How to make the most of your conference

I have a confession to make. I have an addiction to conferences and absolutely love attending them! In my PhD alone I attended nine international meetings and ten local ones. I still remember my first international conference very clearly (you always remember your first) – I was painfully shy and didn’t know how to make the most of my time there. I made a few friends with my fellow PhD students but hardly talked to others. Fast forward four years to now, and I’m parleying with all walks of research, asking questions in seminars, presenting my own, being part of committees, being part of panel discussions and even featured on a poster!

And that brings us back to why we are here. In this post, I want to share with you what I’ve learned over the years about making the most of your conference time.

  1. Get your talk/poster done with ample time for feedback
    • Give a practice presentation to your lab, peers, family and friends and get their feedback
    • Make sure your talk is within the time restrictions (factor in question time)
    • Make sure your poster is the right size (check if it’s portrait or landscape)
  2. Take a look at the program schedule and mark in the important dates/time
    • Lock in the essential events: presentations, committee meetings, award ceremony, events that you’ve signed up for (don’t miss an important event or be late!)
    • Figure out what talks/posters you’d like to visit and pencil them in
    • At the beginning of each conference day, take a moment to review exactly what events you must go to (and where they are) and what events you’d like to go to if there’s spare time. This will also help with figuring out what to wear.
  3. Get your tickets for special conference events ahead of time
    • I used to just register for the conference only and not the add-on tickets but after attending a few conferences, I’ve encountered situations where I’ve had to line up for ages for last-minute tickets or been told that tickets have run out. So now, I register for all events that catch my fancy. For example, the conference I most recently attended was ARVO 2019 in Vancouver and I signed up for all the amazing social events as soon as I registered for the conference such as a Sunday Social at the Vancouver Aquarium and the ARVO Karaoke Night. It’s so cool to see your favourite scientists belt it out on stage and dance the night away!
  4. Follow your conference organisation on Twitter and start tweeting
    • Find out what the conference hashtag is
    • Follow conference attendees
    • Take some photos and share your experiences via social media. Just a quick reminder: no photos of other people’s talks or posters unless given permission.
  5. Volunteer to help the conference organisers or societies in the exhibit hall
    • There’s always stuff to do whether it be helping people register, handing out conference tote bags or simply helping out at the exhibit hall – all you have to do is ask!
  6. Check out the posters in all fields and talk to poster presenters
    • I love visiting posters that are both in and outside my field of research. It really brings a fresh perspective to your own research to learn about research from other fields.
    • Talking to other scientists from other fields is always fun. I love it when someone from a different discipline comes to my poster and gives me advice. It’s so insightful and refreshing to hear their ideas and I like to do the same for other poster presenters!
  7. Grab some freebies at the trade displays
    • Whenever you have some free time, take a wander around the exhibit hall and check out the trade displays. There are so many cool new gadgets, services and tools you can learn about. Have a chat with the exhibitors and grab some cool freebies while you’re at it.
  8. Don’t hesitate to ask questions at talks (get in line quick)
    • At my first few conferences, I was definitely scared to ask questions but after attending a few, I realised that I did have interesting questions to contribute to the discussion and I made my way up to the microphone.
    • The trick is not to hesitate because there’s only a limited amount of time for questions and by the time you overcome the fear of getting up on stage, there’s already a line of people ready to ask their question. So if you have one, get in line quickly.
  9. Do some exploring outside the conference
    • If you’re in a city you’ve never visited, definitely take the time to explore during your free time.
    • If you have the opportunity, take some time off before or after the conference to do even more exploring. Why not? You’ve already flown all this way!
  10. Network and connect with amazing scientists
    • Attending conferences is the perfect opportunity to meet all the scientists behind the papers you’ve been reading. I honestly get a bit starstruck when I meet the scientists in my field. If you feel a bit intimidated introducing yourself, you can always ask your lab head to introduce you or get their postdoc or PhD student to introduce you. The important thing is to remind yourself that even though you regard them as celebrities in the science world, they’re also human beings like you and are actually super nice and approachable!
  11. Make new friends and have fun!
    • I love making new friends at conferences and re-connecting with old friends. Since I’ve been attending the same conferences a few times, I’ve found some friends that I regularly hang out with at these conferences and it’s so great to catch up once a year and find out what they’ve been up to. I always find it so cool when my friends ask me how I’ve been in the past year and it’s actually a great way to reflect on how far you’ve come in the past year!
    • The most important thing is to have fun and enjoy yourself at conferences! I always feel so re-energised, re-invigorated and refreshed when I come back from a conference with new ideas, perspectives and directions to take my project.

Comment below with your top conference tips!

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