Research Conferences: 10 Tips to Maximize Your Experience

Conferences can benefit researchers’ labs and careers. Learn 10 ways to make the most of your time at one!

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People listening to speaker

Conference season is upon us. Presentations, posters, and thousands of people all coming together to discuss, enjoy, and connect about research. There will be learning to do, notes to be taken, and conversations to be had. There will be new friends to meet, bold ideas to be exchanged, and interesting data to be discussed.

Yet, in the midst of so much activity, how do you make the most of your experience?

After polling our internal team, many who are experienced researchers, we arrived at a list of 10 tips to help you have the best experience at your next research conference.

10 Tips to Maximize Your Conference Experience

Pre-conference: Plan ahead

1. Determine what talks and posters you are going to attend. Look at the schedule and abstracts ahead of time so that you can be strategic, especially if your time is limited.

2. Plan your “social calendar” ahead of time, and spend time with people outside of your lab. While it’s nice to have dinner with people you know well, use that valuable networking time to connect with researchers outside of your department, especially if you are interested in potentially working with them in the future. This may be hard to do early in your career, if you are in your first years of graduate school, but look for opportunities with people that you have even a small connection with. For instance, why not ask an interesting professor who gave a talk in your department to lunch if they are attending the same conference?

3. Ask your PI for direction (if you’re a grad student or post-doc) and to introduce you to colleagues. It can be daunting to initiate a conversation, especially in your early years of research, and your PI may have a good sense of who would be most relevant to your work and career.

4. Download the app and have a copy of your plan! Whether you prefer to keep your schedule on your phone or printed on a piece of paper, the point is to take a copy with you. You don’t want to get to the end of a conference and have missed out on the presentations and conversations you were looking forward to.

During the conference: Network and learn

5. Introduce yourself to people. One of the most valuable aspects of a conference is the opportunity to create new professional relationships. It can be easy to surround yourself with people that you already know or are comfortable with, but intentionally look for ways to meet other people. If you are attending a session, sit next to someone you don’t know, and simply introduce yourself. Or if you are standing in line and find yourself beside someone you haven’t yet met, begin a short conversation. Even small conversations can have great results.

6. Ask other people about their work. One of the best ways to start a conversation (after the introduction) is to ask a question. People love talking about their work, so ask about that. If you’re talking with someone whose presentation you just watched, make your question is about something they said. Also, don’t try to force a match to your work in the conversation - your work will likely come up naturally.

7. Take notes. After a long day of sessions and networking, it is easy to forget who said what. Take notes throughout the day, during talks, and directly after conversations with people so that you can reference these later. Note-taking will also help you stay alert through a very long couple of days.

8. Exchange contact information with people. When you find you connect with someone about their work or your own, make sure to get their contact information and give them yours.

Post-conference: Act on what you learned

9. Process the information. With so much information packed into such a short period of time, give yourself some time to process everything. Refer back to your notes from the talks you listened to and about the people you met. Determine if there are any actionable take-aways, and if so, begin the process of implementing those when you return home.

10. Follow up with new connections. Don’t forget to follow up with the people you met at the conference. One of the easiest ways to do this is through email. Your email will serve as a reminder of your connection at the conference, and will help build your relationship. Those connections may be useful when developing your next grant, or when trying to solve a tough problem.

Ready for your next conference?

Attending conferences takes a lot of time and energy - two things that most researchers already use a lot of. However, if planned and followed-through on correctly, conferences have the ability to add real value to a researcher’s lab and career.

This of course requires intentionality - determining ahead of time what you want to gain from attending a conference, and then setting out to see that through. If you do, you’ll find that the connections, the information, and the opportunities you receive make the time and energy you invest well worth it.

Thanks to Alexis Kennedy, Ben Mudrak, Marek Łaska, Michaela Panter, Paul Klenk, and Stacie Meaux for contributing to this article.

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