How to make the most of a conference

5 09 2013

conferenceHaving just attended two major international conferences back-to-back (ICCB 2013 in Baltimore, USA and INTECOL 2013 in London, UK), I thought it might be a good idea to proffer some advice for those who are relatively new to the conference carousel. Having attended some larger number raised to the power of another conferences since I started this science gig, I think I’ve figured out a few definitely do-s, and positively don’t-s.

Some might argue that the scientific conference is a thing of the past. Now with super-fast internet, Twitter, open-access, Skype and video conference calls, why would we need to travel half way around the planet to sit day after day in some stuffy room to listen to some boring snippets of half-finished research? Why indeed would I get jet-lagged, spend a sizeable chunk of my research grant and emit a bucket-load of carbon just to listen to some boring old farts tell me the same thing they’ve been doing for the last 20 years?

If that were all conferences were about, I would never attend another for the rest of my career. Thankfully, that’s not why we go.

Yes, it’s easy to go online these days and see what your colleagues are up to (and if they don’t have a good online profile, they almost don’t exist these days). It’s also easier and easier to download important papers from almost anyone and in almost any journal. So clearly conferences are not primarily about finding out what research is being done; in fact, I argue that that’s not their role at all.

The most important aspect of a conference are the social events. Yes, the social events.

That might sound like a joke, but I’m dreadfully serious.

Although conference social events can often be little more than a piss-up of intellectuals, or (mainly for the younger mob) an opportunity to court like-minded geeks, the ‘social’ is probably the best place to gauge future collaborative opportunities.

There’s nothing more disarming than sitting across a table from a well-lubricated potential colleague in a pub/club/restaurant/banquet hall and discussing the finer points of ecological theory. There are, of course, healthy doses of gossip, rumour and scuttlebutt to keep the conversation interesting. But in general, I leave most conferences having developed at least a few more relationships with kindred minds with whom I hope to collaborate sometime in the future. Had I not met them outside of the prim and proper confines of the professional conference atmosphere, I might never have known how truly intelligent, and how truly cool, these people are. That says nothing, of course, of the impossibility of determining their scientific coolness over the internet.

If you’re a student, these opportunities are not just golden, they’re essential. When else will you get to meet the biggest wig in your field, or have a chance to get to know a big name? Don’t be shy – walk right up, present yourself, and offer to buy them a drink. Works every time.

It works both ways, of course. I always say that life is too short to work with arseholes. Chances are with the encouragement of a little CH3CH2OH, potentially bad-news relationships can be averted by discerning the true character of a poisonous collaborator. Make sure though that your own indulgence doesn’t make you the inadvertent bellwether of doom for someone else (especially if that someone else is a good deal farther along in her/his career).

So make absolutely sure you attend the icebreaker, the poster sessions, the mixers, the banquets, the pub-crawls and any other social event you can buy or steal your way into. And if you are a teetotaller, perchance? No worries – the advantage is yours, but still attend the events.

These days the biggest conferences are difficult to negotiate, and especially with umpteen concurrent sessions. In general, I recommend avoiding the biggest conferences and shoot for the magic number of 100-500 attendees. There are exceptions to this ‘rule’ (the last INTECOL being one of them), but if a conference becomes too populated, it’s difficult to get the best social atmosphere.

So don’t beat yourself up if you don’t make all the early-morning sessions, but do try to get to the plenaries if you can. Sometimes it’s hit and miss, but often the presentations are more entertaining at the very least.

A few other pointers:

1. If I’m sitting in a talk and I notice that the speaker might be interested in one of my papers given the subject matter on display, and she/he clearly didn’t have the opportunity to read it yet ;-), then by all means, e-mail a copy to her/him as you sit there with your iThing or laptop. This little trick has earned me more than one fruitful collaboration (and possibly a few extra citations).

2. If you are walking along a corridor and notice a long-lost colleague sitting there, make sure you talk the time to sit with her/him for at least a few minutes. Even if you end up missing that one talk you wanted to see, the social interaction is worth more than being just another slack-jawed face in the crowd.

3. Coffee. From a proper café, because conference tea-break coffee is universally weak and disgusting.

4. Plan a dinner or something with some colleagues or co-authors, even if it’s been a while and you’ve been there/done that. Often these little soirées end up being a marvellous stimulus to re-engage in some inspiring and novel science.

5. More of that café coffee.

6. As much as it might be more expensive, in a less-scenic part of the city and in a generic megahotel, I generally try to choose accommodation as close to the venue as possible (often in the very same hotel). When your room is close, you can nip off for a quick kip or costume change, return quickly to retrieve a forgotten item (like the conference name tag, or the memory stick containing your presentation!), or get in that last practice session before your talk. Staying too far away not only removes these possibilities, it increases transit time and ends up being more knackering in the long run. It also removes opportunities for impromptu social events.

Everyone has her or his own formula. This is mine, and it has worked for me over the years.

CJA Bradshaw


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2 responses

3 10 2013
Erika Berenguer

Hi Corey, as a PhD student, I would love to read a post on the other side of the story: ‘what NOT to do in a conference’ in terms of networking with your peers and references. Attitudes, phrases and general posture that can be inadequate. Of course everything is case and culture dependent, but sometimes there is a fine line between active networking and being inconvenient. Would love to hear your opinion.

25 09 2013
Rob Cubey

Also, don’t be too embarrassed by your name badge. It may be the size of a book and have sharp plastic edges that poke you in the stomach every time you sit down, but you need other people to be wearing theirs, so you need to bite the bullet and put yours on too.

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