Ten Tips for Making the Most of Your Summer Conference Trip

May 29, 2017

By Erin Zimmerman, Ph.D.

The flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and the temperature is slowly rising. That can only mean one thing… conference season is upon us. The opportunity to attend a conference can be one of the most informative and motivating experiences of your career, and definitely worth taking full advantage of, whether it’s your first conference or annual favourite. So for grad students and early-career researchers looking to make the most of their conference trip, here are some tips to help you do just that.

1) Have a Plan

At a large conference there are likely going to be several concurrent sessions going on at any given time and numerous talks that you want to see. So plan ahead! Look up the conference timetable online ahead of time and make a schedule for yourself. Many conferences now have a mobile app you can try out as well. A word to the wise: don’t be tempted to jump back and forth to see several talks in two different concurrent sessions unless they’re all very well separated in time, because such sessions rarely run on schedule and may even be in different buildings. You might end up missing the very talks you were trying to see. If you can’t get to one that’s really important to you, see if you can make an arrangement with a colleague to attend and take notes in exchange for doing so for talks they cannot attend.

2) Let ’Em Know You’re Coming

These days, most conferences have a Twitter hashtag, which can be a useful way of finding out who else is attending, as well as learning of unofficial social events you might want to check out. Tweet or post elsewhere on social media to let people know you’re attending, and you may be able to get in on some otherwise unpublicized get-togethers. You can also reach out to acquaintances on Twitter to buddy up for networking events—this can be a helpful strategy to avoid feeling intimidated by the large numbers of people you don’t know. 

If someone you’re dying to meet has mentioned via social media that they’re going to the conference, reach out... you may be able to set up a meeting ahead of time and ensure you don’t miss out on an in-person connection. Reaching out also takes some of the pressure off of you when approaching them at the conference.

3) Polish Your Elevator Pitch

When you’re getting out there and striking up conversations during the conference, you’re sure to be asked on multiple occasions to summarize your research. If you’re the tiniest bit shy or easily put on the spot, this is something you should practice ahead of time, both in front of a mirror and with a trusted friend or family member. Knowing that you’ve rehearsed some talking points will give you that extra boost of confidence. Clarify for yourself what the core points of your research are and learn to state them in two to three sentences. It doesn’t hurt to learn a slightly longer version as well, for situations in which a longer answer is warranted. Read up on how to craft an elevator pitch and start practicing. 

4) Help Cover Costs

If you’re a student, conferences often have several ways you can potentially offset your trip costs. Travel bursaries specifically help pay for travel costs and are usually easy to apply for. Typically, you’ll need to submit a short statement about why you’re attending the conference and give a list of your approximate costs. Sometimes you may be asked to provide a summary of your conference trip, which provides an opportunity to reflect as well as writing experience for a blog or newsletter. Presentation and poster competitions involve having your submission judged, which can be intimidating, but worth it. Even if you aren’t awarded funds, you often receive useful feedback from the judges that’s helpful for future applications. Finally, conferences run by scientific societies often have prizes for the best published papers in a given subject each year. If you have a publication that meets the criteria, applying can be as easy as submitting the name of your publication, and this can potentially earn you a tidy little sum, not to mention the pride of having your paper recognized at the awards ceremony and shared among your peers. 

Travel funding for postdoctoral researchers is limited to non-existent. If such funds aren’t available for the conference you’re attending, consider starting a dialogue with conference organizers about the potential for generating funds for this purpose.  

5) Have Some Extra Data Ready

When you’re giving a talk, two of the biggest sources of stress can be a) trying to fit everything you need to say into the all-too-brief time you’ve been allotted and b) being terrified about whether you’ll be able to confidently field the questions afterward. So here’s a way to kill two birds with one stone. Once you’ve finished putting together your slides as you’ll present them, take the important bits of information you weren’t able to fit in and arrange them into two to three slides after the end of your talk. This way, you’ll have a visual aid to refer to if you need extra data or figures to answer a question, and you get to sneakily fit more material into your allotted time at the front of the room. And of course, running through practice question sessions with lab colleagues ahead of time can help prevent or minimize conference talk stress.

6) Be Hard to Ignore

The most important consideration when creating a poster is that it be clear, attractive, and eye-catching. (Check out this article on how to design a good one.) That said, when you’re taking part in a poster session, particularly a large one, it can be hard to drum up business. While it can be tempting to sit back and wait for someone to approach or initiate a conversation, remember that you are there to talk about something you are an expert in and feel passionately about! Any visitors to your poster will acknowledge your enthusiasm and appreciate the visit. So don’t make yourself too easy to ignore. Make eye contact. Smile. Say hello. It can really make the difference in how many people end up hearing about your research. For a little extra visual flair, you can also—if the conference allows it—set up a tablet next to your poster with a short video or animation from your research.

For those of you giving talks, make sure people attend and hear your message by tweeting ahead of time about when and where your talk will be. You can even tweet out your title slide or an image from the talk itself to pique people’s interest. 

Lightning talks, in which each participant has only a few minutes to speak concisely, are another way of disseminating your research. These talks may be stand-alone presentations or a way of promoting your poster or full-length presentation at a session. Be sure to prepare well ahead of time—with so brief a time at the microphone, you’ll need to know exactly what you plan to say, and stick only to the main points of your research.

7) Give People Something to Remember You By

This is a pretty obvious one, but it can be easy to overlook. Don’t be that engaging but anonymous person whom everyone forgets after the conference because no one knew your name... wear your name tag! Have a cool science-themed T-shirt or piece of jewellery you’ve been wanting to show off? Bring it along! It’ll be a great conversation starter and help you to make an impression. Above all, wear something you feel confident in that will help give you the self-assurance to approach new people. 

Many attendees carry business cards to hand out at conferences. This is certainly one option. There’s always the danger, however, that people will take one look, tuck the card away in their wallet or purse, and forget it’s there. A variation of this I’ve seen that struck me as much more likely to make an impression was a small, roughly pamphlet-sized version of the poster being presented. It showed all the main points of the research project, as well as the contact information you’d find on a standard business card. This method has all the advantages of the smaller card, but gives a summary of what you do that’ll help your contact to remember why they might want to reach out to you. 

8) Don’t Skip the Social Events (or Field Trips)

If you’re burnt out from a full day of listening to complex talks, you’re bound to want to just call it a night and go back to your hotel room after the day’s sessions finish. Try to muster your reserves! So much of the important networking goes on at the “after-hours” events. These are the times when people can be most approachable; it can be much easier to strike up a conversation with the esteemed researcher whose work inspired yours while casually touring a research facility or botanical garden than it is in the rushed moments between symposia. Not to mention, getting to know some of your peers over craft ales at the local watering hole is a fun way to build connections for the future. For you extroverts out there, support your less outgoing colleagues by encouraging them to attend networking events and introducing them to the new people you’ve met.

9) Follow Up

If you met someone at the conference, even briefly, be sure to connect with them over LinkedIn or email or follow them on Twitter when you get home. Be sure you do this promptly, before they have a chance to get foggy on who you are. If you can make these connections while their memory of you is fresh, you can slowly build them into something more stable over time. Who knows... it could turn into something mutually beneficial in the long run.

10) Follow Along from Home

Couldn’t make it to the conference you really wanted to go to? Try following along on Twitter. More and more, conference attendees are live-tweeting talks using the conference hashtag. Tweets often convey the main takeaways of talks and sometimes lead to more follow-up discussion than there was time for at the conference, allowing you to potentially engage even more than you would have had you been there.

So have fun this conference season and soak up all it has to offer, but don’t forget to keep your career goals in mind. This is your chance to get out there and make yourself known.

What are your best tips for conference success? Let us know in the comments or send us a tweet!


Erin Zimmerman (@DoctorZedd) is a plant biologist turned science writer and illustrator. She holds a B.Sc. in plant biology and physics from the University of Guelph and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in fungal genetics and molecular systematics, respectively, from the Université de Montréal. She blogs about evolution at Questionable Evolution. Find more of her writing at her website.


Filed Under: Science Careers Erin Zimmerman

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