Conference, not chaos

Everything about conferences can be exciting and overwhelming. But with a little planning, forethought, and tricks up your sleeve, they can run a little smoother, be more enjoyable, and more productive. Below are my initial thoughts on conferences, which I’ll add to over the coming weeks (as I head to two conferences, one international event with many different fields of research, and one smaller more specialised function).

Choosing conferences

Some of the factors you might think of when planning which conferences to go to include the fit with your work, the likely participants (who you want to talk to), whether they are big international events offering a breadth of experience, or more focused events offering better in-depth content, whether they offer prizes or travel scholarships (another good line on your PhD), what workshops they might offer, the stage of your research (whether you are particularly seeking contacts for further employment, if you are wanting to promote your work widely, or just to a particular interest group).

I recommend variety too! Particularly as a student, variety will give you a wider appreciation for science before you settle into a niche.

Value adding

It is all too easy just to go to a conference and float though. But a few tips can help value-add to your experience.

Take advantage of pre- and post- conference workshops. Not only will you gain useful skills, learn from people outside your research group, but it is a really great way to make new contacts and get your name out there.

Identify 3-5 people you want to talk to, and schedule a time to meet them. Senior researchers particularly can get really busy during conferences, and you likely won’t be able to just catch them on the go there. Email them prior, make a time, plan your meeting. Read their recent work and be prepared to comment on it and it’s relevance to you. Make sure they remember you as more than just a face in the crowd.

It could even be useful to schedule a group chat with some other students or postdocs with a more senior person. This way they’re more likely to say yes, and you get the added benefit of being seen as a ‘leader’. Taking this to another level, having a group dinner where every member of the group invites 1-2 people from outside to join can be a useful way to gain group visibility and meet a whole lot more people in a productive way.

If you’re travelling a distance (or not) also consider if you want to spend more time there – for example at another lab. Most are quite welcoming of visitors for a short time (~1 week) and it can give you opportunity to present your work there, and explore potential employers or collaborators.

Talk, or poster… or session, or workshop?

Both talks and posters can be great – but note your travel funding rules, they may require you to have an oral presentation. Posters have the advantage of getting great one-on-one conversations going. Talks can sometimes get a little rushed. If you’re presenting, make sure your presentation is on time, clear in terms of both content and visuals, and snazzy (e.g. try not to dazzle me with dot points, please!). There are lots of resources out there to help with this. [I’ll try and link some good ones here in the future].

If you’re getting towards the end of your PhD or are starting your Postdoc, you might like to think about organising a session, or even a workshop. This is a great way to get your name out, and useful experience to have.

Engage and be visible

Have you seen a talk where at the end, no-one asks questions, and there is this uncomfortable silence?

Speakers will love you if you ask a question. I’m not great at this, so I’ll refer you to a useful blog by the guardian, and I’ll add that a) if you’re in a large conference it can be useful at the start of a question to state your name and organisation – so people start to know your name, b) don’t ask a question just to ask a question or hear your own voice, c) try and make the question relevant to the audience (or otherwise ask in private), and d) practice asking questions in a less threatening environment. Also, if you’re the speaker you might think about planting a question (if you have a friend in the audience – or leave it with the session host to ask), or even asking a question yourself (e.g. “I’d be really interested in getting your feedback on aspect X”).

Some have also taken to tweeting main messages from each talk – and if this is your thing, then great. They say it helps to distill the main message into 160 characters. But this dinosaur hasn’t yet learnt to deal with that, so I’ll move on…

Be prepared. Prepare your elevator speech and a one sentence summary of your work. Prepare a question to initiate conversation in the coffee line (e.g. “Hi, I’m wondering, do you have any tips for getting the most out of conferences?”). And have business cards or a similar way for people to remember you. I’m a little old-fashioned, I like cards – and often when I collect them from people I write where I met them, and anything particular about them (like “send recent paper” or “email and request paper”).

Be sincere, and don’t flit. Coming across as sincere can be as simple as adding detail, for example, rather than just “great talk”, say “great talk, I really liked how you approached analysis X…”. And try and avoid merely flitting between groups, this just annoys people and won’t make you any friends.

And lastly, if you’re like me (somewhat introverted), schedule some downtime. Take time to recharge, you don’t need to be in every session!

Follow up

You’re heading home, to a backlog of emails and work. Crazy, hey. Now, if you get emails from randoms, it is just another task (perhaps even just a ‘delete’). But perhaps, in a week or so, when you’ve had a chance to catch up, you might have more time, more breathing space.

So, a week or so out from the conference, this is a great time to follow up some of those leads you carefully cultivated during the event. Send emails, thanking people for meeting with you, send them links to your recent work, etc.

Also, when you get back to work, report back to your colleagues to consolidate and share some of the information you’ve learnt.

This is currently an evolving blog post!

I’d be glad to hear some of your tips for conferences.


An international climate change conference (COP10) – an example of a big, cacophonous conference, for which you certainly need a plan



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