As a Ph.D. student you start appreciating as amazing opportunities things that are overall exhausting, like conferences. Contrary to what your family and friends (and perhaps you) may think, a conference is not an all-inclusive vacation. A conference is a one-week festival of massive scientific input and precious networking that, like other festivals if you do it correctly, will keep you on your toes from 8 to 1 in the morning.
More Work than Going to the Lab
Once you get there, you realize that you will actually have to work more than when you go to the lab: symposia sessions are longer than you thought, and you have to keep your attention level higher than you imagined. You will also quickly realize that you will actually need the notes you are taking. The idea that could revolutionize your project might come in a contributed talk of 15 minutes between 18.30 and 18.45 after listening to other 10 talks on the same day. That being acknowledged, you will just have to repeat that for five days until you go back home surprisingly exhausted and explain to your not-scientist friends that indeed you were not having an extra week of holidays somewhere exotic.
If you have a talk or a poster, prepare as it´s your Nobel lecture. You will have to talk to an extremely interested and extremely distracted audience at the same time, so make sure what you present is clear, that the data is complete and don´t be afraid to emphasize how great and interesting your research is. If you have a talk, prepare a backup of your presentation, rehearse it as much as possible and make sure you don´t exceed the time you are given. You don´t want to be remembered for sloppiness. If you have it ready before getting to the conference, you will have one important thing less to worry about and more free time.
If you have a poster, prepare for harder work than for a talk. If with the latter you have to deal with stage panic, you will also be done in 15 minutes. With a poster, on the other hand, you might need to repeat that 10 minutes speech over and over for two hours, or deal with the panic that nobody is stopping by your poster and all the related inadequacy. If that happens, don´t worry too much and think of yourself when you go to a poster session as the audience: in how many stands do you stop for questions?
Don’t Be Shy!
Also, keep in mind the scientific talks are only half of the business you are interested in a conference. The networking is fundamental and very precious, and it happens often in the pub after the sessions, so remember that it will be quite demanding on your sleep schedule. Don´t stick only with your group of students! If your supervisor invites you guys to join for beers, don´t be shy! Consider that they will want to hang out with the other supervisors, and you could get the occasion to establish nice contacts and collaborations.
My first conference was the European Material Research Society Spring Meeting. It´s a huge conference with thousands of participants and dozens of symposia, and it was definitely overwhelming as first approach. So, here is my advice on how to get the best from conferences, and cherish all the opportunities that they give:
- CHOOSE YOUR CONFERENCE WISELY: huge international conferences for the variety of topics, smaller conferences for the most focused content and the easier networking;
- PREPARE YOUR SCHEDULE IN ADVANCE: especially if you are going to a multi-symposia conference, go through the program and have your calendar ready before landing;
- VISIT SYMPOSIA THAT ARE NOT YOUR TOPIC: sometimes the inspiration for the best ideas comes from unexpected input;
- BRING SOMETHING TO WRITE ON, KEEP YOUR NOTES TIDY: you will need them;
- CHECK THE FREE WORKSHOPS AND SEMINARS: career advice, forums on scientific writing, a lot of precious knowledge is there for you;
- PREPARE AND CARRY ALWAYS WITH YOU A BUNCH OF BUSINESS CARDS: especially if you are looking for collaborations or if you are close to finishing your Ph.D.;
- DRESS APPROPRIATELY: as frivolous as it sounds, it will help you look professional;
- PARTY RESPONSIBLY: remember that sessions start at 8.30 in the morning and you should not miss it
Go and Enjoy!
And my advice to enjoying conferences that your supervisor doesn´t want you to know:
- CHECK THE FLIGHTS/DAYS AND TRY TO GET AN EXTRA WEEKEND IN THE CONFERENCE SITE: usually flights are cheaper a couple of days after the end of the conference and your university might actually appreciate you saving them some money;
- DON`T EXPECT THAT YOU CAN HOLD 5 DAYS OF CONTINUOUS TALKS, TAKE A BREAK: the fear of missing out when a lot of things are going on is real, go for quality and not only for quantity;
- GET INTO ANY GALA DINNER YOU CAN: invitations might be difficult to get, but these are events usually organized to entertain and show off, so if you can sneak in, why not?
- CHECK THE EXHIBITION: ideas for new equipment for the lab, nice chats with editors of journals where you could submit your papers, contacts for your job after your Ph.D., free gadgets, don’t be shy!
With all these in mind, go and enjoy!