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A survival guide to conferences

Yesterday I registered to attend my eighth conference and after three years of attending them I think I might be getting the hang of it! Before I embark on another round of abstract writing, grant writing and travel planning, I thought I might pass on some advice I wish I’d have known when I went to my first conference.

  1. Cloth posters are your friend. Unless you’re lucky enough to be giving a talk you will need to take a poster. Posters (or more specifically poster tubes) come with a unique set of trials and tribulations of which I won’t go into in detail. Suffice to say that when my poster tube spontaneously disassembled itself for the third time on the tube I began to see the benefits of a cloth poster. Cloth posters neatly fold into your suitcase, handbag or pocket (depending on the size of your pockets) and are a similar price to paper posters. In my opinion the quality is a good as a paper poster, unless you need to display lots of high definition images. The other advantage of a cloth poster is that when you return from your conference you can use the now ‘old’ poster as a draft excluder or table cloth, rather than just allowing it to collect dust and occasionally fall on people from a high shelf.
  2. Be like a Boy Scout. Conferences can be busy places so make sure you prepare in advance. Know which talks you want to attend, which posers you are interested in viewing, and any people you would like to meet while there. If you are going to try to meet people while at the conference make sure you’ve done your homework and you know about their research, it will only look bad if you don’t appear to have done some background reading before a meeting.
  3. Find yourself a conference buddy. On the first day of the conference I try to find myself a friend. This will make mealtimes and networking events much easier to face. My general method is to find someone who looks slightly cleverer than myself and also a bit lost and confused. This way I have someone who can explain the more complex talks to me, but is less likely to ditch me for the ‘cool kids’ on the second day.
  4. Never try to keep up with your PI.A conference is a stressful and confusing place for a student. However, for your PI, a conference is a chance to meet friends, catch up, squabble with rivals, eat, drink and be merry. Never get drawn into a drinking session with Professors, their capacity for alcohol is amazing. They will outdrink you, and I think it’s unlikely they’ll consider employing anyone who threw up on their shoes! My advice is to sit somewhere relatively close to them (in case they offer to buy the drinks) and enjoy the show.
  5. Networking = making friends. If you don’t ‘get’ networking don’t worry, neither does anyone else outside politics. Remember standing in the cold, wet playground on your first day of school, not wanting to let go of your mum’s hand? Fast forward twenty years and I still feel the same in networking sessions (although my supervisor said I had to stop calling him ‘mum’). Keep your conference buddy in sight for moral support. Say hello to everyone you meet (even if you don’t know them) and if they stop to chat, chat back. Try to remember names, as you will see many of these people at other conferences. In poster sessions talk to poster presenters. This both helps you pick up new conference buddies, and get yourself noticed (hopefully in a good way!). If people ask you to keep in touch after the conference then consider the offer seriously, you never know where it might lead. Remember networking gets easier as you get to know more people, so just try to swallow your fear and get stuck in there!
  6. Enjoy yourself. I know this is ridiculous advice and I hate myself for writing this, but throughout all the stress and angst try to remember that you are actually quite lucky to be doing this. Most people will never get to travel as part of their work and even if they do they probably won’t be attending these kinds of events. As PhD students we (sometimes) get to travel to some pretty cool places without very much personal expense. Try to enjoy the experience, spend a little time seeing the sights and attend the conference dinner whenever possible. Some of my fondest PhD memories are of travelling to and attending conferences.

By Hellen Brown, a 4th year PhD student in Arnoud Van Vliet’s lab.

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