Conferencing with confidence

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Whether it’s your first time or you’re a seasoned conference attendee, scientific conferences provide so much more than just an opportunity to share you research. Maximizing your conference experience as an early career researcher (ECR) can be slightly different to how you approach them as a student. Usually as a student the focus is solely on presenting your research well and getting through it unscathed, however, beyond the student perspective the focus turns more towards meeting up with potential collaborators, discussing project details and getting feedback on your research. Additionally, finding niche opportunities for post-doctoral positions often arise from conference conversations.

Here I outline a few tips I have found useful when attending conferences, with something in there for everyone.

Prepare

This goes beyond preparing for your talk or poster and rather preparing for the conference itself. Depending on the size of the meeting, the number of sessions available can be overwhelming and you don’t want to risk missing a vital presentation in your field because you chose a session on the go. Avoid disappointment by going through the program beforehand and highlighting ‘must-see’ sessions. Some conferences also have apps where you can flag talks you are interested in and create a personalized schedule. Whichever way you do it, a few minutes of preparation before the conference can save you a lot of time and ensure you see the presentations of relevance to your research.

Arrange meetings

As you have now been through the program, you know key researchers in your field who are attending, and this is a great opportunity to connect. If there is someone you particularly want to talk to who is more senior, one way to break the ice before the meeting is to email in advance to introduce yourself and suggest a meet up during a break. Senior researchers are often in high demand and this is one way of ensuring you will get to chat with them rather than trying to approach them after a talk. I would suggest only arranging meetings if there is something specific you would like to discuss.

Engage

Get to know how your conference runs. Do they have a hashtag? Preferred media source? Conference app? Knowing the best way to engage will help in getting the most out of the short time you have. Twitter has become one of the go-to platforms for conference social media and can be really helpful when attending, especially if you are alone. When you are travelling to the conference tweet about it and add the conference hashtag – this will identify you as an attendee that will be covering this conference and enthusiastic to connect. It is also a great way to highlight your research presentation/poster by tweeting the details for people interested in your field. This can be really handy for big meetings where you might become lost amongst a sea of posters. The hashtag can be also be a useful way of connecting with people not attending also, as many people will follow from afar. Social media is great for informal connections and sharing your experience, just remember to use this as a bridge to form face-to-face interactions as this is the major bonus of attending in person – you get to meet people from all over the world who like to nerd out about the same thing!

Meet people

This can be super daunting for some people, particularly introverts, however, it doesn’t have to be so scary. Everyone attending is there because they have a passion for the field and that takes out half of the struggle of striking up a conversation with a stranger – common interest. Start with the basics, where are you from? What are you working on? This can often have a cascading effect where you chat with one person and then meet their colleagues etc. In my experience, attending a conference alone can be really beneficial for meeting people as you tend to start more conversations and venture out of your comfort zone. So, don’t be intimidated if you are going solo, lots of people are and will be relieved if you start the conversation.

Share your research

The whole purpose of a conference is to gather researchers in the field to share and discuss the latest findings. This is a rare opportunity when people drag themselves away from the lab bench and expand their focus beyond their own project. The other research discussed often will inform where you take your own projects in the future. Not only is there the academic aspect, there is also the opportunity to meet new people, socialize and build networks. When presenting your research, be sure to provide your contact details so that people can connect with you. This might be by including your Twitter handle or email on the first/last slide or having business cards to exchange or place with your poster. Further to the point on posters, make sure you stand with yours during the allocated time; this is a chance to explain your research one-on-one and get invaluable peer feedback. While it can be awkward sometimes, it is definitely worth sticking it out.

Take advantage of the extras

There are often a range of extras surrounding a meeting that go beyond the formal proceedings. Attend the specific student or ECR professional development sessions – these are usually early morning breakfast events that are worth waking up early for. Regardless of the topic, these sessions will often provide valuable career advice and guidance aimed specifically at your career stage, definitely worth attending! Additionally, take a walk through the trade exhibition and chat to the companies on display, let them know how you use their products or discuss if they have something suitable for what you are looking for. This is a great way to troubleshoot issues you may be having from a technical perspective and also see what the best products for your project are – don’t underestimate how helpful these exhibitors can be! Lastly, (but not least!) the social functions, this is a time relax with your new colleagues and mingle without rushing off to the next session and is a prime time for networking.

It is usually a whirlwind, but by the end of it all, you should leave having had a great time with your peers, new ideas, feedback and a network of new colleagues.

I’d love to hear your advice on conferencing as an ECR – what is your best conference tip? Join in the conversation below or on Twitter!

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