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How to get the most out of a scientific conference
Scientific conferences are a great opportunity to meet new people, network, present your research and learn about other research, both in and out of your immediate field. However, whether you are attending a conference for the first time or have been to multiple conferences, with so much happening, they can be overwhelming. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of a conference.
1. Prepare in advance
There is nothing worse than going to a conference and realising you missed something critical to your interests. Make some time before an upcoming conference to go through the abstracts, talks and exhibitor list and create a schedule. Either print out your schedule or use the event app to keep yourself organised and make sure you don’t miss anything.
If you are an undergraduate or early graduate student, you may still be discovering what you are interested in. You should consider attending talks and visiting posters on a wide variety of topics to help you figure out where your passions lie. As a postdoc or assistant professor, it may be best to be more focussed on your research topic and use the conference to get a better understanding of what is going on in your field of research. Use the meeting planner to find others using your technique and attend their seminars and posters. However, going to seminars and posters outside your field may inspire new collaborative ideas.
Include time in your schedule to unwind and socialise. Don’t try to attend as many talks and poster sessions as you can fit in, as you will be so exhausted that you won’t be able to focus on the talks and posters most important to you.
2. Talk to your colleagues about their schedules
See what your friends or colleagues have included in their schedules and if they have any recommendations. There may be something that interests you, or something different that you’d like to find out more about.
While at the conference, create instant messaging groups with colleagues to share with each other any posters worth visiting or interesting talks that are happening.
3. If you are presenting a poster, practice!
Practice your poster presentation in front of your advisor and colleagues, ensuring you leave yourself enough time to make changes. This will help you feel more confident on the day and be prepared for any questions that the audience may ask you. Aim to have a short walkthrough of your research that takes 5 minutes or less.
Remember, when presenting your poster, you may be unknowingly convincing a future publication reviewer!
4. Talk to vendors
A big meeting where all vendors are in one place is a great opportunity to see and compare equipment. Having an overview over new assays, instruments and reagents gives you an edge later in your career. Vendors exhibiting at conferences can answer queries you have about your experiments, tell you about a new product or even have job opportunities that appeal to you. Use this as a chance to not only find out about the latest equipment and software, but also to connect with potential employers and find out about job openings.
5. Think comfort
As you are likely to be on your feet for most of the day, it is important to wear comfortable shoes and pack lightly to avoid your feet and back being in agony after the long days. Bring plenty of snacks and water – options are often limited at the conference venue and queues can be long. Finally, wear layers. Some lecture theatres may be cold whereas other areas of conference venues may be warm. Layers make it easy to cool down or warm up.
6. Prepare your elevator pitch
Prepare one or two sentences for when anyone asks who you are and what your research involves. This should succinctly summarise what you do so that anyone who asks has an overview, and can ask questions to find out more.
Use any free time you have during the conference to network. Search the conference hashtag on Twitter and see what comes up – you may find out about an interesting event or topic that people are talking about. Talk to people during coffee breaks - you never know, you may learn something relevant to your research or meet a potential collaborator.
If you are attending with your mentor, ask to be introduced to other key players in your field. This can work particularly well during poster sessions and social events.
If you are looking for a postdoc position, try to reach out to the people you’re interested in working with to arrange interviews during the meeting. Many people in neuroscience attend large conferences like the Society for Neuroscience and you could save a lot of travel expenses by meeting with them at an event.
8. Attend conference social events
Attend social events. These are your chance to network with people in a more relaxed setting. Young scientist events are also great to attend for advice on various topics, including how to pursue specific careers, how to apply for funding and getting a good work/life balance.
9. Take notes
Make notes during talks and poster sessions and write down three take-home messages after each talk. Also record any follow-ups you want to do when you return from the conference, to help jog your memory.
When you are back from the conference, present any key breakthroughs or points of interest to your colleagues to share what you learnt.
The week following the conference, contact people you met via a follow-up email or phone call. If you went to a great talk, or have any questions following a talk or seminar that you didn’t ask during the conference, contact the speaker. They will appreciate your feedback and interest in their research.
If you spoke to any vendors about equipment or a job, check the emails they have sent you and get in touch with them to show you are interested.
When travelling to conferences in different cities or countries, make time to relax and see the sights of the city you’re in. To help you plan your free time and get around the city easily, check out our restaurant guides and city guides that we release for big events here.
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