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Navigating and Networking at Scientific Conferences August 19, 2013

by Stuart Red, Fourth Year Ph.D. graduate student in the Neuroscience program

At some point in your scientific career, you will attend your first  conference.  As you progress through graduate school your strategies at conferences will improve and change according to your current goals.  Preparation for conferences can be nerve wrecking and regardless of the amount of  planning undertaken prior to arrival, chaos often ensues the moment you arrive.  Although each conference is unique with differences based on specific field, conference size, location , etc, there are some common ideas to keep in mind and multiple resources currently available to guide students through the madness of a conference.

After a little reading and a bit of introspection, I have come up with a few basic suggestions and ideas related to attending scientific conferences:

Before the conference.

Before attending the conference, you will obviously need to select which conference you want to attend.  For this, your best resource is likely your PI, Post-Docs and senior grad students in the lab.  These individuals should be able to point out the most relevant conferences and will also serve as great resources for branching out and meeting people from other labs while at the conference.

Poster or oral presentation?

In general if this is your first meeting, then a poster is often the best choice as you are likely only just becoming familiar with the material. The limited time scope of an oral presentation may be detrimental to your success.  Beyond this, you must also consider the current state of your project as well as the complexity of what you will be presenting.  If the project has straightforward conclusions that you can present in the 10-15 minutes typically allotted to a speaker, then this is often the best way to showcase the work.  However, if you are still developing the project and are looking for more in depth feedback about where to take the project then a poster is likely the best choice.

Preparing the presentation:

Due to the limited size and scope of this blog, I will not attempt to lay out the appropriate steps to creating an effective scientific presentation, but instead I provide some useful links at the end.  Obviously, the key to a successful presentation is practice.   Through my interactions with other scientists, one suggestion that has really made an impression on me is to encourage those individuals viewing your practice presentations to be overly critical almost to the level of being harsh.  This will allow you to be prepared for whatever kind of questions might come during a conference. Once you have sufficiently prepared your presentation you should be able to adapt to any changes, such as a shortened presentation or a failed projector.

Choosing which talks to attend at the conference:

This task can be quite painstaking for large conferences with multiple talks going on simultaneously.  You will have to figure out what is reasonable and most important to you.  I would suggest trying to keep in mind the current stage of your career (assuming you are not constantly doing this!).  While it is always great to see the big names in your general field give talks, it may be more realistic and useful to see the poster of someone who is working on a  similar project and will be potentially more approachable.  Above all, make realistic and adaptable plans.

During the conference:

Ok, now the big day has come and you must travel to the conference.  Obviously there are some basic human needs to keep in mind as you arrive at the conference and throughout: eating, sleeping, coffee, etc.  Many of these needs will be stretched to the limit, so prepare yourself for that.  I have divided up the conference suggestions into a few categories that seem to come up in other helpful websites:

During Poster Presentation

While all the preparation will surely payoff, there will no doubt be things that you can’t plan for.  So like I said above, prepare to adapt.  Another issue while presenting a poster and in general at conferences is identifying who you are talking to and whether or not you should know who they are.  One scientific American blog goes into grave detail about the “dark art of the Nametag Glance.” This and other blogs point out the desire or need to identify “famous” scientists from your field and how embarrassing it can be if you don’t recognize them.  While, I agree the nametags or lack there of can lead to some awkward social situations, overall I am sure most people will not be offended if you ask them their name and what they do.  And if they are offended then you can make your own judgments about that.  In identifying individuals that are in fact PI’s as opposed to students you can tailor your discourse accordingly, but I would be hesitant to dismiss or lessen your conversation with someone as you never know who will be most influential to your career in the long run (see next section).  Always have business cards or copies of your poster with your contact info on them.

Talk to strangers

Although this may defy all that your parents taught you, it is absolutely imperative that you learn to approach people that you have never met before.  Obviously, this is easiest to do at a poster session where they are mostly expecting it.  While it is definitely important to look ahead and go directly to posters that are directly relevant to your research, it is also helpful to approach individuals that are  outside of your field.  This will serve multiple purposes.  First, it will get you used to asking questions when you are unsure.  Secondly, it can help break up the monotony of having extremely similar conversations over and over again.  If you are continuously going to people who do basically the same kind of work as you, you will notice that the background and explanations of the methods will be extremely similar and all the presentations will start to overlap in your mind, so picking a random poster or topic to learn about is always a nice change of pace.

Another great reason to talk to strangers is the amount of variability and uncertainty in a student’s career path.  In our previous GSEC blog post, Kimberly Busiek, pointed out the many “outside of academia” jobs that appeal to graduate students (April Blog). Conferences, especially large ones, often are sponsored by and have representatives from companies that can offer those non-academic jobs.  Approaching and getting to know these individuals could be the first step to a new career path.

Drinking

While I was not naïve to the fact that this is a major part of scientific conferences, I was surprised how often it was mentioned in other articles. Remember you are an adult and there is no use in droning on about responsible drinking and the potential downfalls and health related issues.  So, instead I would like to point out the positives.  For those people who don’t drink many of these same things apply as it  can be favorable to spend time with others who are drinking even if you are not.  While discussing scientific work in front of a poster with beautiful charts and graphs is obviously necessary and useful, poster sessions and oral presentations are also full of many distractions. At a bar or tavern, an individual is much less likely to be abruptly approached by someone who wants them to present their research and there are often better opportunities to ask one on one questions.  It also helps if you start the conversation by offering to buy them a drink!   Further, moderate alcohol can lead to individuals being more social and you may hear what the individual really thinks is going on with their research or possibly more importantly what they think of yours (Alcohol Makes People Social).  Other sites, have pointed out that many a collaboration or faculty position has been realized or initiated over a couple of drinks (Attending Your First Scientific Meeting).

After the conference.

Obviously the first desire when returning from a conference is to get some much needed rest.  After you have obtained the appropriate amount of rest, I think there are a few important things to do soon after your return.  Send out contact emails to individuals that you met and want to keep in contact.  If you had specific conversations about your research or you think they may be interested, always send a copy of your poster or related article.  I think it is also important to discuss with other members of your lab what you learned from the conference.  Beyond bragging about who you saw, heard, or met; you should discuss the research that you found interesting and relevant while it is still fresh on your mind.  If you had specific feedback that may help take your project or other projects in the lab to the next level, these are often best discussed in a more formal lab meeting or directly with your PI.

Conclusions

Overall, I have tried to include some info from my personal experiences at conferences as well as some useful information from other articles and blogs.  Below you will find just a few links that I found interesting and useful.

Stuart Red is a fourth year PhD graduate student in the Neuroscience program at UTHealth.

Hyperlinks http://sciencecareers.sciencemag.org/career_magazine/previous_issues/articles/1999_10_08/nodoi.2496248183250982679 http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/06/29/the-phds-guide-to-academic-conferences/ https://www.training.nih.gov/assets/Transcript__Meeting_Webinar.pdf http://www.psm.edu/rise/PDF DOcuments/Documents/Attendingprofessionalmeetings.pdf https://www.asp.org/education/EffectivePresentations.pdf http://www.science20.com/science_20/weekend_science_alcohol_makes_people_more_social-93129