Are you conference ready?

When you’re a researcher, information can be gathered in all manner of ways – reading papers, browsing websites, engaging in social media, email exchanges, conversations and attending conferences. This last avenue of information – conferences – is usually a heavy investment in terms of time and finance, but many researchers under-prepare and under-use this potential source of information, new connections and even career opportunities.

Whether it’s in-person, online, large, small, local or international, any conference worth attending is worth preparing for, so that you get the best return on your investment of time and money.

My advice for avoiding wasting time and money is to get conference ready! Here are some tips to help you:

  • Choose wisely – there are many interesting conferences organised each year, some large, some small, some nearby and some in distant lands. Consider why you want to attend, what do you want to achieve? Will you benefit more from a large conference, or a smaller one? Does the programme look compelling? Who’s speaking? Are there opportunities for networking? Take advice from your supervisor, collaborators and peers, as well as considering your own motivations.
  • Write a great abstract! One of the best ways to get noticed at a conference is to present a poster or, even better, give a talk. Writing a compelling abstract will help to get you noticed and attract people to attend your talk, especially when there are many parallel sessions. Use Google (or attend a workshop) on how to write a good abstract. Here’s one example from a previous blog.
  • Enter your abstract for a competition, such as a ‘Early career researcher’ best talk/poster award. Even if you don’t win, it’s a great experience to practice promoting yourself and your research.
  • Examine the programme and identify sessions of interest to you. You should aim to use your time wisely at any conference, so, much like preparing for a holiday, plan your itinerary so that you can navigate the conference efficiently, as well as factoring in flexibility in case of those (very likely) happenstance encounters.
  • Identify speakers or delegates of interest in the programme or attendance list (if they have one) that you’d potentially like to connect with. Consider contacting some of them ahead of the meeting, if you think it’s appropriate – you can do this by email or social media. Say you’re looking forward to hearing them speak/meeting them.
  • Follow the #. The majority of conferences will create a # for their meeting, which you can follow on X (formerly Twitter). Many of them also have a Facebook page that you can connect with (you can always create a new FB profile for professional purposes in case you don’t want to link your personal page).
  • Sign up for pre-conference or side-programmes, such as career workshops and other sessions that will bring you into contact with delegates in a more informal setting. Many of these types of events are smaller and interactive, with more opportunity to meet your peers and get to know other delegates.
  • Sign up for social/networking events. You don’t have to attend them all – consider staying for an hour and aim to meet one or two people. Standing events can more amenable than seated ones and, if there are tall tables to stand and eat your lunch with 3 – 4 others, this can be quite a nice way to get chatting with others.
  • Do your research – if you’re interested in speaking with someone in particular, read up on them beforehand or attend their talk and then aim to approach them with a question about their research or a favourable comment about their talk – people love to talk about themselves.
  • Prepare your pitch! Any good conversation is a two-way process, so be prepared to talk about yourself and your research. To avoid bombarding people with a 5-minute monologue, think about what you will say within about 30 seconds – that’s enough to oil the wheels of the interaction and your conversation partner can then ask you further questions to find out more.
  • Examine the exhibitor list – there may be some exhibiting organisations that are of interest to you in terms of your research and even your career. Many companies are represented by staff who have PhDs and are even former postdocs. It can be interesting to do some research about how they transitioned into this line of work and what the role is like.
  • Check your online profile! Make sure it’s in good order – up to date, fully completed, looking professional and consistent with your career aims. It’s likely that when you meet people at the conference, they will look you up online and even invite you to connect with them, so you want to look your best!
  • Get some business cards printed – it may sound a bit commercial and even old-fashioned, but many delegates at international conferences carry business cards with them and offer them to other delegates. It’s not necessarily a ‘must’, but it’s easy and cheap to produce them nowadays, displaying your name, position, contact details, institution and logo.
  • Prepare to dress to impress. You don’t have to be formal and you may feel confident and relaxed in your jeans and T-shirt. However, if you want to ensure you’ll be taken seriously by more senior delegates, choose something smart-casual, as your supervisor might dress. You never know, you may even have the opportunity to be interviewed for your next position during the conference!

Two extra tips that deserve special attention:

Note 1The BAD news!
Beware predatory conferences! (and journals too for that matter). These are exploitative meetings with the sole aim to make money from the academic community. Google ‘predatory conference’ for more information, but here’s one explanation from Wikipedia.

Note 2The GOOD news!
Many conferences are organised by learned or professional societies, which also have a large membership. If you join them, they will give you a discounted registration to their conference, and they may also have lots of other membership benefits that you can enjoy throughout the year, so make sure to take a closer look at their website and even consider joining longer-term.

Having worked for a learned society myself for almost 20 years, where we organised one large international and smaller meetings each year, I’ve witnessed many in the academic community – PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and even professors – benefit from the experience, whether it was giving a talk and getting noticed, making connections with other delegates, having useful discussions with more other scientists, or even being offered to have more involvement in the society by taking part in their events or joining committees. Attending conferences can be both time consuming and expensive, so be sure to make the most of these great opportunities to meet and connect with others. Most of all, of course, have fun and see the world!

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