This summer I attended a conference and, for the first time, I feel that I fully experienced and benefitted from the conference. It seems widely understood that conferences can feel overwhelming or intimidating--networking, socializing, navigating a new place, sharing your research, and interacting with esteemed researchers can seem daunting. Thus, it is easy to only attend one day of a week-long conference, socialize with only people you know, or only go to talks in your field. I call this “lightly participating.”
This summer highlighted ways in which I improved my conference experience to “fully participate” and get the most out of it. In addition to this GradHacker post on successfully navigating conferences, here are some tips that helped make my conference experience fulfilling:
Before the conference:
1. Be positive. I thought of the conference like science camp, because it is a great place to meet new people, catch up with colleagues from around the world, share your work with others, and learn something new. So I went into this conference with a fun, positive attitude. I researched who was going (e.g. people I knew, people whose work I knew), which helped get me excited for the conference.
2. Attend the entire conference (or as much of it as you can). This allowed me to get my bearings, familiarize myself with the area, and navigate where everything was located: the conference center, the room in which I was giving a talk, the strange names of conference center rooms, and nearby restaurants.
3. Know that you can't go to every talk, and that’s okay. To be honest, even if I had a talk that I wanted to see every single minute, I would need a break from listening to all of those talks.
4. Consider the season and what to wear. This conference was in Florida in August, which sounds hot and humid, but the conference center was heavily air conditioned and it rained almost every day.
5. Do not bring your laptop. Honestly consider how much laptop work will you get done at this conference. Instead of lugging your laptop, can you print out papers to catch up on literature that you've been procrastinating, print out a working draft that needs revising (I prefer writing on hard copies anyway)? Conferences also often have laptop cafes if you really need one.
6. Make a schedule of talks you want to go to and people you want to see. Make plans to meet up with friends and colleagues you know will be there.
7. Consider your budget.There are plenty of ways to make the most of your funds at a conference, including choosing hotels within walking distance to the conference center, with breakfast included, and/or with free airport shuttles. You can buy groceries at a nearby grocery store to avoid always eating out and bring your own snacks to avoid paying for expensive airport food. Conferences also often have plenty of volunteer opportunities that may allow you to waive graduate student fees. And don’t forget to enjoy the free coffee!
At the conference:
8. Participate in student-organized events. This was a great way to meet fellow graduate students from all over the country.
- Network. Okay, this is not my favorite thing to do so I didn’t think about it beforehand, but conferences are great places to meet new people and discuss common research interests. I’ve found that generally people like talking about themselves and their research so it is easy to start a conversation with someone new. Another way to do this is to accept an invitation on a whim to get to know others over a meal or coffee. Check out the job boards and exhibitors/vendors that have great information about new opportunities and products (they also often have free swag!). Volunteering to preside over a session was also also an easy way to meet and network with researchers in my field. Finally, remember you are there to learn, so take notes on people/research to follow up on after the conference.
- If you are presenting, know that everyone gets nervous. I saw even well-established scientists get nervous while presiding over a session. To help calm your nerves, locate the room you'll be presenting in before your talk and if possible, test that your presentation file successfully loads onto that computer. Also, remember to welcome new ideas and feedback about your research. Giving a talk can be nerve-wracking, but is a great way to share and get feedback on your work from those in and outside your field.
- Take a midday or midweek break if you need some fresh air or a break from socializing or absorbing research. I was able to go for some great morning runs on the beach and check out the nearby national park, which was a nice way to break up the week of sitting in talks.
Reflecting on my positive experience made me realize that, in contrast to past conferences, my full participation in different aspects of the conference provided me with a more fulfilling experience. Presenting an oral talk, presiding over a session, participating in student-run events, attending the conference for the full week, and trying new things allowed me to meet new people, learn about research in and outside my field, make professional connections, gain constructive feedback on my research, build confidence, and have a great time.
What tips do you have to make the most out of conferences?
[Image by Flickr user Dimitris Kalogeropoylos and used under the Creative Commons license.]