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10 Tips for grad students to make the most of a scientific conference

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Presenting research at the International Marine Conservation Congress in Victoria, BC.

Presenting research at the International Marine Conservation Congress in Victoria, BC (2011).

I just returned from the Society for Conservation Biology’s International Congress for Conservation Biology. It was a great meeting, and I learned a lot. It also marked a milestone for me, as although I am just starting the 3rd year of my Ph.D.,  the ICCB was the 20th scientific conference I’ve attended. Inspired by this milestone, by Josh Drew’s recent post on the subject, and by the excellent graduate student networking workshop held at the ICCB, I wanted to share my tips and tricks for graduate students to get the most out of a conference

Please note that while these tips have served me well and are generally applicable to professional meetings in the sciences, they may not be appropriate for every field or every person’s goals for a conference.  Additionally, some may be considered quite basic, but I assure you that I’ve met people (particularly graduate students attending a conference for a first time) who don’t know them. I welcome a discussion in the comments.

1) If you are a graduate student in the sciences, you should try to attend scientific conferences (or at least one). Conferences are a great place to get feedback on your research from leaders in your field as well as other graduate students, and a great way to learn some emerging methods in your field. They’re also great for networking and building a group of contacts that you can use for advice in the future.  Least importantly, conferences are a lot of fun. Few graduate students attend as many conferences as I do, but entirely too many don’t attend any conferences. The connections I’ve made at conferences have resulted in multiple professional leadership roles, 2 publications (so far), tips for 3 small research grants, and numerous travel opportunities. Regardless of your research project, there is a conference where presenting it would be appropriate and welcome. 

2) Read ahead, e-mail ahead, and plan ahead to make sure you don’t miss anything at the conference you’re attending. Conferences release a schedule of all the talks and presenters weeks to months before the meeting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “Oh, man, I didn’t know that talk was happening” or “Oh, man, I didn’t know he/she was at the meeting!” This is easy to do with large meeting with huge programs and multiple concurrent talks. I always look over the schedule in advance to make sure I identify can’t-miss talks and workshops, as well as people I want to make sure that I meet up with. If there’s a fellow conference attendee that you want to make sure to meet while you’re there, e-mail them in advance, introduce yourself, and try to pick a day to meet for lunch or coffee.

3) If your conference has concurrent sessions, it’s ok to move between rooms. Conference sessions and symposia are often scheduled in 1.5-2 hour blocks consisting of a series of 15 minute talks. While it’s considered somewhat rude to leave in the middle of someone’s talk, it’s totally ok to leave in between talks to attend one in another room (typically during the question and answer portion of a talk) . If you’re going to do that, try to avoid sitting in the middle of a row or near the front of the room, though, to minimize the disruption associated with leaving. Factor this in during your “plan ahead” phase.

4) Prepare an “elevator speech”. I was always taught that every student should have a 30 second version of a speech explaining their research, as “so what do you do?” is about the most common question you’ll get at conferences. You look much more professional if you don’t  have to stumble to answer that question. Others recommend that every student should have a 30 second, 2 minute, 15 minute, and 45 minute version of a speech explaining their research.

5) Don’t eat alone. Lunchtime, dinnertime, and snack breaks are a great time to network. If there’s someone you’ve been trying to meet with, see if you can go with them (or a group they’re in) to lunch. If you don’t know anyone at the meeting, ask to join the first group you find that’s headed to eat somewhere fun. I’ve met good friends and very useful professional contacts by joining random groups of people for lunch or dinner. Even if their expertise ends up being completely outside of your research interests, consider that meal a good opportunity to practice your elevator speech, as well as a way to meet different people. The only issue I’ve ever had doing this is that groups of grown-ups (the catch-all technical term for experienced senior scientists who are no longer graduate students) often eat at restaurants outside of a student budget. This can be resolved by getting something small at the fancy restaurant and grabbing a bite of fast food afterwards.

6) You should have business cards. Seriously. They may seem old fashioned, but they’re really important. You should have business cards featuring your name, your e-mail address, your phone number, your University, and, if possible, a brief statement about your research interests. When you’re meeting with people, it’s very helpful to be able to exchange contact information easily without having to write it down on cocktail napkins (I’ve had people try to do this with me). If your University doesn’t make business cards for students, you can purchase about eleventy billion of them for the cost of a ramen noodle dinner from sites like VistaPrint.

7) Don’t be afraid to approach senior/famous scientists. Every famous scientist in your field was once a graduate student and they all remember what it’s like. If a book someone wrote inspired you to join the field, tell them. If you want to get feedback on your research from the person who founded your discipline, ask.

8) Look for people who look like they don’t know anybody. During social events and breaks, look for people who look like they don’t know anybody there,  introduce yourself, and invite them to join you. These people are usually easy to spot and are often first time conference attendees. If you’re also a first time conference attendee, these are great people to meet because they’re in the same boat as you are. If you’re an experienced attendee, welcoming new members in this way is a nice thing to do.

9) Have a twitter account. Many scientific conferences have an active community of live-tweeters, which include both graduate students and experienced scientists. If you’re active on twitter, it gives you instant access to this community, which is both helpful for professional development (before after and during the conference) as well as a lot of fun.

A "tweetup" of the live-tweeters at the 2013 Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists

A “tweetup” of the live-tweeters at the 2013 Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists

10) Conferences can be affordable, but this requires that you plan ahead. While conference travel can unfortunately be prohibitively expensive, there are some simple tips and tricks to help. If your lab doesn’t have conference funding available, sometimes your department will. The graduate school or your student government can also help. Many conferences have internal student travel awards. You can also sometimes get reduced rate registration by volunteering at the conference, and can save money by sharing a hotel room with other graduate students (my record is 5 in a room, it worked out to about $25 each per night).