• October 1, 2014

How to Get the Most Out of Scientific Conferences

Senior scientists make a habit of attending professional conferences. As a graduate student, postdoc, or assistant professor, you should also plan to attend such events. They are an important way to begin developing your professional reputation.

Scientific conferences are ideal places to find out what's hot, and not so hot, in your field, observe the various debates and controversies under way, meet interesting people, make contacts for the future, and, in general, interact with professionals in your field. In many disciplines, job contacts and some preliminary interviews take place at conferences.

While conference registration fees have increased significantly in recent years, discounts are often available for graduate students and postdocs. It is also possible to reduce the expense of attending professional meetings by volunteering to serve on planning committees. Most committees welcome the input and energy of emerging scholars, and will often waive the registration fee for such help.

Scientific meetings can range from as few as a hundred or so participants for very specialized or local events, to many thousands for annual gatherings such as those of the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, and the American Physical Society.

Large conferences can often seem overwhelming, particularly to beginners, and it's easy to be intimidated by the list of speakers and attendees, all of whom seem to know more than you. To understand how to make it a low-stress, productive experience, consider the conference experience in three stages.

Before the conference

Don't arrive unprepared: Too much is at stake in terms of time and missed opportunities. Check out the schedule of events on the conference Web site. Scan the session titles and note those that look useful. Highlight all interesting sessions and, where there are conflicts, decide which ones you will attend and which ones you will want to read about in the published conference proceedings. If more than one person from your institution will be attending, divide the sessions among yourselves to maximize coverage, then plan to share your notes.

Make a list of the people you have met before and want to see again. Go through the conference guide and highlight the names of people you would like to meet, such as other graduate students and postdocs, as well as officers and presenters.

Ask your adviser or other senior colleagues who are also attending the conference to introduce you to people they know who might be interested in what you are doing. If your colleagues are not going to the conference, ask them if there is anything you can do on their behalf, such as contacting a researcher or attending a particular session. That way you have an additional reason to attend, and you can use the name of your better-known colleague as an introduction.

For the new contacts whom you'd really like to meet, send a short e-mail message telling them you will be at the conference and why you want to see them. Enclose a brief description of what you are working on. You would be surprised how flattered other scientists will be at this request -- even the most senior, well-known stars.

Of course, make sure you have plenty of business cards with your latest title, telephone number, and e-mail address.

Also, prepare your "no-notes talks." By such talks I don't mean your formal technical presentation (the subject of a future Catalyst column.) What I mean are the informal talks you give every time someone asks, "Who are you and what is your research area?" This will happen dozens of times throughout the conference, and you need to be prepared.

In some cases, such as on an elevator, you will have no more than 30 seconds to give your answer. In most situations, you will need to give your "hallway talk," a quick overview in one to three minutes without notes or illustrations. If you are lucky, and can get some time with people you are interested in meeting, you may have a chance to give your "office talk," which could last up to 10 minutes. In a previous column, I talked about how to develop such responses, which you should practice every chance you get with people you know at your own institution.

During the conference

Review the latest program and finalize your choices for each day. Be sure to check for changes in time and location. Coordinate with colleagues who may be attending other sessions.

Generally, I recommend sitting toward the back of the room during sessions. If a session doesn't look like it is going to give you what you want, you can leave and go on to your second choice. Be sure to take notes on ideas you can use.

While attending sessions is important, most experienced conference-goers know that much of the action lies not in the talks themselves but in the hallways, at dinners, and in informal seminars. Here are some things to do outside the formal sessions:

  • Seek out the people you have written to prior to the conference and ask them to meet you later for coffee or a meal. Do the same with presenters after their talks.

  • Check the program to see if there are recent alumni from your institution with whom you can make contact, seek information, and share experiences.

  • Talk to others about new directions developing in your field and find out about emerging leaders who might be attending. Keep your eye out for colleagues who might review your work, collaborate with you, and help you with future connections.

  • Pay particular attention to informal conversations, and note who is talking to whom and what kinds of alliances are being formed.

  • Talk about your research interests every chance you get via your "elevator," "hallway," or "office" talks. At the same time, be sure to listen to others as well. You'll learn more this way, and people will feel that your conversations are a two-way street.

  • Finally, find a good place to keep the business cards you collect. At the time you are given such cards, note the circumstances of your meeting and how you plan to follow up. Don't rely on your memory to help you do this later.

After the conference

There are really just three things you need to do after the conference: follow up, follow up, and follow up.

Follow up with a note and promised abstracts or publications to the contacts you made. Ask them to send promised material.

Follow up with presenters you missed and ask for a copy of their handouts.

Follow up by summarizing what you learned, particularly the informal insights, in an e-mail message, and send it to your colleagues as well as those people you met at the conference. This is a very appreciated service and will get you noticed by other professionals.

Following these guidelines will help ensure that your conference experience will be informative, rewarding, and even fun. Ideally, you will benefit professionally and look forward to your next professional meeting.

Richard M. Reis is director for academic partnerships at the Stanford University Learning Laboratory, and author of Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Academic Careers in Science and Engineering, available from IEEE Press or the booksellers below. He is also the moderator of the biweekly Tomorrow's Professor Listserve, which anyone can subscribe to by sending the message [subscribe tomorrows-professor] to Majordomo@lists.stanford.edu

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