How to Get the Most Out of Your First Conference Experience

March 6, 2015

While conferences abound, year-round, this time of year feels to me like the beginning of conference season. Pittcon is on the doorstep and the end of spring through summer brings myriad analytical chemistry symposia where all of the newest research and instrumental innovations will be presented to the public.

While conferences abound, year-round, this time of year feels to me like the beginning of conference season. Pittcon is on the doorstep and the end of spring through summer brings myriad analytical chemistry symposia where all of the newest research and instrumental innovations will be presented to the public. I liken it to a concert tour - each research group is its own rock band that has worked for the past year (and often, literally right up to the start of the conference) to write songs and practice them, for consumption by the masses. In this blog installment, I would like to share a little advice with those of you who are attending your first major conference. I have had plenty of conference experiences, and I like to think that there are a few important aspects for attendees to consider so that they get the most out of their time.

Conferences are about networking and sharing new developments. For the analytical community, they bring together the rock star scientists, the manufacturers and vendors, and the next generation of rock stars. It is this next generation that stands to gain the most from the experience. But new attendees must seize the opportunity and take the necessary steps to meet new people, to get new ideas, and to learn where their current efforts fit within the scheme of what everyone else is doing.Are you presenting? What an excellent opportunity to showcase your productivity! It is no secret that you should make sure your presentation, whether poster or oral, is of high quality (and error free - please proof read carefully again and ask your colleagues to help you do the same). Practicing is key.

For an oral presentation, I recommend that my students practice in front of a mirror several times, keeping a close eye on the time. You do not want your presentation to be too short or too long. You want to leave time for a couple of questions. If no one in the audience asks a question, the session chair will certainly formulate one or two to ask you about your work. Yet, nothing exasperates a chairperson more than to have to consider cutting you off because you have gone over time. It makes for a funny story when the chairperson walks over and pulls the electrical cord for the projector out of the wall socket, but you do not want to be the butt of that joke. I have found that budgeting one slide for every 1.5 min is a good pace. The practice will ensure that you keep your pace. When you stand in front of the audience, your tendency will be to speak faster. Take a deep breath before you go on, and make a point of not rushing through the talk. Your practice will serve you well if you gave it the time it deserves.

If you are presenting a poster, develop an elevator speech. You should be able to communicate your poster to someone in 3–5 min. Writing a script to start is not a bad idea if you have never presented a poster before - and once again, practice! It is always a good idea to approach someone who has stopped to look at your poster, and ask them if you can briefly walk them through your study. Briefly is key. It is a turnoff to be waylaid by a presenter who never stops talking. Give your presentation, and if your audience is interested, they will ask more questions. If they do ask questions, ask them for a business card, so that you can send them a copy of your poster. You never know what follow-up opportunities exist.

Incidentally, I generally tell my students not to worry about having reprint handouts of their poster on hand when they present. Some may disagree with me on this, but personally I want to know who is interested in my work, so that I can follow up later. If you have reprints available, they will likely be taken, but you may never know by whom. Put up an envelope for people to leave their business cards instead.

It is also not a bad idea for you to make some business cards of your own, if you do not have them already. They don’t need to be flashy - just your name, title, affiliation, and contact information is enough. These can be valuable as you peruse the posters and want to request a reprint of some work in your area of interest. Just leave one of your cards at their poster (as you hope others will do for you). My students simply print these up on card stock in our laboratory office - no need to spend a bunch of money having the cards printed commercially. If I were to give you a number, 25–50 cards is probably reasonable to take with you, depending on the size of the conference. Do make a point to walk around and visit the other posters. You will always find new ideas directly related to your work, or even perhaps on a periphery that you never previously considered.

Do not neglect the social aspect of the conference, particularly when it comes to interacting with exhibitors and vendors. These companies pay a lot of money to be a part of the conference and make contacts. While they may not immediately jump at the opportunity to give a full blown sales pitch to an undergraduate or graduate student, they will want to learn more about where you work, with whom you work, and on what topics you are working. If you see something that looks new and interesting, show some interest in the exhibit and talk to the exhibitor. I still find myself to be a little shy approaching a salesperson. They have an agenda - to sell something - and you may not be in the place to make a decision about buying. Still, a good tactic can be to act like you are gathering information for your boss. If you are deemed by the vendor to be the eyes and ears of your boss, then they will be willing to talk to you and tell you more about what they have. You are not beholden to make any commitments, since you are just the messenger. Even if this arrangement is a farce, you can still gain points with your boss by telling them about some of the neat new things you found at the exhibit. Your boss probably paid good money for you to attend the conference, and he or she will be pleased that you spent some time investigating for them.

My students tend to gravitate to the swag, the little trinkets that vendors give out for free at their booths and suites. They seem to have some kind of a competition for it. That’s fine and that’s fun, but I am always amazed to see someone’s extreme delight over the acquisition of something like a stuffed animal version of a microbial pathogen, or a pair of sunglasses that flashes bright colors and blinds you when you wear them. New memory sticks are quite nice, but how many does one need? If it gets people talking, then so be it.

If you are lucky enough to receive an invitation to go out to eat or for drinks (even if you do not drink alcohol) with anyone new at a conference, then take it! It is more than just a free meal (but that’s nothing to complain about either). While some of my students might groan about my efforts to force them out to a bar at the end of the day to spend time with other conference attendees, this is real quality time, and this is where the great connections are made. I can literally trace U.T. Arlington’s multimillion dollar partnership with Shimadzu back to my days in graduate school and the connections I made just hanging out with company employees at conferences. It is invaluable - just play it cool. If you do drink, don’t overdo it. You still want to remember their names the next day when you run into them on the conference floor. More than likely, they will be apt to introduce you to other people the next day, as well.

The oral sessions are where the real scientific advancements of the conference can be found. At many conferences, the oral sessions are the performance stages for the rock stars. This takes some planning. Look through the conference program beforehand and determine which sessions will be disseminating excellent research pertaining to your interests or including presentations by some real luminaries in the field. Often, if there are parallel sessions, you will find conflicts and the choice may be difficult. If the conference is well organized (and session rooms are not separated by a distance of more than half a mile), you can bounce between different sessions to mix and match. Again, consider taking some notes and reporting back to your boss about what you have learned, and some new ideas you have generated as a result. Personally, I can only visit so many talks on my own. If my students are visiting others, then collectively our group learns more and can share. That is obvious, but may not be intentionally pursued if not considered.

Finally, one of the most valuable things that I have done at conferences throughout the years is to make a point of introducing myself to someone new each day of the conference. We all know the big names in our fields, but how many of you have shared even a 2-min conversation with them? That is all you need to begin making contacts. Each day, have in mind the name and face of a person you want to meet. For me, raised as a chromatographer, when I started attending the ASMS conference, there were many people whom I wanted to meet. The conference is four days long. I picked four names, and did a little bit of research about either what they were presenting or what they had published recently. I formulated one or two questions, and then when the chance arose, I boldly strolled up to them and introduced myself. I told them who I was, where I was from, and why I was interested in meeting them. No one is going to begrudge a desire to be met. The conversation might end simply and swiftly after that with, “I really enjoyed reading about your research on advanced particle physics. Thank you for your time. I appreciate having the opportunity to have met you. Have a nice day.” After which, you can simply walk away and feel good that you made the effort. Or, you might have the chance to wow them by asking a few educated questions about their research. I can tell you for sure that some of the connections I made in this way were the beginnings of letters written on my behalf by experts in the field, and afforded opportunities for awards and professional advancement. Many exciting research opportunities also resulted. Give it a try. Remember, often it is more about who you know than what you know.

I hope these few small pieces of advice give you some ideas about how to get the most out of your next conference. I am always heartened by the new energy that my students and I have when returning to the lab after such events. Scientists are not always the most outgoing people, but to get ahead in life we have to network. Don’t pass up on your next best chance to do so.