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


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).


  1. Sarah · August 21, 2013

    These tips are dead on. I think the biggest hurdle was approaching other researchers with decades of experience. It was terrifying at first, but you realize they are just as interested in learning about your topic as your are theirs. The tip on planning ahead is another good one. Go through that program and map out your days to get the most of it.

    As for funding, look into awards far in advance. Sometimes you need to apply for the funding before the trip, rather than just getting reimbursed afterward.

  2. John Bruno · August 21, 2013

    Great advice David. One big thing I’d second is don’t just hang with your friends: move our of your comfort zone and introduce yourself to people. NETWORK. Yes, it is painful (for us introverts) but is important. I really push my students to do this and it can be hard sometimes to break up the little Bruno Lab cluster. I also quiz them about whom them met, etc.

  3. Cliff Hutt · August 21, 2013

    I’d add “Submit an abstract for a poster or talk, even if you only have preliminary data.” Presenting your work is a great way to get feedback and make yourself visible to other scientists. Also, a lot of conference travel support funds are only available to those that are presenting, or if not required it certainly makes you more competitive.

  4. Chris Harrod · August 21, 2013

    Try and write down a question for each talk – if you are felling brave, ask a question too.

  5. Tobey Curtis · August 21, 2013

    Good advice. Professional meetings have been key in my career, and I highly recommend regular attendance for grad students (and prospective grad students!). I actually first connected with both my MSc and PhD advisers at conferences, and I’ve made a number of life-long friendships and new collaborations.

    An additional key tip that I would recommend for first-timers is simple: LISTEN. In the past, I’ve seen some students talk, talk, talk about themselves, their experience, their knowledge, etc. in an attempt to impress other students or potential professors. I always try to operate under the assumption that most people attending the conference are smarter than I am (and it’s usually true). Even if you have a lot of impressive skills, experience, or knowledge, most scientists are good BS-detectors, and can get turned off by being talked AT too much. Try listening more than talking. Absorb as much info as you can, and try to ask good questions. Buying someone a beer, asking a thoughtful question, and intently listening to the reply can make a much better impression on people.

  6. Great article – I would suggest also, if there are opportunities be a volunteer, do it. Not only do you usually get a big conference discount, but you get to meet people (other volunteers and senior scientists). If you are a good volunteer too – helpful and professional – people remember. Personally I’ve seen several ex-volunteers get good references that have made the difference between getting a PhD position/teaching assistantship/fellowship etc., and not getting one.

    Also – “don’t be a dick”. Conversely, from personal experience, conference organizers keep a list of people who had temper tantrums for not getting accepted, who didn’t show up for their presentation/volunteer slot, who behave inappropriately and so on. They go to the back of the queue when travel grants, presentation slots etc are available. Some of these lists go back years… Even famous senior scientists have been rejected from consideration for awards, prestigious plenary slots, or grants, because of bad and unprofessional behavior at meetings.

    But conversely, being polite, helpful and professional makes a difference. At a recent conference, a participant came just over the wire for a travel grant, but sent a letter that was so gracious, mature and professional that everyone remembered. So when grant recipients dropped out at the last minute, they were at the top of everyone’s shortlist/waitlist and they got funded.

  7. Hmmm – just to tweak the comment by Cliff Hut – certainly submit preliminary data for a poster, but make sure the submitted abstract does have data. Comments like “data/results will be discussed” can be the kiss of death for your submitted abstract, and it looks unprofessional. Continuous updates of ongoing projects can also get you marked down. some scientists are infamous for submitting yet another annual map of species records. Or the same presentation – there are some presentations that I see trotted out at nearly every conference I go to. It gets you a reputation as being a “one trick pony”. Try to do something new and different each time. Also have a conclusion – I hate seeing a conclusion that “more research is needed” – it looks sloppy and needy. Let’s just take it as read that a good scientist will always think of additional research and clarification/validation that needs doing.

  8. Peter Nelson · August 21, 2013

    Also, don’t dress like a slob. Looking like one won’t get you mistaken for a crusty field scientist. However you might rail against it, if you look like you should be taken seriously, you will be (at least until you open your mouth). 😉

    Take it from someone who packs his flip-flops and surf trunks in his computer bag and still struggles to “look like a grown-up.”

    • cbangley · August 21, 2013

      At the Joint Meeting of Icthyologists and Herpetologists, you can usually pick out the older herpetologists by their beards and t-shirts with wizards on them.

    • Peter Nelson · August 21, 2013

      True…when you’re genuinely old and crusty, you can dress however you darn well please!

    • David Shiffman · August 21, 2013

      I only wear my finest fish print Hawaiian shirts

  9. Loic Jullion · August 22, 2013

    Print A4 copies of your poster. There are thousands of posters during big conferences. It is less easy to forget a poster for someone when they actually have something to remind them of your work once the conference is over. A poster has your contact details, affiliation. It is like a fancy business card

  10. Raeanne Miller (@RaeGMiller) · August 22, 2013

    I agree! Eminent scientists aren’t that scary once you speak to them. At the SICB annual meeting in 2012 I sat right behind my ‘science hero’ (at least on one chapter of my thesis) who’d written a really important book in my field. When someone was having ‘laptop issues’ and there was a break, I tapped him on the shoulder and introduced myself. After the session, he suggested we go and have lunch and talk a bit more. I’m glad I had the guts to say hello, as it’s been one of the best conference experiences I’ve had!

  11. Tara Dolan (@TaraEDolan) · August 22, 2013

    It may seem obvious, but talk to people you don’t know. Resist the temptation to only hang out with your friends. Strike up conversations with other conference goers. You never know who you might meet!

  12. Demian Ebert (@DemianEbert) · August 22, 2013

    In general, students (at any level) should take advantage of the volunteer opportunities to both reduce costs and meet people. That science hero of yours has to check in at registration just like everyone else and you can consider this it a pre-made ice-breaker that will let you follow-up more comfortably later.

    As someone else mentioned, both good and bad volunteers are remembered. Showing up for the 0700 shift at the registration table after the poster social the night before shows dedication and professionalism as does being flexible, taking on extra shifts, and generally helping out. I have seen student volunteers move into leadership positions in their student subunits of American Fisheries Society chapters, and eventually into leadership roles with the chapter.

    Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but ask questions that prove you were paying attention. I’ve seen people take time to ask about methods and admit they came in late to the presentation. I like to ask bigger picture questions about how someone’s research results may apply to a larger issue becuase I like to see where they are headed and how their project fits. Feel free to follow-up later with a presenter if you didn’t have time or didn’t feel comfortable asking in a session. I carry a little notebook for writing down questions, important bits of information, contact information, etc.

    Finally, follow-up with those people you met. We all meet lots of people at conferences. I work for a private consulting firm and the students who make lasting impressions are the ones who follow-up afterwards.

    • David Shiffman · August 23, 2013

      Following up is a VERY important point. I try to do it each night of the conference before I go to sleep (if it’s just a quick question), or within a week or two (if it’s a more involved question)

  13. Fred Whiteman @ecologyamazon · August 22, 2013

    Something I learned unexpectedly – go on field trips when you can. They cost extra and mean coming early or staying late. But, they’re a great opportunity to network in a less formal setting. Plus they’re really fun!

    • David Shiffman · August 23, 2013

      I rarely get the opportunity to do this (I can only get away for a certain number of days,) and I’m always disappointed when I miss them.

  14. Caroline Williams · August 23, 2013

    A tip that is coming in handy for me now as I transition towards a faculty role – don’t neglect building relationships with fellow graduate students (particularly good ones!) as well as networking with leaders in the field. Those graduate students in your cohort will be your future network and will make great future collaborators!

  15. Jeff · August 23, 2013

    Just found this blog today thanks to someone sharing this link. Awesome tips. The Twitter thing can be huge. I am have been trying to push more people towards embracing it. Will pass these along. Thanks guys!

  16. Randy Swaty · August 23, 2013

    Nice contribution! I learned something at a recent Ecological Society of America conference-plan a “Over beer discussion time” if you have a presentation or poster. Make it casual, and easy to walk to. If one person shows up I’d consider it a success!

  17. Amartya Saha · August 27, 2013

    Posters or talks ? Both have pros and cons, still I prefer posters as they allow for a lot more one-on one (or one-many) discussions, while talks can be missed due to concurrent sessions, and the 2 minute QA session usually do not afford involved discussions. Loic’s suggestion of A4 poster printouts is a good one.

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