with me, and who made my first two conference trips amazing and successful. Happy conferencing!

Screen Shot 2013-12-14 at 11.54.13 PMAmanda White is a research technologist in the Department of Psychiatry, where she studies suicidality with Dr. Ahmad Hameed and childhood anxiety with Dr. Lidija Petrovic-Dovat. Amanda enjoys poetry, football, and baking.

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