Five ways to make the most of your conference experience

Attending conferences is one of the most important parts of being a scientist. You get to connect with other researchers from all over the world and share your work with them, gaining precious feedback and hopefully returning home full of new ideas. It’s a chance to discover what other people in the field are up to and to be inspired by their work as well as to form new connections that lead to potential new collaborations and who knows—maybe even new career prospects.

Here are a few tips on how to make the most of your next conference experience:

Plan your time

Conferences (especially large ones) have a lot going on. Talks, lectures, seminars, poster sessions, coffee breaks, and so on. Usually a program is available at the beginning of the conference detailing what time everything is happening—and where. Some meetings have apps to help you track everything and enable you to access the program ahead of time so you can plan your time more effectively. Whether you use the paper program or an app, spend 10 minutes at the start of the conference figuring out what you’re going to be doing at any given time. If you’re attending the conference with colleagues from the lab, you might want to try a “divide and conquer” approach to make sure you collectively cover as much ground as possible. There often are different activities happening at the same time, so make sure you have a plan that is feasible and doesn’t require you to be in two different places at the same time. There is nothing worse than finding yourself trapped in a boring roundtable discussion when there is a really interesting panel discussion happening next door that you are dying to attend! Keep in mind your own personal limits when making your plan. If you have a chronically short attention span, don’t bank on sitting for hours in a warm lecture theater after lunch. Instead, mix it up a little! If you know you have an exciting talk to go to first thing in the morning, make sure you leave the party early the night before!

Introduce yourself!

At a big conference, you’ll be in the same room as lots of fascinating people. You’ll be familiar with their work from reading their papers, or you will have attended their talks and found them interesting. The difference between being in the same room as someone and meeting someone is simply introducing yourself. Whether they don’t know you but have met your boss or whether you simply know them through enjoying their talks or posters—go up to them and introduce yourself! A quick and friendly hello followed by a brief introduction doesn’t have to be socially awkward and is the first step toward networking yourself into new collaborations and future employment opportunities. Most conferences offer plenty of opportunities to do this, ranging from a structured setting like a networking session or a roundtable discussion to more informal opportunities such as the coffee line. Of course, keep it friendly and short—these people have their own conference agendas! If the big-time PI you want to talk to is not attending or is simply not available, you can always introduce yourself to members of his/her team. If you make a good impression, word of your talents can travel far. Check out more networking tips here.

Bring some data (if you can)

Whether you have just published an exciting paper or recently started a pilot study, bringing some data to the conference is always a good move. Whether it’s a poster or a short talk–having your own data is a great way to break the ice and start talking to people! Plus, when chatting with others about their work having your own data to draw on gives them a chance to find out more about you and what you do, which will make them feel like they can share more of their own thoughts. Your work is important and people will want to see it and talk to you about it—which is the best way to get to know other scientists! If nothing else, this is great practice that will be helpful at other conferences, theses defenses, and job interviews. It can be a good idea to print out business cards to invite people to come and look at your poster or attend your talk and even to have a smaller version of the poster itself to show people you meet who couldn’t come to the poster session. Sometimes, bringing your own data is not an option. Maybe you are working with a company with strict IP rules on what you can share or you are in a tight race with another group—there are plenty of valid reasons not to show your stuff. Make sure you have a good conversation with your advisor before the conference to discuss what you can bring and what you should leave behind.

Take notes

You’re sitting in a talk and a great idea hits you. You can use the same imaging technique as the speaker did on your samples—and that will solve all of your experimental troubles! Right now, you can’t imagine you’d ever forget this. It’s so great! Simple yet brilliant! Of course, after lunch, you have a fascinating chat with a postdoc from another lab who suggests trying a new cell line in your assay and potentially collaborating on your project. In the evening you start talking to a PI from a prestigious institute and if you’re not mistaken she’s sort-of-kind-of-implying there might be a job there for you after you finish your current work. After the conference, you take the weekend off to explore the new city before going home. By the time you’re back in the lab, your brilliant idea is…gone. Taking notes on everything that happens to you at a conference (ideas, contacts, potential collaborations, email addresses) is the best and frankly only way you’ll keep benefiting from your experience months into the future. If you don’t want to be tied down to a notebook while you’re networking you can always take notes on your tablet or phone—taking a quick picture of someone’s name tag and adding a few keywords is all you really need to remember an exchange. Will you follow up on every lead? Of course not. But you might follow up on more than you would expect if you keep rigorous track of them.

Have fun!

At the end of the day, it’s worth keeping in mind that conferences can and should be fun! This is a great time to make new friends or to find out about new sides of your colleagues. Senior members of the lab might be pretty entertaining after a couple of post-lecture glasses of wine! As well as science, conferences give you an opportunity to explore new cities and even new countries—so make the most of it. While it’s certainly true that conferences are work, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy yourself—exploring the science that’s on display and connecting with other like-minded scientists!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Gaia obtained her PhD from King's College, London working on melanoma cell plasticity and how it affects metastasis and patient survival. She has since moved to the United States, where she is currently a lecturing fellow at Duke University. Her work focuses on understanding how breast cancer metastasizes to the bone and manipulates the tumor micro-environment. She loves writing about science and communicating her passion for all things biology. You can find more of her writing here: