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How to Get the Most Out of a Conference:

Tips for First-Time Attendees

Professional meetings offer one of the best ways for you to become fully integrated into your professional community. Depending on the conference, there will be hundreds or thousands of people, and many will be interested in the same topics that you are—and eager to learn from you. Leading researchers in the field—including potential graduate mentors and collaborators—will be there, giving talks, passing you in the hallway, getting coffee in line ahead of you, and generally available for you to meet. No one knows whether you’re an undergraduate or graduate student, postdoc or young faculty member, so don’t be intimidated—everyone is equal at these meetings.


Choosing a Conference


Keep an eye out for conferences in your field, such as those sponsored by relevant professional societies. Many times, these meetings are an excellent venue for presenting your research in a talk or poster. Other times, you may just want to go to the meeting as an attendee to hear the latest findings and meet other researchers in the field, including potential mentors and collaborators.


Once you have identified a potential meeting—or had it recommended by an advisor or colleague—what do you need to do? Watch for the deadline for submitting an abstract and registering for the conference. Note if there is an early registration deadline that offers discounted rates.  Ask if you need to be a member of the sponsoring society to attend or submit an abstract. Most times, joining the society gives you enough of a discount on the meeting registration to more than cover the cost of a membership. Your research mentor or institution may have resources available to defray the cost of your membership or meeting participation. Don’t forget to reserve lodging before all the hotels fill up and buy a plane ticket while airfares are cheap.



Before the Meeting


Plan ahead: Look through the Program Book or the schedule of events online to determine which sessions you are interested in based on the topic, speaker, and format. If the conference has an online itinerary planner, take advantage of it to search abstracts, save sessions you are interested in, and print out an agenda for yourself. If full abstracts are only available online, think about printing those that you might want a hard copy of while at the conference.

Set your goals: Many conferences can seem overwhelmingly busy. If you’re wondering how to navigate the many sessions, consider focusing on a few topics that interest you instead of trying to hear everything. Remember to schedule some time in between sessions for talking to speakers or even just the person sitting next to you. If you are seeking a postdoctoral position or other employment, be sure to bring a few copies of your CV with you.

Networking: Ask your advisor which researchers you should meet and who might be interested in your work.

Prepare short introductions of yourself, your research, and your plans for the future. It’s helpful to have both a 10-second and a 30-second introduction, so you’ll be prepared when you bump into the right person on the elevator or at a reception.

Business cards: Bring a big stack of business cards. You never want to have to scribble your name on a scrap at paper for your next collaborator or mentor. If you don’t already have then, you can order from an office supply store or print them yourself with card stock designed for this purpose. Be sure to include at least your name, contact information, and school/institution—and possibly a one-line description of your research topic or professional interest.



At the Meeting

Attend sessions and trainee events: Use your planned agenda as a guide, but don't be afraid to try something new. Attend a talk that is in not your own field or check out posters you may know nothing about. You may discover new ideas or collaborators where you least expect them.

Networking: When you are not attending sessions, don't miss the opportunity to catch up with your colleagues and meet new people. Don't be afraid to talk to strangers. Arrive a little early at sessions and sit next to someone you don't know and introduce yourself. People love to talk about their work, so asking them what they do is a great conversation starter. If you’d like to know this person better, give him/her your business card. Also, collect cards from those you meet and follow up with them later in the meeting or after you’re home. A good place to keep business cards is in your badge holder. If you have promised to send them something after the meeting, make a note of it on their card and remember to do so


After the Meeting

Take time to reflect: Did you meet your goals? It is helpful to write a summary of your experience for your personal records. You can include descriptions of sessions that interested you, ideas that came up, and who you met.

Complete the Survey:  Most meeting planners will email an end-of-conference survey; your feedback is the best tool that conference organizers have to make improvements for the future.  If there’s something you especially liked or wish had been different, let them know. If you get an e-mail with a link to a post-conference survey, please respond promptly.


Follow up: Send a follow-up email as soon as possible after the conference to anyone with whom you would like to stay in contact. If there were sessions that interested you and that you missed, contact the speakers by e-mail and request copies of their slides.