How to Navigate The World of Conferences

 In networking, PhD/Postdoc Blog, professional development

With so many options for what to write about, I decided to use my most recent experiences to dictate what I want to focus on. For this first blog post: Conferences!

I think many scientists, like myself, become slightly overwhelmed by the idea of attending a conference. To begin, what conference should I attend? And on that note, why should I be attending it in the first place? Do I have to present? And if so, what is the difference between a poster and a talk? Not to mention the social anxiety associated with the entire experience. Nonetheless, earlier this month I went to my first conference as a graduate student, and now I hope to provide some insight into how to make the most of any conference you participate in.

Before deciding on a conference, there are a couple key things to think about:

  1. What type of conference do I want to attend?
  2. What do I hope to achieve at this conference?


1. What type of conference do I want to attend?

I found my first conference through the Women in Chemistry (WiC) group on campus. An organizer of the Women in Science Conference (WiSC) at Notre Dame contacted our board directly and invited us to apply to present our research at this event. In this case, the type of conference I wanted to attend was a smaller, career-centered conference, focusing on gender diversity in STEM. While I did not have to search for this conference, had I not been involved in the WiC group I probably never would have discovered it. This shows the importance of being involved with groups on campus that you are passionate about. If you do not have these types of groups, perhaps consider starting one, you may be surprised how many people are interested!

In addition to looking towards groups on campus for connections, I would suggest talking to your peers and professors. While your principal investigator (PI) can provided you a list of his/her favorite conferences, these may not be what you are looking for at that point in time and so it is useful to talk to other people within your department/division. You’ll be amazed what else is out there!

Furthermore, there are multiple online resources to look towards:
and are just two that I found helpful (you can search by date, country, and area/subject).


2. What do I hope to achieve at this conference?

The main things I wanted to focus on were the following:

  • Presenting my research to a wider audience
  • Expanding my network
  • Attending helpful workshops/panels


Presenting my research to a wider audience

While I have presented my research in front of numerous chemistry audiences in both the poster and talk format, I have never had the opportunity to present it to a broad group of scientists. Being able to communicate your research to a wider audience is a skill that takes time to develop. You must balance the technicality of your work while keeping your audience engaged. If you do not provide enough scientific details, the audience may not believe you have enough proof behind your conclusions. However, if you go into too much detail you will lose your audience and they will not grasp the merit of your work. Practice is the only way to perfect any skill, so that is what I set out to do at the WiSC by giving a talk on my most recent publication.

Though it is not necessary to present your science at a conference, I highly suggest stepping out of your comfort zone and going for it! If a talk seems too overwhelming to you, try presenting a poster instead. This provides you the opportunity to talk about your research with people that are interested, but you can also leave your poster for brief periods of time to learn about other people’s work. This freedom to step away will be helpful to graduate students battling anxiety about presenting.

Side note: another great option is to present your research to experts in your field. This will allow you the chance to get questions from highly educated individuals that may lead your project in a direction you never thought of before! This also gives you good practice for more traditional scientific job interviews, where you would be expected to talk about your research and answer questions.


Expanding my network

Although I am an extrovert, much of the scientific community identifies as introverts. Thus, the idea of networking with strangers at a conference can be overwhelming to many. I was lucky enough to attend a workshop on “Growing Your Professional Network,” and will provide the key take-aways I got from it.

Before attending any conference, focus on why you want to network and what your personal barriers are that keep you from attaining your networking goals? Many of us have similar reasons for wanting to network (job opportunities, scientific collaborations, etc.), but the barriers are much more unique to the individual. For myself, I have no problem starting a conversation, but find it challenging to keep the relationship going after the conversation ends. Being aware of your own barriers will allow you to make a concrete plan for how to overcome them. For example, for myself I have to work on reaching out to contacts after the conference ends. And remember, the worst thing that can happen is you do not get a response, which really is not that bad (they are busy people after all).


Attending helpful workshops/panels

I already briefly introduced this idea above, but one of the main reasons I enjoyed the WiSC was the abundance of workshops. The two that I took part in focused on networking and mentoring, which can be directly applied to my current position as a graduate student. Although not all conferences have workshops, I would highly suggest trying to attend at least one that does. Presenting your science is exciting and important, but so is working on skills to advance your career in graduate school and beyond.

Equally as important as workshops are panels. As a graduate student, it is fairly easy to ask professors and older graduate students for advice in our own groups/departments. However, the world is so much larger than the institution we are enrolled in. Going to panels provides you with the distinct possibility to hear diverse perspectives on a certain topic. The panels I attended focused on careers inside and outside of academia. Not only was I able to hear from women independent from my department, but also women working in other scientific areas. Having opportunities such as these are rare and should always be considered when planning which conference to attend!


On a final note, do not be afraid to take breaks! You are not required to go to every talk/workshop/panel. If you are feeling drained, go take a short walk or grab some coffee. Sometimes you just need a moment to recharge and that is perfectly okay.


Until next month,

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