Do you ever feel like you’re in a mildly chaotic whirlwind of programs, posters and free pens during conference season? Well you’re not the only one. Most of us can relate to gulping down our fifth coffee of the day by eleven AM, trying to figure out how to magic oneself into three sessions at the same time. Conferences can be a real highlight of your academic schedule and create important opportunities to interact with your wider research community. But they can also be stressful, time-consuming and exhausting.
Before attending a conference, it can be helpful to think about what you are trying to achieve, for example: are you aiming to raise your profile/increase your knowledge/network more widely? Your priorities will influence how you approach the event. Here are our top tips for how you can make the most out of the conferences you attend.
Try not to leave it until the week before the conference to sort everything out. We are all guilty of this occasionally, but it does not do us any favours. Make sure you have booked transport and accommodation well in advance: you don’t want to have this on your mind when the conference is just around the corner. Check what support your institution/lab/PI will offer you and sign up for the early-bird rate.
Thoroughly check out the program as soon as it comes out – it may well be downloadable or even available as an app! It will usually be available months before the meeting, so you can decide which sessions are most important for you to attend, and where you have free time for other meetings. You can also see who most of the speakers and poster presenters are so you can reach out and arrange meetings in advance. When organizing meetings, remember to set the time zone for where the meeting will be held to avoid confusion when you get there. (There are plenty of desktop and online tools which can take the hassle out of this process.)
If you’re presenting at the conference, ensure you have prepared your slides and practiced your talk, including timing it to ensure it is the correct length. Don’t forget to bring adapters, memory sticks and any other tech you might need to be sure your presentation goes to plan.
It’s true, most people hate the idea of trying to “work the room” and very few of us are naturally gifted at this art. Nonetheless, it is important that you make the effort to speak to people you don’t know, learn about other researchers’ work and make new connections. You never know, that person could be your next collaborator...
There are different ways to engage in networking. If you are not confident to approach someone at the welcome reception, you could sign up for an organized event, such as speed networking or an interactive roundtable or simply engage with people informally at their posters. You might find it helpful to prepare an “elevator pitch” to summarize your research. And don’t underestimate the lubricating power of food and alcohol! Social events can be a great way to make connections in a more relaxed setting, not to mention actually seeing some of the city/town you are in.
Remember to consider how you will follow up with your new contacts after the meeting – you could take business cards, use an app or connect on LinkedIn. Whichever method you use, a follow up message will help that person remember you.
Most of us have jobs that do not stop just because we are at a conference for a few days. But where possible, try to disconnect from regular work and allow yourself to be fully immersed in the conference. Perhaps set an out-of-office alert so you are not anxious about checking emails. Agreeing with yourself that this conference will be your priority for the next few days can make a difference to what you get out of it.
If you are attending a big meeting, you will have to accept that you can’t go to everything you want to. You need to prioritize – ideally in advance – which sessions and events are most important to attend. You could consider working with colleagues so that one person attends each session and you all report back to share notes. Some conferences will record sessions or distribute copies of the slides afterwards. You can take pictures of the slides for almost all talks for private use but please respect any signs asking you not to share online.
The exhibit hall is about more than just freebies. You can come to see book launches, speed reviews, meet-the-editor sessions or get a professional photo taken. You can make important connections in the exhibition hall and find out about companies, publications and projects relevant to your work. You might consider joining societies or divisions and be able to talk to members or those running events. The best thing I have ever seen in an exhibition hall was goat yoga, gotta love psychologists!
Now you can feel smug on that journey home, knowing you can tell your colleagues about how great that conference was, and actually mean it. We hope this has been a useful resource for planning your next conference. If there’s anything missing, feel free to share your own top tips in the comments below.
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