Starting Grad School: A guide to your first conference. Part 1


I just (well, a few days ago, but: jetlag) came back from a massive international conference, and am feeling like it’s high time I shared some more advice for the first year Grad students. I could write you a couple of thousand words about attending conferences but, let’s me honest, nobody would read them. So for now I will just impart advice about two conference-attending topics:

  • Be prepared for anything
  • Don’t be a dick

I guess I should probably put a bit more meat on those bones, so here’s part one: How to be prepared for anything

Pick your conference carefully, and learn as much as you can about it.

There are many different kinds of conferences. If you are lucky, you might belong to a lab who attend a particular one en masse, but chances are you will have to figure this bit out yourself. There may be a small, focussed one including all of the people you need to network with. Chances are if that’s true, your supervisor will know about it already. There may be a broad international one with lots of different concurrent sessions. (Try looking at various societies: in my first year I went to the Society in Experimental Biology one, which is nice and broad, and not too expensive.) 

Some will be formal, some less formal. Some will take place in one room, where you have to go to every single talk, even the really dull ones; whereas some will have 10 concurrent sessions that you can chop and change between.

You’ll need to figure out whether there are separate networking events, and whether to go to them. (If you can afford to, the answer is yes.) You’ll need to figure out whether the hotel is in an area where you could feasibly stay in a cheaper location nearby, or whether you need to be in the conference hotel to avoid missing out on opportunities.

Dress the part

Dressing the part for a conference is hard. For starters, there’s no hard and fast rule that can be applied to all conferences. In the early months of my PhD I ended up at two conferences in under a month: one being an industry-science crossover thing, and the other the nationwide meeting of pretty much everyone who does anything broadly related to my lab (although not really related to me). At the former, I felt under-dressed wearing a suit-skirt, heels, blouse and cardigan, as everyone else was suited and booted. At the latter, I took off my heels and blazer in embarrassment at lunchtime on the first day as everybody else was in jeans and fleeces.

The Thesis Whisperer wrote a couple of nice posts on this but I would basically summarise down to this:
– It’s better to be too smart than under-dressed. Too smart says over-keen. Scruffy says I don’t care.
– But if you’re at a 5-day conference, you should be able to tone it down if you’ve got it wrong. (Think long-sleeved jerseys as well as blouses; think a smart jumper as well as that blazer).
– The younger you are, the smarter you need to be.
– And the more female you are, the smarter you need to be. Don’t ask me why. Women at conferences always seem suited and booted when the men aren’t. Maybe it’s that we don’t have an equivalent of chinos?

Do your homework

First and foremost, you’re probably going to be panicking about your presentation or (much more likely if this is your first conference) poster. But once you’re done worrying about that you need to start thinking about the rest of the conference. What you want to see, who you want to talk to, and what you might find. If you’re going to a small exclusive meeting this may not be such an issue, but if you’re going to something like PAG, you’ve got a lot of work to do.

If you’re lucky then abstracts for talks and posters will be available to read, either in a booklet or on a website. It’s worth noting that for a really big international conference you may not get a hard copy of the abstracts as there will just be too many: so it’s important to make the time to go through these in advance and pick interesting ones. It’s really easy to miss a useful talk about your species or gene system because it was hiding away in a bioinformatics session.

Sometimes there will be sessions where there’s just nothing relevant to your field. Don’t be afraid to spend some time going to talks that you’re interested in but that apparently have no relevance to your field. At my first international conference I spent a session learning about how platypuses have 10 sex chromosomes, not 2. I attended interesting sessions about plant pathology, and stress biochemistry. Not only is this just plain interesting, and has the potential to throw up collaborations, but it also makes you more aware of how easy it is to slip into jargon and miss out on reaching a wider audience.

Pack like a girl guide

Always be prepared kids 😉 Seriously though, most conferences will provide you with paper, pens, velcro for your poster… Don’t take chances. If you’re 3000 miles from home, in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, the last thing you want is to find yourself having to beg a pen from somebody you’ve never met until the exhibits open and you can rinse industry for freebies. Think about the best and the worst that can happen: this is the time to have paper copies of your poster prepped, even business cards if you’re hunting for collaborations / jobs.

In part 2: Don’t be a dick…. 

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5 responses to “Starting Grad School: A guide to your first conference. Part 1

  1. I’m only *slightly* female, so I wear jeans 🙂

  2. thebooksnthelooks

    Great post! It’s nice to get a view into conferences before going to one.

    Quick question for you – how do you find conferences to attend/present at?

    • Often by them emailing my supervisor and him pointing me at relevant ones, or by going to a less relevant one and picking up an advert for a more relevant one. (E.g. I went to the aforementioned science vs industry one, which wasn’t great, and the society who organised it had a young researchers’ day, which was much more my cup of tea.) A lot of societies have broad conferences that could be good for either job hunting at the end, or just for interest, when you’re a first year who still has interests in lots of other subjects! (e.g. the Society for Experimental Biology have one that covers everything from animal physiology to plant genetics to education)

      • thebooksnthelooks

        Thanks for the info 🙂 I don’t have a supervisor yet (currently doing my MA, applying for PhD programs for the fall) so hopefully I’ll be better connected to that kind of thing when I’m actually in my PhD.

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