#3 Reflections and tips for attending your first scientific conference

Illustration of people talking around a science context
Photo credit: Elenabsl | Shutterstock

Blog Post by Lindsay Dahlen, MSc student

January 2020

When I first decided to submit a poster abstract to attend the 2019 ASA – CSSA – SSSA meeting, I was mostly ambivalent, if not slightly intimidated, about attending a major conference for the first time. I felt nervous about presenting my own research, and more than a little shy imagining networking with researchers, industry professionals, and fellow graduate students.

I identified a few goals that I wanted to meet during the conference, which I believe played a large role in helping me feel ready to take on the conference experience. Thanks to these goals, I was able to balance “work” and having fun without feeling like I was wasting time. The goals that I identified before and throughout the conference are as follows:

  1. Present personal research – become comfortable discussing my own research succinctly and clearly with others
  2. Attend scientific sessions and symposiums – what sort of research is being done? Are there any new studies I should look into to inform my own research? Who is doing the research, and where?
  3. Conduct an informational interview – an assignment I needed to do for a class
  4. Attend the career fair – explore job opportunities and possibly introduce myself to potential employers

Attending Symposiums and Presentations

In the days leading up to the conference, I imagined that I would spend the majority of my time attending scientific presentations. I was excited to learn more about research related to my work and discover new ideas and techniques. I ended up splitting my time attending talks that pertained to my research and talks I was interested in yet weren’t directly applicable to my project.

As a young, early-stage researcher, I found the graduate student symposiums interesting and useful. I not only got a quick and dirty overview of a specific research project, but also got to observe what made the presentation engaging. It was cool to see how graduate students and post-docs at different points of their studies talked about their research. I also really enjoyed attending various symposiums since they provided a deeper look into current issues and methods on how to solve them. There were also more diverse presenters, from professors to nonprofits to startups. It was truly amazing to see the breadth of positive research in agricultural and soil sciences.

TIPS:

  • Plan your schedule beforehand, and also have some backups in case the talks get cancelled or turn out unrelated to your interests.
  • Understand what sort of sessions you’re attending – are these mainly given by graduate students or professionals? Understand that the quality and purpose will be different for different speakers and sessions.
  • Review notes during the evening, so you can identify future sessions you want to attend or people you want to follow up with.

Networking and meeting new people

Organizing an informational interview was one of my main goals of this conference. Prior to the trip, I had researched various job postings for a professional development class and subsequently discovered that one of the companies that I found interesting, Joyn Bio, would also be presenting at the conference. After their presentation, I introduced myself with a firm handshake and a smile to their representative, Dr. Carriedo. I explained that I was interested in learning more about her work and career path and we set up a lunch meeting for the following day.

During the informational interview, we talked about Joyn Bio’s mission, working in the industry versus academia, and the pros and cons of pursuing a PhD. I was surprised at how easy it was to discuss a wide variety of topics, from getting insightful comments about dealing with the struggles of graduate school to swapping book recommendations. It was also great to have the opportunity to talk with others about their research and professional goals. Overall, the informational interview was a great opportunity for me to both gather information and do some reflection on my future.

Aside from organizing an informational interview, my only other planned networking interaction was to attend the career fair. This turned out to be a few signboards covered in job postings, so I wandered over to the graduate school fair that was happening close by. I found that bringing up talks I had seen by students and professors from each representative’s specific school was a great way for them to take interest in me and give me more useful information. For example, I mentioned to the University of Georgia representative that I had seen a really interesting talk from one of their professors and that the professor had mentioned at the end of his talk what a great program UGA had. The representative immediately became more animated and interested in talking with me, wanting to know what my interests were and offering to introduce me to the professor. We ended our conversation by him promising to forward my contact information to professors I might be interested in working with, which allowed me to get in touch with a couple of PIs who were looking for potential PhD students.

TIPS:

  • Research who you might want to talk to before the conference, especially if you want to introduce yourself to a potential employer or mentor.
  • Sign up for email lists at the career fair and graduate school tables – you never know what will lead to a new opportunity.
  • Prep your LinkedIn/website beforehand, since professionals may use this as the primary means to connect with you.
  • Introducing yourself to someone is a bit like a game, trying to find the one connection that will open up your conversation and help you get something out of the interaction. Practice makes perfect!
  • Send thank you notes. Not only is this a polite and professional thing to do, it helps solidify connections and makes your contact feel appreciated.

Poster Presentation

For me, the poster presentation was the true test of the trip. Not only was it the last event I would participate in during the conference, but I would be on the spot and trying to introduce my work to my peers and more senior researchers. Fortunately, the process of creating my poster was a great opportunity to really narrow down what my project is about and highlight my objectives. This helped me identify the salient ideas and results that I wanted to impart.

I presented my poster in the Crop Breeding and Genetics division, so the majority of people stopping to look at my poster were breeders. Although my project investigates a few of the ecological impacts of maize breeding, it was very interesting to engage with people who had a different perspective on my research question and my approach. In a strange way, this helped ward off imposter syndrome because I felt like I had the chance to introduce a less familiar aspect of breeding and see how it was received by the experts.

TIPS:

  • Visit the poster hall before you’re scheduled to present to scope out the location and observe how others are showing their posters.
  • Think about who you’ll interact with based on what session you’re in. The session will dictate who is more likely to visit your poster and the types of questions they’ll ask.
  • Practice your spiel and understand when a visitor just wants to know “How” not “How and Why”. Don’t just repeat your spiel in a monotone, tailor it to what the visitor seems to be interested in.
  • Let the visitor guide the discussion, especially if they are a more senior scientist.
  • Remember that practice makes perfect! Interacting with peers and professionals gets easier the more you do it – don’t worry if this is your first time.

After the poster session was over and I rushed to the airport, I felt a sense of relief and pride. I had successfully survived my first major scientific conference! I started the conference expecting to mainly attend research-focused sessions, but I was surprised that I was able to discover and form connections with a diversity of people. Because I was in tune with my own personal goals, I was able to participate in the conference with purpose and thus felt like I had “won”. However, I was also flexible enough to change my goals on a day-to-day basis. Had I restricted myself to my initial plan of attending sessions and focusing on my poster session, I would have lost out on several opportunities to connect with new people.

That being said, it is a good idea to create a general game plan BEFORE arriving. Researching who you want to meet and how you want to build your schedule is crucial for having a successful experience. Also, remember that attending a conference doesn’t mean you should solely focus on attending conference events. Take the opportunity to explore the city and get dinner with peers.

I also want to note the importance of having a solid support system, which in this case included senior members from my research lab (shout out to Leah, Caity, and Amélie!). In addition to answering any questions I had, I learned a lot from watching their presentations and seeing how they approached the conference experience. Travelling with them helped me feel more relaxed and excited and it was great to check in with them for encouragement.

This post doesn’t come close to encapsulating all of my experiences at the ACS conference, nor is it intended to be a checklist for how to have a successful conference attendee experience – here are some links that I also found helpful:

UC Davis Career Resource Manual

How to make friends and meet people at a scientific conference

Crash course on socializing at a scientific conference dinner

Networking for Introverted Scientists

A Networking Rule to Live By

Conference presentations: Lead the poster parade

Let’s fix academic posters!

Designing conference posters

I also recommend the AMS 298 class, “Designing Your Professional Life”, which includes how to set goals and approach networking events with your career in mind.