Conference season is on, with many exciting events - such as SB7.0 - already taking place. But how can you make the most of the conference experience? We asked Erica Brockmeier, theblogger of Science with Style, to tell us about how you can attend a conference with style.
Presenting at a conference is an exciting challenge for any early career researcher (ECR). Whether you’re just starting out in your research career or have attended the same conference for several years and counting, scientific meetings are a place to showcase your hard work and make connections with new colleagues. But attending conferences isn’t just another check mark to make on your ECR to do list: making the most from an annual event like a professional meeting requires time, planning, and initiative.
For the ECR in a hurry, I’ve developed an easy* five step plan to help you make the most of your conference experience:
*These steps won’t actually be easy, but because conferences are a once-in-a-year opportunity for you to enhance your work and propel you into the next steps of your career, they are well-worth the time and energy you’ll use to complete them!
Step 1: Set your conference goals
Before you choose what platform sessions or networking events you want to attend, come up with three to four concrete things you want to take away from the meeting. These should be specific and achievable during the time frame of the conference while also taking into consideration the scale of the meeting you’ll attend. These goals can include things like “Meet Professor Smith and discuss an experiment/project idea”, “Attend as many talks and posters possible in the My Relevant Sub-discipline session held on Tuesday afternoon”, or “Introduce myself to researchers in the Dream Job lab.”
Your conference goals should also take into account where you currently are in your research career. If you’re an early ECR, now is a good time to start meeting new people outside of the immediate networks of your lab so you can expand your own network independent of your boss or your lab mates. Those who are further along in their careers can start discussing project and grant ideas with collaborators or actively seeking out potential future employers. Learning about new research is also a crucial part of any scientific conference, so be sure to budget yourself some time to see presentations that are related to your current project or, alternatively, in the field you want to get into for your next job.
If you’re not sure where to start, or aren’t sure of where you want your career to go, you can do some soul-searching with one of the many career guides available. You can also start with some basic career preparation activities, especially if you’re still in the early phases of your research career.
Step 2: Do your homework
To make the most of your well-laid out conference plan, be sure to do the groundwork needed in advance to make it happen: even small or specialized conferences are busy, fast-paced event for delegates, especially ECRs trying to navigate a meeting for the first time. In order to make the most of the conference, contact people you want to connect with before the meeting itself and arrange a time to meet. If you’re adept at getting up early and are desperate to catch a busy researcher, one option is to meet before the conference sessions begin for the day. It’s a good way to talk to someone before they are swept up in the events of the day and there is less likely to be other conflicting social events or pre-planned meetings happening at that time.
Even if you’re not in the job market, take time to update your CV and make business cards if you don’t have any already. Another good exercise before you head off for the conference is to make an elevator speech. This should be a summary in less than a minute either of your work, your project, or your career goals. It’s perfect for meeting someone for the first time or getting a word in to a busy researcher in between meetings and sessions. And of course, don’t forget to give yourself ample time to prepare and practice your talk or poster presentation. This is especially important if the people you want to meet and impress are going to be there at your talk or poster!
If you’re not sure where to start in terms of reaching out to new people or are nervous about knowing how to approach someone at a conference, you can do some additional reading on the basics principles of networking and how you can start on a path from initiating your professional network to landing your first job.
Step 3: Pack your bags