Getting the most out of academic conferences

In my field, the first few months of the fall term represent “conference season”. Last year I went to my first entomology conference as a PhD student. This year I’m upping the ante considerably: I’m giving a total of 4 talks at three conferences (one is provincial, one national and one international). Larger conferences are pretty darned fun and full of awesome brain-candy. In addition to the beer and free food and hotel rooms and t-shirts and field trips and bookslighter, more social aspects, they also provide excellent opportunities to interact with people in your field and to learn about exciting new research.

A plenary talk at the 2010 ESC conference (Photo by Rick West)

I’m now at what I consider to be a fairly crucial stage of my PhD, in terms of completing projects I’ve started and developing quick additional projects to round out my thesis. As such, I’m considering this conference tour to be (potentially) very important.

I’ve read some blog posts in the last year or so that provided students some sound advice for maximizing the conference experience. One idea that I’ve come across has stuck with me: have a focus. I think this can apply to any number of things the conference-goer might wish to accomplish.

Take networking, for example (this apparent holy grail of conference achievements for students is also often perceived as incredibly difficult to do). First, let’s replace the terrifying word “networking” with the much more fun “talking with other scientists about science”, or TWOSAS. There, that’s better.

When TWOSASing, what is it that you want to achieve? Simply to meet new people? To ask a specific question about their research? To talk about your own work? I have two foci in mind for my own TWOSASing activities:

  1. Talk to people who do molecular work. I have a project in mind that I’m dying to get off to a running start, but I don’t have the equipment or expertise to get the lab work done. I have good, standardized samples, a willingness to prep them, and a manuscript looking for shared authorship if I can find the right collaborator. I plan to pitch my idea and see if I can find any takers. I’ll be primarily looking to discuss this venture with PIs, but post-docs or other grad students might be a good place to get an initial “in” (i.e., some face-to-face time for a conversation). This TWOSAS focus will take a little bit of pre-conference legwork: I plan to scope out speakers giving talks that are related to my project, and identify a few possible TWOSAS candidates in advance.
  2. Start chatting with people about post-doc opportunities outside of Canada. “Post-doc” sounds even more terrifying that “network” *shudder*, but the reality is that I’ll be figuring out the next step in my career sooner than I’m ready to admit. I’m more familiar with the scene here, but I’m very willing to look to the US or even overseas for other opportunities. I’d like to learn more about funding available, the types of things to look for in a lab/PI, pros and cons of different project types or even locations, advice for project management and developing successful applications…all that good stuff. Other grad students into the search and current post-docs will be my go-to peeps here. Perhaps easier to approach in some ways, these folks will by my colleagues down the road, and they’re just as important to TWOSAS with as PIs. Most conferences have student mixers or other similar opportunities to hang out with people at a similar career stage. I’ll be looking for events like these in the conference programs.

The other thing for which I will have a focus is: learn something new. I have a tendency to select talks that are either: a) totally in my field, b) probably not related to anything I do but sound super-cool, c) something about ecology or whole-organism biology. Since I really want to expand my current skill set and knowledge base, I’m going to pick a subject about which I know very little – ideally one that is really on the cutting edge of my field – and attend a whole bunch of talks on that one subject.

I will not, of course, limit myself only to these (there are some super-fun talks and symposia I have every intention of attending, as well as talks by friends and colleagues and people that I know from online but have yet to meet IRL)!

Fun talks aside, I think that having a focus to my talk attendance will be a bit like a mini-immersion in the subject, and will hopefully get me a little more up to speed. This one will also require some pre-conference prep: I’ll probably chat with my advisor and other people in my department and get some advice on what subjects would be best. (ALSO I WILL BLOG ABOUT IT AND HOPEFULLY PEOPLE WILL LEAVE USEFUL SUGGESTIONS IN THE COMMENTS. Yes, that was a hint.)

Anyways, I’m very interested in hearing from you folks out there: do you set goals for yourself when attending conferences? Do you have any great tips or suggestions for me or other grad students?


Cross-posted at, here.

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