Making your conference count

 In for grad students, PhD/Postdoc Blog

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current position: 4th year PhD candidate in Biological Sciences

Program start date: 2013

Institution: Vanderbilt University


Welcome back!

In previous blogs, I’ve gone through my different avenues of skills development for a future career including: science communication, teaching, advocacy, and outreach. As useful as these skill sets have been in rounding out my graduate career, I still need to take the next steps in making connections with leaders in the field who can advise me or hire me after graduation. So, where’s the best place to sell yourself and your career goals to the largest possible audience?…

Professional Society Conferences

While I’ve been to several conferences in the past, I never walked away from them thinking I made the most of a great career development opportunity. I’d present my poster and meet new people only through introductions from my PI or supervisor. These introductions may have established a good network to progress my research with collaborations and new ideas, but I didn’t talk to people who could give me advice on career options and effective strategies to be competitive on the job market. Last month, I decided to take a better approach when I attended the ASM Microbe conference in New Orleans. I wanted to make this conference my most productive yet as I finish my PhD.


Here are a few changes I made to get the most out of this conference:


  • Use Social Media! I know this may seem trivial, but I expanded my network exponentially by connecting with people on Linkedin and Twitter before the conference to prepare to meet them in person. Linkedin was particularly useful for me because many of the policy leaders I wanted to meet at the conference had active Linkedin accounts. Even better, you can send a brief message when you try to “connect” with someone through Linkedin. I was able to set up several one-on-one meetings through Linkedin messaging. I was even able to grab a few words with someone who couldn’t meet with me, but recognized my name from the “connection invite” when I bumped into him later.


  • Go to the vendor booths. While you can get some really great swag from vendors — and I took advantage of that as well — they also can be great sources for networking and learning new career options. I found out about two different postdoc opportunities and several industry positions by randomly walking around and talking to the different vendors. Before you do this, however, come prepared to answer two questions: what do you do and what are your career interests? If you can answer these questions in a plain, casual manner, it’s surprising how good that makes you look. I had a representative from Battelle (a private non-profit organization) stop me halfway through our conversation to say, “You’re knowledgeable and can communicate well. Can I scan your badge to send to HR”? Without knowing it, I just added another potential career choice for after graduation. (Hint: Don’t forget a thank you note/email).


  • Use the professional society for career development. The staff or committee members of a professional society are amazing people to make connections with at conferences. As I said in my advocacy blog post, large professional societies have members who focus on policy, outreach, or teaching initiatives and they actively seek graduate student perspectives in these different areas. At the ASM Microbe conference, I made it my mission to talk to members of the ASM leadership in person and see if there were any opportunities for me- either as a graduate student or postdoc. I talked with the chair of the Public and Science Affairs Board, members of the Communications committee and an editor overseeing the quarterly Cultures magazine. Through these contacts, I created the potential to work with ASM policy officers and potentially contribute a segment to the magazine. These opportunities only became available because I put in the prep time and sought them out.


  • Submit as many abstracts as you can to present your work. I was fortunate to be able to present three different times at my conference. I had a poster presentation for one abstract and two talks for another. By presenting as much as I did, I had the opportunity to talk to many different people about who I am and what my work entails. These discussions were a great opportunity to exchange business cards and make new contacts. It is important to note that one of my talks was a plain speech “up goer five” challenge where I could only use the 1000 most used words to describe my research. It’s not every day at a conference you get to present to a large group of your peers holding a beer (don’t judge, it was a happy hour session). There are many ways to present yourself at a conference besides the traditional research poster or talk.


Thanks for reading and I wish you the best of luck at your next conference. Next month, I’ll finish my blog series with talking about the importance of coordinating with your PI, keeping them informed, benefiting from their experience and expertise and, while pursuing your interests and career objectives, keeping in mind your PI’s overall priorities for the lab and the lab’s current and upcoming workload.

And now, to wrap it up:

How do you find a job when graduation nears?

Or ask for advice in finding future careers?

Conferences can help you network and make a goal,

To find a great contact or job, it’s in your control.

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