One of the really exciting parts of being involved in research is the opportunity to travel to a conference (hopefully at an exotic location!) to present your work and get to see presentations from the major players in your chosen field.
Now you’ll probably have all sorts of frivolous reasons for not wanting to go to a conference, you don’t have time for it, you don’t have enough data to present anything there, your supervisor isn’t keen for you to go . However, once you’ve realise how silly you were being and have decided to go, you could probably use a few tips on how to actually survive your first conference!
1. Be Prepared
Booking the Conference
All good scouts know the importance of being prepared! Starting with booking your conference – the cost of many conferences increases substantially in the run up to the event, make sure you book as soon as possible to take advantage of early bird registration rates. Booking in advance should also help keep your travel and accommodation costs lower too, so whether you’re funding yourself or spending from a grant, it’s always good to save a little cash along the way (which you can hopefully put towards your next conference!). Booking early has an extra advantage if your accommodation is provided – you’re more likely to get closer or on-site digs than if you register last minute.
Catching up on the Literature
Preparation for the conference itself is also essential. Make sure in the weeks before the conference that you’re keeping up with the literature, giving yourself an idea of what to expect. Read the conference abstracts booklet to familiarise yourself with the topics that are coming up, pick the ones most relevant to you and do your homework – the last thing you want is to see an interesting, relevant talk, approach the speaker later and during conversation have to admit that actually, no, you haven’t read that paper they published 2 months ago but it’s on your to do list! Taking a few reading days out of the lab just before you jet off is a good idea!
2. Present something
Whether it’s a poster or a talk, make sure you bring something to present at the conference. Firstly because this will force you to talk to people you don’t know. As a fairly shy person myself, the thought of waiting by my poster at my first conference and having to talk to strangers about my work filled me with dread! What if they didn’t think my work was good? What if they were mean? What if they pointed out a really obvious typo that I missed?!! By the time my poster session ended I realised that all my worrying, stressing and skipping of lunch had been for nothing – the poster was fine and having to explain my work to other people forced me into conversation with people I wouldn’t have had the guts to approach on my own. The poster is a great tool for bringing people to you, as well as giving you something to break the ice with.
The second reason you should definitely present something at the conference is because who better to give you feedback, comments, criticisms and suggestions than researchers in your specialised area! The attendees at your conference are (presumably) world experts in your field, who do you think is going to be reviewing the next paper you submit? Getting a fresh perspective on your work can only benefit you! Just make sure you prepare thoroughly for it!
Boost Your Confidence
The final reason to present something at a conference is because it will give you a confidence boost! Having people outside your lab group showing interest in your work can give you an amazing lift, both in terms of confidence and motivation. Perhaps you’ve hit the third year slump and things aren’t dreadful, but you can’t help but feel that it’s all a bit pointless. Fresh enthusiasm, interest and ideas from out-with your normal group can make the world of difference, I know I left my first conference with a spring in my step and my passion redoubled!
If you’ve gone to a conference with a group, it’s very tempting to stick with who you know. While this is great for travelling there and back it can be a real disadvantage for building contacts as it becomes very easy to sit together at breakfast, stroll to the lecture together, leave chatting together, etc. until suddenly the conference is over and you haven’t really spoken to anyone new! Make a rule that you will only sit together once throughout the day (you’ll see each other plenty when you get home!) so that you can all make the most of the opportunity to create some fresh contacts.
Perhaps instead of discussing that new PI in the division at dinner with your friends, you end up sitting next to the head of a group whose tagged plasmid you could really use! Maybe while queueing for tea instead of bemoaning how tired you are to your lab bestie, you get chatting to a post doc who has optimised a way to get a clean western blot of a particularly frustrating protein. Or maybe you just meet a fellow PhD student who came alone, is finding it all a bit terrifying and share a moment of solidarity. Whatever the outcome of your schmoozing efforts, you have to remember that even in the absolute worst case scenario, you’ll probably never see any of those people again unless you actually want to, so just go for it!
4. Dress for success
While most conferences won’t adhere to a strict dress code, it doesn’t hurt to put a little extra effort into your appearance while you’re there. The last thing you want to be worrying about while talking to an eminent scientist or potential future employer is that the hilarious t-shirt you decided to wear might not suit their sense of humour. The advice I was given for my first conference was “Dress like you’re meeting your in-laws for the first time”. There’s no need to go over the top, but make sure you look like you’ve made an effort to appear respectable and want to be taken seriously, you never know who you might run in to while you’re there
5. Be brave!
Walking in to a room full of people whose papers you’ve spent the last few years reading and trying to engage them in conversation long enough to leave an impression is an intimidating prospect and requires plenty of courage. Similarly, bringing along your results and discussing them in a room full of world experts who might disagree with your interpretation of the data takes nerves of steel! The important thing to remember is that every single person in that room started in exactly the same place you have – as a scared newbie walking in to room full of world leaders and eminent scientists, if they can do it, so can you!
At the end of the day, your first conference might be a tremendous success, it might be a complete disaster or maybe it will just be a bit mediocre, but whatever the outcome, just try to make the most of it and enjoy yourself!