Winning Your First Professional Conference

If you’re in Portland for a conference, you should
probably go hike at Mt. St. Helen’s
Hello September!  Can you believe it?  I know I can’t.  Classes are ringing back into session all over the country, and most people are gearing back up after the summer.  For me, September is going to be a month of getting things back in order after a really intense stretch in July and August.  I wouldn’t say I’m gearing down, but without vacation, 8+ hours of manual labor, or time sensitive lab samples to deal with, I’m hoping I can refocus and reorganize.  One project I’m giving special attention this month is updating the analysis of chapter two of my Master’s Thesis, which I will be presenting at a conference in October (and submitting for publication before the end of 2014…I think I can…I think I can…). (Editor’s note: I know she can!) Professional conferences are very helpful as benchmarks for your research.  They give you something to work toward in the short term, and they also provide a great forum for research in progress (either in progress of collecting data or analysing it).  Aside from this, professional conferences are great opportunities for loads of other reasons, which are completely applicable for those who don’t have research to present yet.  If you are gearing up for your first conference this fall, or if you are on the fence about the usefulness of attending, here are my thoughts on how to get the most out of your first academic conference.    

Don’t let cost be an issue.  Conference registration, travel to the venue, eating while you are in town…  The costs of attendance can add up fairly quickly.  However, this is absolutely not a reason to not attend a conference.  First things first, look around for someone willing to give you money!  Apply for grants through your department, college, office of scholar development, or the conference itself.  All of these places are very invested in developing the next generation of researchers (that’s us!). These grants can go to cover the costs of registration, or you can apply specifically for travel grants to cover transit costs and lodging while you are there.  Are you part of a lab group?  Don’t be shy, ask your PI if they are willing to give you some funding to attend the conference.  They might not be willing to cover all your expenses, but they are invested in your success and want to help!  At my first conference, I carpooled to the venue and shared a hotel room with my PI, and she kindly covered these costs.  Finally, sign-up as a student volunteer.  Most big conferences really count on student volunteers to make things go.  Who do you think works the registration desk, the information booth, and is there to call the IT people when a projector stops working?  Often, these volunteering positions aren’t an easy ride (think ~15 hours throughout the conference), but they will result in a comped registration fee.  I’ve done this a fair few times, and while it isn’t my first choice way to get to a conference, it’s totally worth it.  

As a student, you also have to learn how to do things for cheap.  Set your budget for how much you can spend at the conference and stick with it!  Personally, I’ve slept 5+ people to a hotel room, picked up some PB&J supplies at a local store, and even Couchsurfed by way through the conference week.  As long as you show up in your business casual attire, no one is going to know where you slept or where you bought your lunch.

Once you’ve made it to the conference, don’t forget to pace yourself.  It’s always a good idea to scope the conference schedule in advance and pick out the talks and posters you really need to see.  However, it’s also super easy to get excited (Wait?  There are other people out there who care about the impacts of invertebrate grazing on invasive plant productivity?!) and schedule yourself to death!  Generally, there are a number of speaker sessions running concurrently,and you can easily get yourself scheduled to the point of running from room to room every 20 minutes from 8 to 5.  At that rate, you will be pooped by day two.  Prioritize, be flexible, and don’t be afraid to just take a break!
Get an academic wing-person.  Especially if this is your first conference, try to find a more senior student who has attended before and shadow them.  Don’t be shy, they seriously won’t mind.  Everyone remembers being the new kid in the room and how overwhelming that can be.  This person will tell you which mixers are worth your time to attend, introduce you when they know someone, and invite you to lunch so you don’t have to eat your PB&J alone.  In the absence of an experienced friend, having anyone to double team a mixer or a poster session with is a great idea.  It’s way easier to approach a group as a duo.  Additionally, if you’re shy like me and have an outgoing bestie like Meridith, you are basically hitting the wing-person jackpot.

Jam session outside the poster session.  An ESA tradition
and an informal networking opportunity!
On the subject of mixers, when you’re at a conference you need to embrace cocktail hour.  Do you have to drink?  No.  Do you need to go to a mixer or a bar, probably.  Informal interactions with peers and senior researchers are not just going to fall into your lap.  You have to seek them out.  Let’s be honest, walking up to a person who does work that you respect is stressful.  Heck, being that person that everyone wants to talk to is stressful (I imagine).  Having a beer helps the social anxiety.  And, let’s just get this out there, networking is necessary.  You come to a conference to see the latest research and techniques in your field.  Beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, you go to conferences to expand your professional network.  As a reserved person, I will quickly tell you that networking is the literal worst.  Luckily, there are ways to make it more manageable and enjoyable.  

First, we will assume that cocktail hour is 100% not your thing, or you want a more structured networking experience.  This is where the internet stalking abilities of the modern world can be harnessed to your advantage.  Look through the conference program and identify people you want to meet.  Now, Google them, get their email address, and drop them a line!  Tell them who you are and why you want to meet with them and set-up a lunch/coffee meeting.  Alternatively, you can try to catch them after their talk and set-up this interaction.  Second, set goals for your networking.  I got the most amazing tip from one of my conference wing-people last summer at the Ecological Society of America (ESA) conference.  He told me that at each conference he just tries to expand his network by 6 people.  In other words, he practices quality over quantity.  Six people who you think you could actually email after the conference is likely more useful than cards from 20 people you met at a poster session.  Last, don’t be afraid to expand the networking experience to after the conference is finished.  Did you see an amazing talk, but couldn’t catch the speaker after the fact?  Stalk that conference program and shoot them an email.  I always try to remind myself that when I am at a conference, I’m with a group of people who I already have a lot in common with, and that makes all these social interactions seem much less intimidating.         

Present something or at least be ready to present yourself.  Having conference presentations on your CV is so helpful when applying for graduate school, grants, and fellowships.  Talk to your PI and ask if there is any data she has that could use a first pass at statistical analysis.  This is good for everyone involved!  Your PI gets a co-authorship on a presentation by a student and their data gets at least a cursory looking over.  For you, the experience of analyzing data and adding the presentation to your CV is great!  Plus, in those awkward networking moments, talking about what you brought to present is super helpful.  Bonus point for putting your Twitter handle or website on your presentation. Twitter is the water cooler of academia at large (or that’s what they are saying on Twitter), so be ready to inter-network (ha!). Not into the idea of a presentation?  At least be ready to present yourself.  Have your elevator pitch ready.  Who are you?  Where are you from?  What is your academic standing (undergrad?  grad student?)?  What are your interests and goals?  Plan it out before you go so when you are on the escalator making small talk with Mrs. Hot-shot-researcher she remembers you as well spoken and enthusiastic!    
Tall grass prairie restoration tour!

Last, don’t forget to explore!  Often, conferences equate to traveling to a new city, state, or even country!  Sure this is a professional opportunity, but it’s an opportunity for personal growth as well.  See the sites, check out the local nightlife, and go for a hike at the nearest National Park.  ESA 2014 was near the college where a friend of mine earned his undergraduate degree.  He arranged an amazing trip for a bunch of us to see a huge prairie restoration that he worked on while studying at the college.  One of my favorite memories from ESA 2013 is going to an 80s dance party with Meridith to find that the club’s floor was on top of ball bearings.  Much bouncing and singing-along ensued.  And there was plenty of time for more science the next day.   

So, there you have it!  Those are my conference going tips, but in the big scheme of things, I’m still a newbie.  I would love to hear tips and tricks from others!  Let us know in the comments below!