Attending conferences is a crucial part of academic life. They offer unparalleled opportunities to meet people, present your research, and develop ideas. But how do you make sure you really take advantage of all that a conference has to offer? Here are some tips!
Think About Your Goals
Consider your priorities for a conference. Are you looking to connect with new people, communicate your work, or learn about new developments in your field? While you can do all three at most conferences, setting some conference goals will help you determine which conference is best for you and help you allocate your time once you’re there.
Choose the Right Conferences
You will get the most out of a conference if you choose one that aligns with your goals. There are several different types of conferences and they each have their own strengths. Every field has an annual meeting which is quite broad in scope. This type of conference gives you a good overview of the current state of the field and major developments of the year. However, you may prefer a smaller conference about your specific research topic. It can be easier to connect with other researchers in a more intimate setting and get valuable feedback about your work. There are also conferences aimed at graduate students and postdocs which are useful for gaining presentation experience.
Plan Your Time
The schedule of a major conference is jam packed with numerous sessions and panels. In order to make sure that you don’t miss any key presentations or spread yourself too thin it’s a good idea to make a conference game plan. Look through the program and put the most important sessions in your schedule first. Fill the rest of it up with sessions that either fulfill an educational goal or a personal one (to meet or support the presenter). If you have the time, try to attend a few wild card sessions that seem interesting but aren’t related to your work. Everyone has a different level of endurance, but don’t forget to leave yourself some downtime to socialize and recharge.
For most academics, especially PhD students and postdocs, conferences are the main way to build a network. They’re a great way to connect with people in your field you may not normally have the opportunity to meet. If you’re still early in your PhD you may not know many people outside of your university, however, your colleagues and supervisor will. By sticking with them at the start, you will be introduced to the people in their network. If you’re attending a conference solo, strike up a conversation with a fellow solo conference goer. When in doubt, asking what the best paper they’ve seen so far is an easy icebreaker. Utilize the coffee breaks and conference dinners to get to know your new contacts better.
Don’t Neglect Twitter
Twitter has become essential part of science communication and the conference-going experience. Most major conferences and even several smaller ones have their own hashtags you can follow and use. Searching the conference hashtag is a great way to find out who else is at the conference and learn about panels or sessions that might not otherwise catch your eye. Live-tweeting the conference is a way to connect with other attendees, discuss sessions in real time, and share information with people who weren’t able to attend. Through Twitter you can even follow a session happening in another room if you have a scheduling conflict.
Taking notes is a good way to remember things you learned during the conference sessions, who you met and any thing requiring further action. Take a moment at the end of each day to summarize the key takeaways. Did you get an idea for your research at a panel? Did you discuss a potential collaboration with another researcher? Write these things down so you don’t miss the opportunities.
When you get back from a conference, send a quick follow up email to the new people you met and any potential collaborators you talked to. Then, keep in touch! There’s no reason someone you meet at a conference should be a one-time-only contact. Send them a quick message to see if they’re going to the next annual conference rolls or a congratulate them on a new publication. Over time, they can become an integral part of your network.