10 Tips for Attending Scientific Conferences
You're sitting in a room with hundreds of people in your field of research, but you’re not sure who anyone is or what their background is. You’ve been so busy trying to process everything around you that you’ve missed out on key sessions. On top of that, you’re exhausted from jetlag and the commute between your hotel and the conference center takes forever. Does this sound familiar?
Though it can be daunting, there are many benefits of attending a scientific conference. Not only do you get to learn about all the new research going on in your field, but you have an opportunity to network with your peers, potential collaborators, and future employers.
Scientific conferences are great for your career. But all of the sessions, people, and events can be overwhelming. How do you sort through all the information you’re bombarded with and make meaningful connections with people you meet? How do you make the best use of your time?
Here are ten tips on making the most out of a conference.
Define Your Goals
Are you stepping into the job market? Are you looking for a mentor, or for collaborators? Whether you aim to network, share your research, or hone your public speaking skills, define your objectives ahead of time. Doing this will give you an idea of how to approach the conference and the people you meet; it can help you prioritize your activities and create a schedule for yourself. Consider setting SMART goals—ones that are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-sensitive. For example, you can aim to make a certain number of connections or talk to someone about a new technique or advancement in your field.
Don’t wait until you’re at the conference to plan your activities—start early.
Research who is attending and giving presentations ahead of time. Find the conference program online and search for your research interests. Are there any keynote speakers? Is there anyone you may want to network with? Contact people you want to get in touch with before the conference and try to make plans to meet ahead of time. By the time you get to the conference, you should already have a plan of what you’re going to do and who you’re going to see, whether they’re delegates, exhibitors, or speakers.
If you have time outside of the conference, plan for a little sight-seeing. Conferences are a great way to see different cities, and exploring is a good way to fit in a little bit of down time.
Choose the Right Sessions
Chances are, there will be more sessions than you’re able to attend. Choose the most relevant, useful ones to ensure you get the most out of the short time you have there. If there are multiple concurrent sessions, prioritize those that can help you achieve your research objectives and goals. If someone else from your lab is going, plan to go to different sessions and share findings afterwards.
Be sure to allocate enough time for poster sessions. They’re a great place to learn, network, and have more casual, yet in-depth conversations with people.
Use Social Media
Social media is an invaluable tool when it comes to connecting with people and staying updated on events, including conferences.
If you’re not using Twitter to connect at conferences, you’re missing out on an opportunity to interact with the conference's targeted audience. Here are some tips for using Twitter at conferences:
- Follow the conference hashtag to see what people are talking about and to join the conversation. You can also use it to find out about sessions, social events, and anything else you may have missed.
- Let people know you’re attending—don’t forget to use the conference hashtag! This will give you an opportunity to connect with people prior to the conference.
- Share photos, videos, and quotes from the conference. According to Twitter’s Media Blog, posts with photos get a 35% boost in retweets, videos get a 28% boost, and quotes get a 19% boost compared to regular tweets.1
Note: Twitter is great for sharing your experiences from the conference, but before posting anything, be clear on the policy of sharing information. Some speakers don’t want their unpublished work to be tweeted or shared so if you’re unsure, ask first.
Apply For Travel Awards
Conferences can be expensive to attend but there are ways to save money. Keep an eye out for early registration discounts and travel awards.
Socialize and Network
Scientific conferences are great for networking opportunities, keeping up with scientific research, and seeking collaborations. In fact, a study in The Economic Journal suggests that scientists who attend conferences are more likely to co-author papers than those who do not attend.2
Networking at conferences is crucial. Even if a networking opportunity doesn’t seem relevant to you right now, don’t dismiss it. Someone may not be a useful connection now, but they may be one later on.
Here are some quick tips on networking:
- Prepare a 30 second “elevator pitch” to succinctly summarize your background and experience when introducing yourself to people.
- Figure out who will be at the conference, research their background, and come prepared with some questions you would like to ask.
- Follow up with the people you’ve met by sending them a follow-up email or connecting with them on social media.
- Can’t think of how to approach people? Have conversation starters ready such as, “Which talk are you most looking forward to?” and, “What did you think of the last talk?”
- Be sure to go to social events. Social events are a great way to connect with people in a more relaxed environment. Pick the events with free food and drinks! The added advantage is they usually attract the best crowds.
- When you’re at events, try not to stay with people you already know and see everyday, as this defeats the purpose of attending a conference. Branch out and meet new people—you never know when you’ll meet your next collaborator or your future boss.
Don’t be afraid to approach well known or senior investigators, particularly ones you might like to collaborate with, to discuss your work. They will often be more supportive and encouraging than you might have expected.
Be Prepared to Take Notes
If you’re attending a presentation or seminar, be ready to take notes. Whether it’s with pen and paper, or on a laptop or tablet, make sure to take detailed notes on everything, including your own thoughts and ideas, because you probably won’t remember it all by the time you get home. You don’t have to limit your notes to presentations. Chances are, you’ll meet a lot of new people. Take quick notes on each conversation you have with new people so you can remember who they are and what you had in common. You can also reference this in your LinkedIn invitation to make it more personable.
Get Some Rest
Networking at conferences is invaluable, but don’t push yourself to attend every social event, happy hour, and cocktail party if you are tired. With all there is to do at conferences, it’s easy to fall behind on sleep, and the fatigue can be exacerbated if you’re jet lagged. Make sure to get a good sleep and if you need to, take a 30 minute power nap. Sleeping will make you more alert, have better conversations with people, and will allow you to retain information better.
Plan Accommodations Wisely
When looking for a place to stay, don’t book your accommodation too far from the conference location. Any savings on accommodations may be lost when you consider the time required to travel to the event, as well as the strain it can put on attending networking or social events outside of the conference schedule. You will also find it easier to retreat to your room to rest if it’s close to the conference location. Book early to save money, and try to plan travel to allow a little time before the conference to settle in and refresh.
Present Your Work
Register for a poster or oral presentation. Not only will this give you an opportunity to exercise your presentation skills, but you may meet other researchers in your field and get helpful feedback and insightful questions about your research. For scientists early in their careers, a record of conference presentations can set you apart from other candidates when you apply for future positions. For more established researchers, presenting your work is a great way of attracting collaborators or talented young scientists to join your group.
Read more about how to present your research >
It can be difficult to take time out of your research to attend conferences. You can spend less time in the lab and more time at conferences by working smarter in the lab.
- Campos R et al. (2018) Lost in the storm: the academic collaborations that went missing in Hurricane ISSAC. Econ J 128(610): 995-1018.