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Are You Getting the Most Out of Conferences?

Travelling the world attending conferences is arguably the perk of a scientific career. After many long, long hours in the lab, once a year (or twice if you’re lucky!) you get to hang up your lab coat and get out for a breath of fresh air, meet new people, share new ideas and see fantastic places.

But as well as being a lot of fun, conferences are also a very important part of your education and career, and the opportunities they present should not be overlooked. From finding your next position to initiating that important collaboration, there are learning and networking opportunities abound, so it’s worth going prepared. Here are 5 top tips from an early stage researcher on getting the most out of conferences:

1)      See What’s New in the Commercial World

Dedicate some time to walking the exhibition hall floor, try to learn as much as possible about the new techniques and instruments that companies are offering. There’s more than freebies to be gained from talking to the exhibitors! Describe your research needs to them and what they can do for you. They are generally more helpful than you might think. It’s in your interests to be well informed on the latest technological advancements.  And don’t forget, while they are selling a service, they may also on the lookout for exceptional scientists to join their team – they talk to hundreds of people a day – be the one that stands out!

2)      Go off the beaten path

When flicking through the conference programme, trust your gut feeling. Don’t feel bound go to the talks of those who are famous in your field, and whose papers you have probably read many times over. Explore unknown territory, go to something new and go with an open mind. This is your chance to break new ground and learn new topics in an accessible way. You might well find that lateral thinking triggers a completely new approach to solving a problem you’ve been preoccupied with.

3)      Get connected, and try out the connections

Whether you’re looking to remain in your current field long term, or move into a new area, conferences are your chance to scope out the other groups in this field from around the world, their interests, their capabilities and most importantly, their personalities. The scientific community is a global one but you will only get to meet with these people once or twice a year at most. Try to attend all the social events and create bonds with your global peers. In today’s research environment, it is nearly impossible to achieve anything without strong collaborations, and it will always be easier to collaborate with people you know personally. Go up and introduce yourself; since you don’t bite, they won’t bite either!

4)      Stay one step ahead of the literature

What you see in the literature is generally what happened 6 months ago. At a conference, people tend to present fresher results, so you might be among the first to hear about the next breakthrough before it hits Nature! Additionally, established Professors are often invited to give plenary lectures, where they share their thoughts on the current state and future direction of the field. Listen carefully and try to understand where your research fits within the bigger picture. You might find it doesn’t, and this stops you going any further down a dead end research route!

5)      Finally, enjoy the city!

And last, but by no means least, enjoy the trip!  Science is a global endeavour and wherever you are based, it is highly likely that you will work with people from all over the world. The more you have seen and understand of the world, the easier it will be to interact with different cultures. Getting to conferences is certainly an opportunity for such globetrotting.

Always remember, conferences offer so much more than just a poster presentation slot, but you only get as much out of them as you put in.

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