Going to a scientific conference can be exciting and informative, but also stressful and overwhelming. Since conferences are vital components to a successful graduate student’s progress and future career, we thought a breakdown of the do’s and don’ts of a conference, along with some other tips, were in order.
Before you go:
The first step is obvious: find a conference you want to go to. Some big meetings to search through are Keystone Symposia, the Gordon series, Cold Spring Harbor, and FASEB. The research should be intellectually stimulating and relevant to your own work. It is also important that you go to a conference where you can present a poster or give an oral presentation (or both!).
Next, talk to your mentor! Mentors want their students to go to conferences because it gets the lab’s work out into the scientific community. That being said, they will not say ‘yes’ to any and every conference you want to go to. Ask them respectfully, and listen to their reasons if they say ‘no’. Conferences are a great way to go somewhere new, so if you can, book your trip for an extra day or two and do something fun. While a lot more expensive, international conferences can often bring you into contact with some bigger names in science, and they can also offer great vacation experiences after the conference is over (just remember this will be at your own expense, not your PIs). If the conference is not in an instantly-obvious exciting place, still consider it. These conferences may be cheaper and no less intellectually prestigious. It is important to factor the size of a meeting into your decision when choosing a conference to attend. Smaller conferences are better for hearing about other people’s research, getting direct feedback on your work, and making personal connections. Larger meetings are good for getting a general overview of what other people in the field are working on. You should also consider the best time to attend a conference. It may be more beneficial to wait until you have a better idea of what you are working on, and how to communicate your research to others before going to a meeting. However, you do not want to wait until you are about to graduate, as you may miss out on important networking opportunities.
Conferences can get pretty expensive depending on the location, size, length, and amenities provided. You may have a PI who is able and willing to pay for all of it out of their grant(s), in which case a nice thank you note is in order. If you are on a training grant or have an individual NRSA grant, find out what sort of travel funds are available through these channels. There are several other sources to apply for travel funds. GAPSA at Penn offers travel funds with a maximum award up to $800 and BGS also awards small travel grants ($500 maximum). Both have deadlines and require a letter of recommendation from your PI. Your individual CAMB subgroup group might also have some funds set aside for small travel grants for its students. Ask your group chair if this is the case. Some conferences also offer small reimbursements for speakers/presenters, which is something else to consider during your conference research.
The next step is to make a plan to maximize your conference experience. Look over the schedule of speakers, posters, and/or workshops and note when events of interest are scheduled. You may not be able to make every talk depending on how the conference is set up, but you will at least ensure you can attend the critical sessions. You should also prepare to network, so that you can get input on your research, and also make connections for future collaborations or jobs. Many conferences have a list of all the attendees. Look it over and make note of anyone or any companies you would like to talk to. You should be prepared to give a quick informal summary of your research to pique their interest. Lastly, don’t forget to dress for the occasion. Check the conference website or email the organizers if you are unsure of the dress code. Being too dressed up is just as awkward as being too casual.
During the conference:
Now that you have prepared for your conference and are finally there, use your time as efficiently as possible. Firstly, take notes on the sessions you attend. Importantly, take breaks during the day. Conferences may have talks that go on throughout the whole day, and listening to hours of talks can get exhausting.
Conferences are a great way to network and put your name out there. You should use them as an opportunity to meet new people and make new connections. Once you start going to conferences regularly, you will begin to meet the same people. Talking to other students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty who attend these meetings gives you an opportunity to discuss your work, and get new ideas and perspectives that can help move your project along. Additionally, the connections you make at conferences may be useful for your career after graduate school. You might work as a postdoctoral fellow with a faculty member that you connected with, or perhaps you will get a job at a company after meeting one of their employees.
Lastly, enjoy yourself! Don’t forget to take pictures of yourself presenting your poster or on your mini vacation. A lot of conferences will have a disclaimer prohibiting photography of posters, slides, and notes, so you should never take pictures of someone else's presentation unless specifically given permission.
After the conference:
Once you get back to lab, there are still a few things you should do. Go over your notes from the conference to review the information while it is still fresh in your mind and share what you’ve learned with other members of your lab. They are working in the same field as you, so it is likely that they will find this information useful as well. Furthermore, you should send out emails to people that you met at the conference to maintain those professional connections.
Conferences are great ways to learn about all the exciting work that people are doing to advance your field of study. While conferences can be overwhelming and exhausting, they are easily one of the most fun things about graduate school, so go enjoy one!