Oh, the world of academic conferences. A wealth of the biggest names in your field all clustered together for high powered talks, mingling, and possibly a little too much alcohol. Our senior correspondent attended the Animal Behavior Society conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and they’ve reported back the dos & don’ts to make sure you draw the most from your conference experience.
Mingle like you’ve never mingled before. If you are feeling shy, don’t worry; a lot of the graduate students (and some faculty) are feeling the same. During the frequent snack breaks, grab that complimentary wine, and get chattin’! A great ice breaker can be “hey there, this is my first conference, what are they like?” You will either receive great advice or bond with someone who is in the same boat as you. Another go-to is asking people about what they study. Everyone is open to talking about their research and it’s a cool way to learn bits of science that may be outside your wheel house. Altogether, making connections this round will make next year feel much smoother. Our senior correspondent suggests if you think you “should” talk to someone, that’s the signal to go ahead and do it.
Talks are the bedrock of the conference culture. GO TO THEM. There are usually more talks than you could possibly ever see, so pick a few that interest you ahead of time. Before the day starts, look through your schedule and mark those talks that stand out. Pay close attention to the start/stop times and their locations, as it might have you running across campus. (Also, this is a great opportunity to mingle with the presenter after their talk to work on those “should” skills.)
Present your work. This is the best opportunity to share with others in your field what you study, and this can come in the form of a talk, a poster, or even just a well-prepared elevator speech. If you are giving a talk, a pro-tip is to check out the room beforehand as well as the AV system. Make sure your graphs & animations pop the way you want them to so your audience can follow your presentation as smoothly as possible. As a side-note, check to see how formal your conference is. Depending on the crowd it can range from a suit and tie being standard, to presenting in a pair of crocs and no one would bat an eye.
Events not necessarily related to science can occur, and we recommend taking advantage of them. For example, graduate student or minority dinners/outings may be on the schedule, and it provides an opportunity to feel a deeper sense of community within the conference. Don’t feel pressured to only talk about science either. There will likely be people from all over the world in attendance and a wealth of fun topics to discuss. If you are feeling particularly social, organize an outing in the evening! Conferences tend to be in places with enough nightlife that you can enjoy a drink or two in the city.
Stress. This is the only “don’t” you really need to keep your eyes on. It’s normal to feel intimidated or have a level of imposter syndrome. Just remember conferences are a supportive environment about sharing ideas/experiences. Done right, you will get productive feedback on your own work while being inspired by the work of others. You will make new contacts and friends; people you’ll look forward to seeing again next year. So, with that, remember to relax, have fun, and soak up all the inspiration you can!