Copyright: Matej Kastelic

Getting the most out of conferences

The largest conference in your field is right around the corner. You might have the prettiest poster and the most tantalising talk, but unless you fully recognize and seize the vast and critical opportunities presented there, your conference experience will be a bust and your career will be negatively affected.

Attending professional conferences is one of the most crucial career-boosting steps you will take in your path. And yet, most people who frequent conferences do not take complete advantage of the many, many, many (did I mention many?) opportunities they present to grow and solidify your network, learn about your field, discover new arenas, enhance your skills, identify and forge career linkages, promote yourself, and open yourself to myriad other more fruitful and exciting circumstances for professional advancement. The conference is a multiverse of career-augmenting treasure which both emerging and established scientists should ravenously pursue.

To be clear, attending one session and playing the wallflower at a meet-and-greet is not the way to score conference participation gold. It takes advanced strategic planning, combined with nimbleness and nerve to be able to achieve the best return on your conference investment of time, energy, money and intellectual input and output. Here are some tactics to help you orchestrate the most rewarding experience at your next conference.

Start with a goal: Every important move in your career course begins with a goal, and so too does your conference participation. Before you submit the paper and book the hotel, pinpoint from the start why you are attending, and what are the targeted takeaways that you want to acquire or actualize for the experience to be worthwhile. Number 1 on your list should always be to network, as you should constantly aim to increase the number of people you know in your field and in related disciplines. But there will surely be others, and by solidifying your goals for attending, you will be able to form the basis for a course of action to achieve those goals.

Develop a plan: Your plan will incorporate your mission for going to the conference, paired with specific actions you need to take to accomplish your objectives. It is important to remember that you will have to be completely proactive and interactive at the conference. In other words, you will have to take control, and reach out to others who are attending. You cannot be passive and hope that networking will just happen to you; you must examine the conference agenda and determine what sessions to attend, AND make a plan to network, introduce yourself to others, and seek to achieve any other goals you have in attending.

Prepare: After you establish your conference intent, the next step is to prepare. This involves researching who will be attending, papers that will be premiered, sponsoring organizations that will be at the trade show, and companies and universities that will be interviewing at the career center. Make note of smaller, more casual gatherings of like-minded colleagues to hone your networking skills. But also plan to attend open business meetings and award ceremonies. Make a list of people that you absolutely want to meet, and make a schedule of sessions and events that you absolutely want to attend. Contact people in advance and request informational meetings to take place over coffee.

Be flexible: Despite the fact that your plan involves a schedule, be flexible and open to new opportunities while you are there. Seek to attend presentations on subjects unfamiliar to you. Don’t hesitate to go to the tradeshow and converse with the salespeople – this is excellent practice for career fairs, and you never know what information you may acquire. You could learn of a new job or a new paper or a new field that you might find tantalizing. Keep an eye out for impromptu or unscheduled events on the message boards (mobile or otherwise) that might provide you value.

Introduce yourself and follow up: It bears repeating that you are at the conference to meet people, gain information about your science, learn skills, and expand your career horizons. So when you attend sessions, introduce yourself to the people sitting next to you before the talk begins. After the speech, go up and introduce yourself to the speaker. Ask everyone you meet for their business card or contact information, give them yours (see below), and follow up with them. Send thank you emails or notes to those who spend time with you and give you leads. At the lunches, in the hallways, near the posters, and by the cybercafé, introduce yourself and get to know your colleagues. Stay in touch.

Act and dress professionally: Bring and offer business cards that list your current position (for example, “Candidate, PhD, Geosciences”) and contact information. Use a professional email address (i.e. relegate to your midnight Myst trysts). Be mindful of what your colleagues wear to conferences, and bump it up a notch. You are attending as a professional, which simply means you are serious about your craft, and your wardrobe should reflect that. If you are speaking or presenting a poster, wear a suit. And even as an attendee, you should wear clothes that are a little more polished than what you wear to the lab or in the field. At dinners and other events involving alcohol, monitor your intake – this is not spring break.

Volunteer: For students and emerging scientists, volunteering at a conference is your ticket to achieving more of your conference (and career) goals than you thought possible. And quite frankly, very few people take advantage of this opportunity. Volunteering at a conference establishes you as a professional and a hard worker, allows others to observe your dedication to your craft and the association, gives you easy access to networking opportunities and opens doors to leadership and other volunteer experiences as well. Imagine if you were volunteering at the registration desk or in a session room. You are perceived as the authority because you are working at the conference. So not only will people automatically come up to you to ask your help (even if it is to inquire the location of the restroom), but you will have an immediate and very natural way to strike up a conversation. “Here is your nametag, Mr. (Al) Gore. I am so glad you can attend the Meeting, and I hope you enjoy the climate change sessions. By the way, I am a student at XYZ University and am really interested in science policy. Is it possible I could take a few minutes of your time sometime during the conference to seek your advice about career options?”

Recently I attended a scientific conference for which a high school student had written to the organization in advance and begged to volunteer. He was granted that chance, and the organization made a big, public deal that this kid had risen above his peers to pursue this unique and fruitful opportunity. It demonstrated his character, work ethic, and incredibly ambitious nature to want to be with and work with scientists in the field. The organizers of the conference spoke publicly about his skills, and I am certain he received offers to work in labs and apply for special scholarships just from that one experience.

You are not a kid. But that doesn’t mean you can’t and won’t make a big splash at your next conference and dazzle those around you with your purposeful actions, enthusiasm, professionalism, and excitement surrounding your desire to hone your craft. So before you attend your next conference, contact the local organizing committee and inform them that you would like to volunteer at the event. Chances are they will take you up on this. Volunteering, coupled with a strongly executed strategic plan to achieve your conference mission, will ensure that you truly get the most out of your conference participation. You may find that the multitude of valuable career advancement doors that will open because of your active participation may be too numerous to count. And such is life in a multiverse.

Featured image credit: Matej Kastelic via Shutterstock

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