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Megan Poorman is a Ph.D. candidate in biomedical engineering at Vanderbilt University. You can find her on Twitter @meganpoorman or documenting her travels on her website.




I remember vividly the first scientific conference I attended. I was a senior in college and had just agreed to join my current mentor’s group as a Ph.D. student. I thought I was very mature, packing up my suitcase, buying a pair of khakis, and organizing my tote bag with highlighters for the abstract booklet. What I forgot to do was designate a place to meet my future lab and pack a water bottle. This resulted in a dehydrated, 22-year old me looking lost in a room of 600 people trying to match pictures from the internet with my future advisor and labmates.


I survived, but not without a few awkward encounters staring at people in glasses who turned out not to be my professor and ambushing my labmate in the bathroom. Despite all that, they somehow still wanted me to join their lab and now, four international conferences and multiple local symposia later, I can confidently say that I know more about the graduate student form of “adulting” than I did before. Here are my strategies for making the most out of your conference experience.  


Affording conference travel:

This is a constant struggle during graduate school – you have more flexibility in your schedule to travel than most career stages, yet none of the financial means to do it. If you’re on a funded research grant your travel, housing, and registration is likely covered by your advisor. Even so, you could still be expected to pay for food and activities, which can get expensive if you’re eating out all the time. The level of financial support for travel varies from advisor to advisor, so how can you afford to attend if there aren’t enough funds?


1. Use school resources. Your university may have professional development funds set aside to help deserving students attend conferences. For example, at my current institution both the graduate school and the Graduate Student Council award travel grants each semester to students who apply and show a legitimate reason to attend. Ask around your lab or your director of graduate studies to see what others have done; there may be similar awards out there that you are not yet aware of.  


2. Apply to everything. Many conferences sponsor student travel or waive registration fees for trainees who are presenting at the conference. For these there is usually a box to click when you submit the abstract. There may be an earlier deadline so be sure to read the conference website for opportunities. A Google search also never hurts. Certain granting agencies in the United States, such as the NIH or NSF, offer graduate student fellowships that not only fund your education but also come with professional development funds. Consider applying for these bigger grants to self-fund your degree and avoid future funding issues.


3. Be frugal. Even on a graduate student salary, it is possible to save. Some good rules of thumb are the pay yourself first rule, prioritizing, smart goal setting, and implementing a balanced money formula. This means cutting down on those Amazon orders and Costco runs (guilty as charged), but it will be worth it when you get to network with colleagues over delicious food or go on a great adventure after the conference is over. Speaking of the conference, try to find a roommate to cut down on housing costs and check out alternative hotel options such as Airbnb or VRBO.


Packing and travel tips:

I love making lists, so when it comes to packing I get VERY excited. I like to make a chart of each day I will be gone, what activities are planned each day, and what outfits/objects I need for each of those activities. If you want to get super into it you can even type it. Overkill? Probably. Effective? Most definitely. Now when it comes time to pack I just do laundry, dump everything from the list on my bed, and begin sorting the items into packing cubes. It may seem like a lot of effort, but the added organization really comes in handy when you are transporting nice clothes for presentations, sharing a room with someone, taking public transportation, and traveling afterward. It also prevents the last-minute packing rush where you forget to pack something critical like your poster. Try to pack as light as possible. When you’re lugging your roller bag down a cobblestone street in Europe you won’t regret having a lighter bag. Bonus points if you can carry-on to avoid airline bag fees!


As far as dealing with long flights, just expect them to suck. I’m pretty short so the economy seats don’t bother me too much, but if you’re taller consider paying a few extra dollars to upgrade to more leg room. Even if your university won’t reimburse the upgrade, it’s worth the extra money on your part to arrive fresh and ready for the long conference ahead. Don’t forget to bring a few treats along as well – something self-care related such as a good moisturizer or that tea you love. It may seem silly to have these luxury items taking up space, but when you get stuck sitting behind someone for 3 hours who smells like they haven’t showered in a month (true story), you’re going to love your scented hand cream like nobody’s business. A glass of wine usually helps in this case too.


Making the most of your experience:

Congratulations, you’ve made it to the conference! Now it’s time to get out there and jump-start your career! Feeling pressured yet? Me too. Here are some strategies I use to stay engaged and enjoy the event.


1. Set a goal or theme. There is no possible way to see everything that happens at the conference. If you try, you’ll spend a lot of energy racing between rooms and burn out before you even get to the sessions you really wanted to see. Instead, strategize and give yourself some time to relax or network during the day instead of going to every session. I like to set a theme for each conference, such as “go to all the plenary talks,” “listen to three sessions outside my interest area,” “meet someone new every day,” or “scout potential post-doc institutions.” This way I have an achievable goal outside of just attending sessions pertaining to my research.


2. Get out of your comfort zone. Do your best to interact with people outside those in your lab. This could mean asking questions at the poster sessions and oral presentations, attending networking events, or even striking up a conversation with the person sitting next to you instead of checking your email. It is easier and more comforting to stick with people you know but that defeats the purpose of going to a conference.


3. Take (short) notes on important talks. You don’t have to be super-detailed but it is always nice to look back on talks you attended or scribble down a reference to look up later. At the worst, it helps you stay awake and focused during any particularly boring presentations.


4. Plan ahead. Take a few minutes the night before to scout out presentations that you have to hit and put them in your calendar. This way if you decide to skip a few sessions to network or browse posters you will know when your time is flexible and when it isn’t. Also, don’t forget to bring essentials that you’ll need to be comfortable at the conference all day. For me this includes a water bottle, sweater or scarf, portable phone battery charger, a few business cards, my tablet and stylus, Kleenex, headache medication, and concealer to deal with those pesky mid-20s pimples that pop up at the worst possible times. I try not to carry my laptop unless I’m giving an oral presentation that day – the tablet is enough for emails and note-taking. This way I save my back some weight and am free to leave directly from the conference for dinner without worrying about guarding expensive, bulky electronics.


5. Don’t forget to enjoy. Conferences aren’t just for learning, they’re also about meeting people in your field and enjoying some time away from lab. Grabbing dinner and exploring the city with friends from the conference is a great way to make connections and get to know people from other institutions, or even those at your own institution that you haven’t met yet. Don’t know anyone at the conference? Be bold and ask a stranger to lunch, particularly other graduate students who may be feeling just as intimidated as you. The worst they could do is say no. Additionally, taking a few days after the conference to travel is a great (and affordable) way to explore new places and refresh your mind before returning to work.


Attending conferences and “adulting” as a grad student can be stressful and intimidating, but with the right preparation it can be one of the best experiences of your degree.  What strategies do you use to afford conference travel and make the most of your time there?

[Image by Flickr user Pete Hindle and used under Creative Commons licensing.]