So You Want to Attend Your First Scientific Conference

I am currently in St. John’s, Newfoundland, attending the fourth annual International Marine Conservation Congress. This is the first major conference I have participated in, and I want to emphasize that I am so fortune to be attending one so well run and, frankly, fun! With approximately 600 delegates and 5 days of workshops, presentations, poster sessions, and focus groups, I have learned a great deal about how to successfully make it through the (often) 12-hour days of participating and networking. The goal is to end each day with energy to spare and a smile on your face!

Based on my experience, here are a few tips to ace your first scientific conference:

1) Bring these essential items:

  • A notepad or portfolio will come in handy when booths hand you pamphlets, or colleagues give you contact information. It’ll also help you stay organized. Make sure you bring this to all sessions and to your own presentation/poster; people brought novel ideas to my attention at unexpected occasions, and writing them down for later is key!
  • Business cards are a great way to stay on people’s radar. Vistaprint.ca is an online business card producer who allows for stylistic flexibility and creativity at a student’s price. I can’t stress enough what an important investment good business cards are: send your new connections off with a professional impression of you (that won’t come through with homemade Word Doc template cards).
  • Bring a sweater. Yes, all of the conference rooms are likely in the same building, but weirdly enough no two rooms are ever the same temperature. Being comfortable will help you concentrate on important content.
  • Floss and/or gum will keep you feeling fresh during face-to-face encounters with new collaborators or colleagues.
  • You’ll do a surprising amount of walking between conference rooms, lunch spots, and events. Wear comfortable footwear and stash some Band-Aids in your bag in case of emergency.
  • While most conferences provide coffee breaks, snacks will come in very handy if sessions run late or meetings are back-to-back. Don’t get hangry!
  • Along those same lines, a reusable water bottle and/or mug is important to keep yourself energized throughout the conference.
  • I personally found having a portable phone charger helpful, especially because wall plugs were prime real estate and the conference app used substantial battery power. This item is especially important if you’re from out of town, as you’ll want it powered for directions and safety.

2) How to Network:

  • Some society committees are enlisting technology to help their conferences run smoothly. If your conference has an app, you can use the built-in messaging function to contact presenters you’d like to speak with. You can also build your own schedule to make sure you never miss a beat!
  • Ask your new connections what presentations they’re looking forward to most. They may enlighten you to a symposium or focus group you missed on the schedule but would benefit from. Staying connected ensures you get the most from the conference.
  • Use your notepad to jot down contacts’ names. You can then use this as a list of people to get in touch with after the conference, or as a helpful tool for remembering the names of people you want to impress.
  • Find common ground with anyone you speak with. Ask where they’re from, where they went to school, who they’ve worked with in the past, what they’ve seen in the city outside of conference hours, etc. It’ll make for a stronger, more personal connection moving forward.
  • Seek advice from experts on your study topic. Even if their advice isn’t novel, asking people for their perspectives shows you’re open to learning and respect their opinions.
  • Volunteer! Not only do some organizations offer registration discounts to students if you put in a certain number of hours, but you’ll also meet other students from all over the world. Additionally, you can put a face to a name for scientists you’re interested in speaking with when they first arrive to sign in or ask for directions. They’ll also recognize you as someone involved with the conference beyond just attending.

Conferences are a fantastic platform for increasing the visibility and prestige of your work, while also helping you to expand your perspectives and learn from a diverse group of people. Remember to always get enough sleep, stay fed/watered, be polite, and above all listen, listen, listen!

I hope these tips were helpful and perhaps we will cross paths at a conference in the near future! In the meantime, here are some puffins from Newfoundland:

IMG_7539

Puffins in Bay Bulls during an IMCC whale watching trip!

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