Choosing, presenting and networking at your first conference can be a stressful proposition – here are nine tips to negotiating the experience:
Choosing the conference
- Good things come in small packages. Choosing the biggest conference isn’t always the best policy, yes all your academic gods may be there, but chances are you won’t meet them. Big conferences can be hard to navigate due to numerous parallel sessions; smaller meetings give you more opportunity to network and attend all the talks you are interested in.
- Go it alone. It may seem like a good idea to join up with all your friends and attend the same conference, but often this will inhibit your networking rather than enhance it. When push comes to shove most of us tend to stick with those we know rather than take the leap by approaching new people. Staying at one of the conference recommended hotels will help you meet other people, as will attending events arranged specifically for PhD students.
Preparing for the conference
- All the world’s a stage. Presenting at a conference is scary, but if you don’t present anything no one knows who you are or what you do, as a result you will have to initiate every interaction you have with other researchers. So, although it may not seem like it, presenting will make your life less stressful in the long run. As for choosing a poster vs. a talk, the poster may be the less intimidating option but do some research on when/where the poster sessions are likely to be before you go this route; the first conference I attended, my poster languished in an out of the way room with no through traffic, as a result only a few people came to have a look at all my hard work.
- Stalking is a good thing. Who do you want to listen to, meet, talk to or get advice from? Spend some time with the conference program choosing the most important people and creating a timetable of their talks. Do some research on them. Chances are when you introduce yourself to people at a conference their time will be limited so prepare and practice a 4 point intro about yourself: who you are, your institution, what you study, and why it is important. If possible, tailor the importance statement to each person so they immediately know why they should be interested in meeting you.
- Set goals. My supervisor gave me this advice before my first conference and it is something I have stuck to ever since – the conference will pass by in a flash of stress, information overload and probably beer, so make sure you have 3-4 goals picked out that you need to achieve during the week. For example: 1) give talk, 2) meet Prof X, and 3) participate in PhD student committee. This will ensure you really get something out of the conference and it will help satisfy whoever funds you that you took the opportunity seriously.
At the conference
- Pace yourself. By the end of the conference you will be overwhelmed by new ideas and information. If you are starting to tune out of talks, take a short break.
- Tweet it. Tweeting at conferences has multiple benefits: 1) it forces you to pay attention and tease out the key messages of each talk, 2) in following the conference hashtag, you can easily link up with other scientists who are interested in the same research topics as you, and 3) it starts to build an audience for your research.
- Question time. Asking a question in front of a room full of people can be daunting, so prepare. Listen to other people’s questions – what makes a good or a bad question? What types of question stimulate discussions? What language are people using that makes a clear, concise question? By learning from others you will be ready to go when you have a question to ask.
After the conference
- Follow up. Don’t forget to follow up with new contacts after the conference so they are more likely to remember you in the future, but remember that scientists are generally overwhelmed by emails so don’t fill up their inbox with useless messages.