On July 21, 2018, Joshua Hall (@jdhallphd), Director of @UNCPREP @UNC School of Medicine and creator and host of the @hellophd podcast, posed a question for Science Twitter that generated a thread worth talking about for scicomm fans:
Scientific conferences provide amazing opportunities to learn about the latest and greatest research. But they can be overwhelming.
So. Much. Information.
So. Many. People.
So. Little. Time.
Some terrific responses followed Hall’s tweet that should be a big help to conference newbies (and conference veterans, too)!
Advance preparation is a common theme that emerged from the dozens of responses. If you get an abstract book ahead of the conference, be sure to read it and mark which presentations and posters you want to see most. Chances are you won’t have time to get to everything, so you need to prioritize. Several people noted that conferences can burn you out, so you may want to incorporate some downtime into your schedule, too.
Many people noted how Twitter enhances the conference experience. Megan Lynch (@may_gun) suggested: “Start following listed guests who have Twitter accts before the conference. Find out what the conf hashtag is. If there isn’t one, invent it and livetweet – people will remember who you are because you’re helping to spread info.” Similar advice was echoed by Efrain Rivera-Serrano (@nakedcapsid): “Join Twitter and use the conference hashtag to connect with people even before the meeting starts! Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to others and ENGAGE them. Make them remember you.”
If you need to meet with people who will be at the conference, Kayleigh O’Keeffe (@KOKeeffe) advises that you schedule a specific time in advance: “If you’re going to a big conference, it can be challenging to have conversations with professors and others you may be interested in meeting with without planning. Email folks prior to the meeting to set up a time to meet & maybe even invite them to come to your presentation.”
One of the best things about a conference is the opportunity to network and establish new collaborations. This is why you should never skip the meals, social events, or happy hours. To help you establish valuable new contacts, Ira Blader (@BladerLab) recommends that you “Don’t eat meals with people you know.” (So that’s why he never invites me to join him for dinner!) Dr. Jacquelyn Gill (@JacquelynGill) wrote, “You’ll feel like you need to connect with ‘bigwigs,’ but in the long run, your peers will be the most meaningful relationships. Don’t forget to network with them, too!”
Several people recommended putting your Twitter handle on your slides/poster and business cards. I also like to add mine to my name badge. As stated by Hall, this “makes it easy to connect with [people] after the talk and follow their work after the conference ends.”
For those who are a bit shy or inexperienced with networking, try to shake those inhibitions. If you find it hard to know what to say to strangers, several people reminded us that scientists love to talk about themselves and their research. That should provide you with an excellent starting point for making a new friend at a conference. Raeesa Gupte (@NeuroRaeesa) wrote an article on effective networking at conferences you can find here.
It is easy to get lost at some scientific meetings, especially the large ones, so Alex Dainis (@AlexDainis) offers this bit of advice: “Set a conference goal! When I go in with a defined goal (i.e. Ask a question in a session, Give a good talk, Hand out 5 business cards, Meet with collaborator) I find that I feel more accomplished and do more work than if I have a vague idea like ‘Network.’”
Several people suggested that you take advantage of the diversity of research at many conferences to get out of your comfort zone and check out something new. Adam Micolich (@ad_mico) comments, “Do at least one session in a topic that you find sort of interesting but isn’t your current specialty. Fields evolve so fast today that if you stay in the game you will eventually need to change topic. Pays to know what’s happening in other fields.”
Some conferences have additional events besides the science that can be of benefit to your work or career development. At larger conferences, vendor shows are common. Colette M (@ColetteInTheLab) suggests, “Actually talk to the vendors and not just swipe the free stuff, especially if it’s a vendor that you commonly work with. They may help you troubleshoot a problem you didn’t even know you have, tell you about a new product, and maybe even tell you about jobs.” You may also find grant writing workshops or mentoring seminars specific to your level of training; if not, perhaps you can contact the organizers to arrange one. NIH program officers, journal editors, and employees from biotech firms or pharmaceutical industries commonly attend these meetings, too.
There’s also some practical things you should know. Dr. Kate Bradford (@KateBradfordSci) recommends you wear layers and bring comfortable shoes and snacks. Definitely snacks! Sometimes the meals leave a lot to be desired and you don’t want to disrupt the plenary lecture with your growling stomach! Also good to pack extra chargers for your devices and some basic medications (Tylenol, antacids, anti-itch cream for bug bites). Cough drops, mints, and a water bottle are also good to have on hand as you’ll be doing a lot of talking (well, you should be)!
And of course, all work and no play makes us dull scientists! As recommended by Dr. Gail M. Seigel (@eyedoc333), “If the conference is in another city/state/country, be sure to take time to sample the local foods and cultural attractions during your breaks. Conferences are a great way to see the world.”