Starting Grad School: A guide to your first conference. Part 2


Last week I was at a huge international conference in San Diego, presenting a poster and learning about cool science. I figured it was only charitable to impart my conference-gained knowledge, and seeing as I can’t talk about lots of the science (sharing other people’s unpublished data is Not The Done Thing) it’ll have to be touchy-feely knowledge instead.

Earlier I wrote about being prepared for conferences, but today I’m going to talk about how you behave at a conference.

Don’t be a dick

Okay, so that may sound pretty easy. But apparently it’s not. Because in the space of a week at PAG, I encountered some truly dickish behaviour. 

Let’s start with the basics. It’s been extensively documented, and I’m sure most people know, that there are a few major red lights for conference behaviour, or probably just for any work-related function in general.

  • Don’t get wasted: a couple of drinks are fine (and positively helpful in getting to know some potential PIs!) but if you have to get mashed after your horrible presentation make sure you do it far away from anyone you might consider important.
  • Don’t sleep with anyone: there are far far too many things that can go wrong, and very few that can go right.
  • Don’t badmouth anyone inside or outside the lab. You never know when the person you’re chatting up at the bar might turn out to be a young-looking associate professor who knows the postdoc you’re bitching about.

Respect the speaker

All of that is really common sense though, and while I saw plenty of people avoiding eye contact with the lab whose tiny Asian PhD student was falling over on the first night of the conference, straying from my three golden rules doesn’t make you a terrible person.

But if you’re really going to be a dick, you don’t do it by getting drunk and shagging your next boss. You do it by disrespecting presenters. This doesn’t seem to happen so much at small conferences, because most people are too embarrassed to leave a room when doing so is tantamount to saying “I’m not interested in what you have to say.” But in a huge conference with many sessions running concurrently, there’s a fairly high chance that you may find yourself wanting to go to talks in more than one place, without a break in the middle. As with dress codes, how people handle this varies wildly, but as a PhD student I would really recommend toe-ing the line.

  • Sit near the door for a hasty escape.
  • Leave as the next speaker is being introduced: even if you don’t have to be at the talk you want to get to until 15 minutes later. If you walk out mid-talk they will notice, as will other people. Hopefully you’re insignificant enough for nobody to care, but let’s be honest: it’s distracting and it’s rude.
  • If you’re with labmates who are likely to ask, tell them before where you’re going, or have a hand signal or something. Nobody needs to hear your five minute conversation about which session you’re sneaking out to.

This may, again, sound like common sense, but you will see some unbelievable douchery at international conferences, a lot of it from people old enough and smart enough to know better. The difference is, while I personally think that the two Asian gentlemen in the Polyploidy session who talked the whole way through an entire talk were rude, self-centred twat monkeys, I’m pretty sure that none of their collaborators are going to stop associating with them as a result. Not so for the lowly PhD student. You have been warned.

Variations on a theme

Once you’ve perfected the art of ‘not being a dick’, you may actually be able to gain some brownie points (and, hell, useful information!) by going the opposite way.

  • If you’re on Twitter and the conference has a hashtag, visit the posters of people tweeting. It’s as good a reason as any, once you’ve seen all the relevant ones; it’s good practice for them to explain to a completely unrelated person; and sometimes you find something really interesting in a place you didn’t know to look for it. (This happened to me this time around. And I got the email address of a useful-to-know postdoc out of it!)
  • If you enjoyed a speaker’s talk and have a question you were too embarrassed to ask at the time, find their poster or send them an email. Nobody is so secure that they don’t appreciate an “I enjoyed your talk” email.
  • If somebody visits your poster, visit theirs: or attend their talk. Chances are they were interested in you for a reason. And if not, it’s only polite.
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2 responses to “Starting Grad School: A guide to your first conference. Part 2

  1. Pingback: The Ramen Diaries Part 7: Or Twitter, a cautionary tale | bakingbiologist

  2. Really liked both posts on this , good info for me to have as I attend my first international in March. Ty 🙂

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