How to make the most out of a (scientific) conference
This article is part of a PhD introduction series for new students in the Department of Materials, as organised by Professor David Dye (Director of Post Graduate Studies).
What is the purpose of a conference?
Scientists and engineers like to talk. A conference is a formalising of this, often involving a range of international speakers and a programme format that involves oral presentations, keynote talks, contributed talks, poster presentation sessions, (many) coffee breaks, and social activities. Conferences are very fun and involve travelling around the world. They are a fantastic chance to meet and engage with all those people who wrote the papers you’ve spent time and energy pouring through in the wee hours. They represent a great opportunity to generate new ideas, transfer ideas from one field to the next and to establish collaborations that will last a lifetime (or the next paper!). Attending a conference is a great time to build an academic network, trace out your next steps, learn new science and develop your interpersonal & presentation skills.
Conferences are a ‘business’ event for scientists and engineers, and there are a few ground rules that you should try to abide by.
Firstly and most importantly, enjoy yourself.
However, bear in mind that you are travelling for work, and this should flavour how you approach the whole conference. If you are travelling far, you might want to add one an extra few days (or longer!) to travel and explore the local city. However when the conference is in session you should try your hardest to be in attendance and to soak up new science and build your scientific network.
A conference is a chance to meet, socialise, learn and network. Typically in a PhD you will be able to attend one major international conference, and often many smaller and more local workshops and you should make the most of them.
Furthermore, as a conference delegate you are presenting yourself to the wider community as the face/person behind the by-line on your papers. Your reputation is important and so you should try to be respectful of others, conduct yourself professionally and always be prepared to learn and discuss exciting science & engineering. You are also representing your wider research group, Department, and University so be on your best behaviour. This will not stop you having fun, it should just be in the back of your mind when you are relaxing, enjoying the atmosphere and getting involved.
Plan your conference in advance. You will need to check that you have sorted the essentials: (1) conference registration; (2) travel to & from the conference, bearing in mind typical expense policies and visa requirements; please check with your supervisor before booking anything substantial; (3) accommodation for the conference, occasionally, this is included in the registration so do check!
If you have to book your own accommodation, pick somewhere close to the venue and near to restaurants etc. with a reasonable price for a room. This will be nearby all the other delegates and enable you to get the most out of the conference!
Before you fly, you should also have finished preparing/practising your oral presentation if you have one scheduled or have your poster printed already.
One major point of a conference is present your work to the wider community. This is to open the work up for wider scrutiny, discussion and to advertise what you’ve been up to. Science no longer happens in a vacuum and so getting your work ‘out there’ is very important. There is more science being conducted that anyone has a hope of reading in academic papers and therefore conferences offer a very timely and quick ‘snapshot’ of the current field and will often lead the audience towards a focussed reading list based upon what they’ve seen at the conference.
Presentations come in three flavours: keynotes / plenaries; oral presentations (invited & contributed); and poster presentations. The particular make up of a conference will dictate how these are scheduled in the programme.
A keynote talk is from a highly regarded member of the community. It will be targeted towards the ‘average conference delegate’ and so will be highly accessible. They are well worth attending as a chance to broaden your horizons (great for interviews & dinner parties!), as well as picking up some tips on how to give a killer presentation. They will also provide a great social opener at one of the many mixers/receptions that you are going to attend!
Oral presentations in the focussed sessions can be invited or contributed talks. Typically invitations are made by the organising committee to scope out the session and ensure a good turnout. The organisers will work to select key research groups who have made great inroads in the field to present their findings and shape the flavour of the session. Contributed talks reflect those who were not ‘invited’ and fit the desired theme of the session. Many times some of the contributed talks will be of higher quality and relevance than the invited! The only other difference may be that the duration of the talks (e.g. the invited talks are given 30 mins rather than 15 mins for the contributed talks). Note that the talk duration in the schedule often includes time for questions & change over, so your talk must run ~2–5 mins short of the full timeslot.
Poster presentations often happen in a specific physical area of the conference, often with refreshment and near to the exhibitors. Posters sessions give you a chance to talk one-to-one with authors and discuss their work in detail, as well as giving you a snapshot of a range of work in a relatively short period of time. The poster sessions are important networking opportunities and you should plan on attending these! If you are giving a poster you need to make sure that you are located near your poster, ready to receive questions, and act approachable/grab people’s attention.
Fundamentally a conference is a networking event. This will often happen outside the actual sessions, either over coffee, in the poster hall, over dinner or in a bar later. Topics of conversation will start with what you’ve seen during the day and progress from there! So pay attention in the talks, and try to think of the broader implications of each presentations core message.
When socialising, you should try your best to ‘break free’ and rebel from forming an Imperial mob, especially if you are at a conference with lots of your groupmates/friends. Your job at the conference is to expand your network. That being said, you can bring your group along and you may find the conference a great time to chat with your supervisor in depth (though bear in mind that they are likely busy networking and catching up with friends, so don’t take it personally if they ‘abandon’ you!). Please remember that if you stay in science, many of the people you meet at your first conference will be your peers in future years.
All the delegates are only human, and despite their aura they are often approachable and excited to talk passionately about their field. Catching speakers over coffee and introducing yourself is important and a skill that you will need to develop. Be careful to act respectful and kind to others, and don’t just interrupt a conversation that’s mid flow. Also wear your name badge prominently, someone knowing your name/institution already reduces a lot of social anxiety involved in the early stages of building rapport.
Please bear in mind that you are at a business event and that your field is relatively small. We all have stories of what went on at conference X. Try not to be the person who people remember for their antics! This will not stop you having fun, relaxing and enjoying yourself. If you want to go crazy, take a few days off after the conference and spend some time partying in the local hotspots (on your own expense!).
Conferences are exciting and a great chance to share your passion with peers from around the world. A little bit of planning in advance makes the whole event significantly less stressful. You need to network, discuss work and broaden your horizons through attending talks, reading posters and talking to scientists and engineers. You will not be able to do ‘everything’ at a conference, and some of them are truly overwhelming. If you make a good presentation, make a few new friends and watch some great talks in and out of your field it’s been a successful conference!
Dr Ben Britton, 04/10/2015, Department of Materials, Imperial College London