Tips for attending scientific conferences

by Luis P. Prieto, - 13 minutes read - 2563 words

Going to an international conference, to present your own work or to better understand a scientific community, is usually an intense (even stressful) experience. As a doctoral student, probably even more so. In this post I share a selection of advice and tricks to make your next conference more pleasant (and useful in the long-term). Go forth, and enjoy a few days of “geeking out” with fellow researchers!

As I pack my bags to go to the CSCL conference in Lyon, I find myself wondering if I am prepared enough, and whether I have been doing conferences “the right way” all these years. To quench my own curiosity, and in the hope of helping if you still find attending to such conferences daunting, I’ve read around the academic blogosphere, and added further tips from outside academia and from my own experience1.

Why go?

Going to conferences is a very common piece of advice for things to do during your PhD. And I fully agree. Going to international, high-quality conferences in your field…

  1. … allows you to get the pulse of what’s going on in your area of research: kinds of research contributions, methods, data that are accepted; latest trends; etc.
  2. … helps you to know the people that make up the community. I’ve found that putting faces to your references, or hearing how they describe their ideas in talking (formally or informally), helps you get the knowledge that the community is developing.
  3. … enables you to present your work to those people. You get feedback to improve it, are more likely to be cited, and you will probably understand better how your work integrates with the rest of the field (which is essential when writing future papers).

But, once you decide you will go to a particular conference, and maybe got your work accepted for presentation there, what do you do? how do you prepare? how do you behave there? This post gives some tips about that. It is not detailed advice on the whole process of going to a conference for the first time (as others have already written excellent posts and more posts about that).

Take care of yourself

People (especially outsiders) tend to think of an academic conference in some faraway place as a sort of holiday, relaxing on the beach at the taxpayers’ expense. Nothing further from the truth: after sitting still in uncomfortable chairs for several hours, straining to understand often-unclear presentations (or doing email if you finally desist on that), engaging in deep intellectual discussions over coffee breaks, and preparing your own presentations over the evening/night, you are likely to be quite taxed, physically and mentally. Some tips to keep yourself effective and lively during such days:

  • Look at the schedule and plan your rest before the conference starts. Go to bed and get up so that you get the amount of sleep needed to be full of energy during the conference. Take small breaks during the day (NB: doing email does not count!) from the intense intellectual and social activities of the day. For instance, spending some time on your own seems crucial to recharge if you are an introvert (like many of us academics).
  • Pace yourself: it is tempting to try and be in every session that remotely interests you, in every party or extra session, or social event. However, rushing for the whole day is not the most conducive state for a good learning experience: you will not be really paying attention to the current presentation, rather thinking where you have to run next. Rather, set minimums or “most important” goals for each day of the conference (e.g., go to the presentation by X, which is closest to your topic, and talk to her; have two good conversations, with business cards exchanged; etc.). This is similar to the “most important tasks” (MITs) approach to productivity, which I have mentioned in previous posts2. And if you find yourself tuning out of presentations, take a short break – that’s probably a better use of your time than zombi-ing through presentations for the rest of the day!
  • If you drink at all during conferences (an entirely personal choice, depending on how well you take this well-known social lubricant), handle your alcohol carefully: have lots of avocado before the party/reception, hydrate yourself (e.g., have one glass of water for every alcoholic drink you get), and drink “clean drinks” (some people recommend NorCal Margaritas), to avoid hangovers and other adverse effects of alcohol-enhanced “networking”. Which provides a nice segway to…

Make meaningful connections

Networking is arguably the main purpose of any academic conference. However, this kind of social activity can be hard on introverts or socially-awkward people (which abound in academia).

The word networking evokes images of slimy, self-centred people shaking hands compulsively and “working the room” to get something out of attendants. Personally, I prefer to think of what you do at a conference in terms of building meaningful connections with like-minded people over time. One good metaphor for this is your particular scientific community as a neighbourhood: when you arrive to a new neighbourhood, you go up and talk to your neighbours, and try to establish a positive relationship with them. This is not because you need a cup of salt from them right now, but rather because you will cross paths frequently in the future, and having a good relationship with them is likely to have countless benefits in the long term (and it just feels nice). Some tips to start establishing these ties with your academic neighbours:

  • Don’t just hang out with people from your lab, institution or who you know well. Obvious, as you are trying to make new connections – but I fall for the safety of familiar people all the time. Don’t ditch hard-earned friendships for trying to meet random strangers either. Try to strike a balance. One way to help you with that is…
  • Putting people in contact with each other (“your work reminds me of that of my friend X, let me put you two in contact”) helps you combine and expand your existing clique with newcomers. Besides, you are doing them a favour, which they are likely to be grateful for.
  • Make the goal to have good conversations (quality), not meet or exchange cards with N people (quantity). You can also prepare some conversations in advance, by looking at the program and emailing in advance people you think will be at the event, who you would love to talk with. If you are respectful of their time and explain clearly and concisely why such conversation may help you (or both of you), they may be more than happy to chat with you (or at least, be less surprised if you ambush them during a coffee break).
  • Approach people adequately (in unstructured interaction spaces such as food queues or coffee breaks). Do not interrupt two-people conversations, go for slightly larger groups. Who to approach? Take some time to really look at people, and talk to whomever seems more open and relaxed (not to people that look rushed or stressed out). You can also approach session chairs/moderators (rather than speakers), to ask them for recommendations on where to go or who to talk to. They often know well the community but are not as demanded as speakers or keynotes after their talk.
  • Small talk is important to overcome the initial awkwardness of talking with a stranger. Yet, do not just talk about weather: make the small talk work as a first step towards more meaningful connection. Since the other person is also a researcher, there are some failsafe questions and conversation starters: the other person’s personal story (“where are you from originally, and how/why did you end up in university of X?"), their current work (“what are you working on right now?"), or just talking about the papers and presentations (“what is the most exciting presentation you’ve heard so far?"). You can also “geek out” about transversal research processes like writing or taking notes on readings (“what tool do you use to take your notes and keep them organized?"). Bonus tip: if you don’t understand something in an ongoing conversation, don’t be afraid to look ignorant and just ask about that – academics normally love to explain stuff around their topic.

Don’t let all these tips and rules intimidate you, just keep in mind that the other people are human beings, and approach the social moments from a stance of generosity, not greed (as Tim Ferriss puts it, “don’t be a dick, don’t dismiss people, don’t rush”). Offer to help people out (be it with those headache pills you keep in your purse, or making a connection to someone you know) and you might find yourself unwittingly at the centre of a large social network. Indeed, some of the most compassionate people I know in my community are authentic, albeit involuntary, networking machines!

Listen: getting the pulse of your field

Aside from the networking bits, going to talks and keynotes will represent most of your time at a conference. To make the most of those:

  • Naturally, you should go to talks that seem to be fully in your same sub-area/topic (that was probably the whole point of going to this conference). However, if you have to choose between two less-related areas, maybe choosing on the basis of the author list/bios, rather than the title, may not be a bad idea (e.g., are there key researchers which you have read or cited?). See also the tips above about getting recommendations from other researchers, to help you decide where to go.
  • Take notes from the talks. This is a very personal thing, but I like to take brief written notes about the talks, as a way of keeping my attention there and avoiding the lure of doing email while half-listening to a talk. I often prefer to do it on paper, in a semi-graphical format (but a plain text file works almost equally well). Also, I like to follow a simple, fixed structure for my talks notes: what’s the problem the authors set out to solve, what is the proposed solution, approach or contribution, what kind of evidence they have that it works, and what did I find interesting about the paper (not very different from the NABC research pitch I have written about before). Even if papers do not follow such structure, precisely looking for that information among the wades of slides keeps my brain active enough – and signals presentation failures (or potential questions) if I fail to fill in such structure.

Present your work

Even more stressful than all of the above, is delivering your own talk. How to give a good academic presentation is a thorny topic that has been covered extensively elsewhere (see here and here for some starting points), so I will not go into much detail now. Some very basic tips, though:

  • Prepare your presentation in advance (i.e., before you land). This will free your mind to focus on the conference itself and all the exciting things mentioned above, rather than rushedly trying to finish your slides. I have done that a few times myself, and I always regretted it afterwards.
  • Rehearse. For real. Several times, with an audience if you can get some colleagues or friends to hear it. Preferably do this in your lab before the trip, as you will have plenty of feedback from actual researchers, and plenty of time to polish imperfections. Pay special attention to the timing (see next point).
  • Be concise and clear. No one wants the tiny details of your paper written in small print in your slides. Rather, focus on making the main takeaway points of your paper crystal clear. Aim at presenting in 1-2 minutes less than the allotted time (after discounting the time for Q&A). Have “optional slides” in case unexpected events cut your talk shorter (or you take unexpectedly long to present) – the opposite very seldom happens. All those missing details are an excellent target for the Q&A round after your talk, and you can keep them in a batch of “backup slides”… but let the audience ask for them explicitly.
  • Aside from your talk slot at the conference, be prepared to pitch your research informally. You will have many opportunities: coffee breaks, buffet lines, that surprise conversation with a famous professor… I have covered how to structure a brief pitch for your research in a previous post. However, it is useful to have pitches of various lengths available: the one-sentence version, the example of why it is important, or the full three-minute NABC. With those ready, read the face of your interlocutor and select the most appropriate to the context and their apparent level of boredom.

In summary

Whoa, that was a lot of advice! Don’t try to memorize all of that. Many of these things you will forget to do, but you can try some and see what works for you. Develop your own set of routines over time as you go to more conferences. If nothing else, you can just try to abide by three basic principles:

  1. Do not “network”, build meaningful connections with fellow researchers. Think more of how you can help them, rather than getting something you crave out of the interaction.
  2. Your work is a gift for the community, not a stick to measure you. When presenting and pitching your work, don’t be afraid. The knowledge base of your community is like a house under construction. Your work is a uniquely-shaped brick that you have painstakingly baked to contribute to that complex building. The conference is just a great place to show the brick to others, ask around, and try to find out where it fits. No one is judging you (and most of them are thinking about their own bricks anyways).
  3. Follow your curiosity and just enjoy these few days of opening your mind to new ideas and perspectives.

The bags are packed, the post is almost finished, so I’ll head to the train station and the airport. I can feel now the excitement and expectation of being exposed to new ideas, of meeting some old friends and making new ones. I also remember my nerves as I prepared to go to my first international conference (which, I now realize, was exactly ten years ago, going to the very same CSCL conference in Rhodes!).

Did you find any of these tricks and practices surprising or useful? Do you have any other tricks you use when going to scientific conferences? Let me know in the comments below. Also, if you happen to be going to the CSCL conference, feel free to drop me a line or just walk up for a chat in one of the coffee breaks, I like to hear from my readers :)

  1. I’d love to give more scientific, evidence-backed advice, but I have not found any empirical studies on the relative success of different kinds of practices in academic conferences. Maybe a new field of research on academic event practices is waiting for somebody to start it? And if you know about any such research, please send it my way! ↩︎

  2. Plus, if you missed a potentially interesting parallel session, find someone that went there and ask them about it (voilà! you just got a ready-made conversation starter, see more on that below). ↩︎

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Luis P. Prieto

Luis P. is a Ramón y Cajal research fellow at the University of Valladolid (Spain), investigating learning technologies, especially learning analytics. He is also an avid learner about doctoral education and supervision, and he's the main author at the A Happy PhD blog.

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