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At the
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Attending a good conference is worth the time investment

Conferences can shape your career, especially if you plan to stay in academia. Find a way to attend them. You will meet colleagues, collaborators, sponsors, program managers, and maybe your future employer. This series of articles provides insights into choosing the right conference and making the most of it.

First, we break down why attending a conference is a good use of your time. For graduate students, time is a strange and non-linear concept. Stagnancy begets stagnancy. Productivity begets productivity.

  • Wait, a fresh start can be helpful?! If you leave for a week to attend a conference, you will return with a renewed sense of urgency, and accomplish more in a shorter amount of time. Simply listening to new research ideas can stimulate your mind and help you look at older problems from a new perspective.
  • Wait, there are people out there who do research too? Yes, and they are experts! You might learn about a technique or experiment trick that saves you weeks of time and pushes your work further. If you are lucky and proactive, you might find space to start a collaboration with a colleague on an interesting project.
  • Wait, what were you working on again? When you prepare for a conference talk or poster, you are forced to think more deeply about your research problem, refine your experiments, articulate the results in a presentation, prepare better figures that you will eventually need for a paper, and do that extra analysis step. All that good stuff. You will think again about the big picture and how your work fits in the research field. And you hold yourself to a higher standard than usual while doing all of this since you will present to an audience of experts. By the way, you should do all of this stuff when you eventually write that paper. It’s not as though you are wasting time…
  • Wait, there’s a world out there, with people in it? Travelling is a fun social experience. Changing the scenery will help you freshen up and come back ready for more work. Grad school is not really glamorous, but travelling to new places and meeting cool people is definitely a big plus.
  • But you’ve already been to a billion conferences. There is a tipping point after which going to more conferences stops being a good use of your time. You might develop “poster fatigue” as you get tired of presenting the same material repeatedly. Then it’s time to go back to the lab and churn out more data to share with the science world.
Here’s the PhDeal.  In the best case scenario, a good conference might help you gain connections for your next job or start a fruitful collaboration. In the very least, you will come back refreshed and more productive. Wait, you can travel somewhere and it counts as work and you don’t have to feel (too) guilty? 

Next we discuss your travel funding. Sadly, we live in the real world, where you actually need money to do stuff.

How to find funding support for attending a conference

There are three sources of money for attending conferences: money from your PI’s grant, money from your own grant if you have one, and money from the rest of the world. Here are the details:

  • Support from PhD advisorThis is the most typical source of funding, and obviously varies between research groups. If you are travelling on grant money from your PhD advisor, you are (understandably) restricted to attending the conferences that they prefer, as well as a limited number of conferences that they can afford. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Your advisor can better evaluate the quality of a conference based on previous experience. Also, your advisor’s collaborators (i.e. your potential future employers) attend similar conferences. They are likely interested in your work, which provides a good opportunity for career development. However, do not be reluctant to discuss other possibilities with your advisor. Otherwise, you might end up going to less conferences, or none that you are truly excited about, or maybe even none at all.
  • Support from your own grant money: In this (rarer) case, you have more flexibility in selecting which conferences to attend. You should still consult with your advisor, but do not be afraid to explore and take risks. In fact, this step is necessary if you plan to transition to a new research field after you graduate. Your advisor might not be as recognized by that new research community, and you need to personally meet and build bridges with those folks (figurative bridges, although building literal bridges would also be cool). Always look up interesting conferences coming up and discuss them with your advisor. If you have a fellowship that covers your salary and research expenses, make sure to budget for as many conferences as possible. Use them as a launching pad for your next job.
  • Support from the rest of the world: If there is not enough grant money at the moment, keep trying. Search for avenues for partial funding. They exist. Find them and do your best to win them (after you finish reading this article). Here are some places to look:
  1. Your department might have a budget for student travel. Ask if you are not sure.
  2. Your graduate school might also have opportunities that not everyone knows about. Send emails. Ask.
  3. The conference itself might provide student travel money on a competitive basis. Get in touch with the conference organizers and ask them.
  4. Some students from other groups in your department might be attending the same conference, and you can pool travel and lodging expenses.
  5. Search beyond these obvious options. There are many professional institutions that give student awards based on academic excellence or research proposals. Find the ones relevant to your research field. 

Even if you secure only partial funding, your advisor might then be more encouraged to provide the remainder of the funds. Remember: You are an asset to your advisor, since you are travelling to represent their research. Your hard work and passion do make a difference. Also, the location for large national conferences rotates every year, so you might want to wait until it is closer and cheaper to attend.

Do not use your personal money, unless you really really want to. Of course, this is a personal choice. But as graduate students, we work long hours and do not get paid a lot. I do not think it is a good idea to pay out of pocket for conferences; unless the stars align such that you have other reasons to travel to that conference location.

Here’s the PhDeal. Do not restrict yourself to things that have traditionally been done by your group members and friends. Go the extra step. Maybe none of the above options to get funding will work, but you can only find out by taking the initiative and trying. The stakes are higher for you. Your advisor already has a secure job. You are still hunting for your next career step.

Next, we discuss how to choose the best conference to attend.

How to choose which conference to attend

The best conference is the one that you can attend.

Of course, we all would love to go to the Annual NASA Intergalactic Physicist Alliance Symposium. Or better yet, any conference in Cancun. But we do not all have the expertise and connections (as well as resources and time) to be invited to these (totally real) meetings. When you get a chance to go to a conference–any conference–do not underestimate its value. Make the most of it. Make it the best learning experience possible. Depending on the nature of the meeting, you can, in the very least, practice presenting and interacting with other scientists. In the best case scenario, the meeting might spawn a research idea that changes the world or, more importantly, gets you a publication… In the bestest best case dreamiest dreamy dream drum-drum scenario: you might find a job (interview).

Anyway, there are three kinds of conferences:

Local and regional conferences

The easiest conference to attend is one that your department is organizing. Always submit an abstract if the topic is relevant enough. Even if you think the meeting is meh and the work you will be presenting is meh and the number of attendees will be meh. Do it. Always be proactive. Make it fun and productive and a learning experience.

Some other examples include regional conferences by academic societies such as the American Chemical Society. These are surprisingly well-attended and cover a considerable breadth of research fields. Often, colleagues from your department will also be attending, and you can share the drive load on a fun road trip.

Perhaps the best value in these conferences is to practice presenting your poster or talk to a non-specialist audience. I cannot overstate the importance of this skill in your career, and these meetings are a good place to start.

Also, regional conferences attract the best talent in your state or community. This allows you to gauge the quality of your work and motivate you to achieve bigger things. You might learn about a technique or instrument that is located in a neighboring facility and might be useful to you.

Verdict: In the early/middle stages of your PhD, definitely go for it. In the late stages of your PhD, go if you have the time.

Large-scale national and international conferences

Some examples include national conferences by major academic societies such as the American Chemical Society, American Physical Society, and Materials Research Society. These conferences are attended by thousands of researchers, which is both a great advantage and a great disadvantage. There is a lot of value in attending, but you have to take the initiative and make the most of it.

If you do not have the chance to travel to multiple conferences, you have to make sure this one is worth it. Firstly, find a specific symposium or session that is directly relevant to your work. Evaluate the list of invited speakers and discuss it with your advisor. The opportunity to meet these professors and their students might already make it interesting enough for you to attend. Maybe you are tempted if you are given a talk instead of a poster presentation.

Surprisingly, the sessions at these large conferences are often not well-attended. It is difficult to get decent facetime with people of interest. And even then it is difficult to break the ice and engage in meaningful conversations. Especially at a huge conference in a huge setting where each person has their own itinerary and there are a gazillion sessions taking place at the same time. Accordingly, you need to be proactive. Get in touch with professors or researchers of interest ahead of time, and plan meetings with them. Create your chance to discuss specific research questions, potential collaborations, future job prospects, or simply connect with interesting people. You might not have concrete objectives from meeting with a certain professor. But if you are interested in their work, why not? Everyone appreciates a courteous email and compliment and honest interest in their research. They will let you know if they do not have the time to meet with you …

Beyond your specific research interest, there is also a lot on offer. You can attend high-level talks on broad topics, social mixers with fellow students, symposia (I’m told that is the plural of symposium, mind you) that interest you for their scientific content, or workshops on career coaching. The quality of these workshops is usually hit and miss. But again things are what you make of them. You might not come out of a workshop with clear action items that improve your life and community and help you cure all of society’s ills. But they can at least motivate you in your research or job search or next PhD task. Also, try to meet with company vendors and representatives. That will not be too productive; these days, companies rarely attend academic conferences with the intent of hiring people. But it is still useful to meet people in industry, connect with them professionally, and ask some questions.

Verdict: Undefined, just like infinity times zero. There is a huge volume of interesting people, but with little natural time/space for interactions, unless you are proactive. Worth it if you make it worth it.

Research field-specific conferences

In terms of career development, these are the best conferences to attend. Every talk is relevant and every person is interesting. You can learn a lot very quickly. Some of the great examples are Gordon Research Conferences. Because the setting is closed, the attendees have enough time to break the ice and engage in meaningful conversations. These meetings are attended by a smaller group of people (~80-200). Because everyone’s research is relevant, they all attend and engage in and care about most of the talks.

Much of what we discuss in the following pages is mostly effective in this type of conference. The people of interest are more accessible, which makes it easier for you to be proactive and learn as much as you can.

Verdict: Go for it!

Here’s the PhDeal. Again, the best conference is one that you can attend. Regardless of what it is, fight to make the most of it. Early in your graduate studies, you might prefer a smaller, local conference as you build more data and sharpen your presentation skills. Towards the end of your PhD, try as much as possible to attend top-quality field-specific conferences, especially if you are hunting for a postdoctoral position or job in academia. People generally prefer to hire someone they have previously met, ideally more than once.

If you are wondering whether to apply for a poster or a talk, apply for a talk

In a later series, we will discuss how to prepare a poster or oral presentation in full detail. Here, we provide a brief overview.

Do not settle for a poster because it is the “safer” option, definitely go for a talk! The following words of wisdom (whose origin I do not know) apply perfectly: If you are offered something amazing (in this case an oral presentation at a scientific meeting)–first say yes, and then figure out later how to do it.

  • You still have time. For one thing, the conference date is several months after the application deadline, and by then you might be feeling better about your data. It also serves as a useful checkpoint in your timeline. Plan to wrap up a particular study or accomplish a specific objective so you can present at the conference. Set yourself a hard deadline and beat it.
  • Your work is probably better than you think. You might go to a conference, and see a couple of talks and think: “Yup, I definitely could have done this. Too bad I did not apply for a talk”. This is especially true for general topic local, regional, or even national conferences where the sessions might have very low attendance and the attendees are from different research backgrounds.
  • Hey, you told us you want to become the expert on this topic. Even if you are not yet the world-leading authority on this research, you have the potential to become one, at least within this specialized corner of your research field. Do not shy away from the challenge of presenting your work in a talk.
  • You will focus your thoughts, beyond the conference. When preparing for a talk, you will challenge yourself to think about the broader context or the interpretation of your data.You will hold yourself to a higher standard. Remember that you are your own first and most important peer reviewer. We have all been in situations when we repeat an experiment for weeks, get stuck in the weeds, and forget the big picture. Preparing a talk, helps you take a step back and crystallize your thoughts.

Here’s the PhDeal. Apply for a talk! Go prepared and nail it. Turn your talk into practice for a job interview. By the way, your abstract might not be accepted as a talk anyway, and then you would give a poster presentation instead. 

In a later article series, we will discuss how to prepare effective presentations, but now let’s delve into the details of attending a conference.

Making the most of the conference, at the conference

Disclaimer: the information below is really not groundbreaking. But that’s the point. Sometimes all you need is a little bit of motivation to come out of your shell and engage with the research community. In conferences and grad school and the rest of your life, taking the initiative and liking what you do goes a long way.

  • Forget that your friends/colleagues are there for a while. You can easily cruise through a conference by just hanging out with people you already know. That sounds like fun, but is a waste of networking and learning opportunities. Meet new colleagues.
  • Also, remember that your friends/colleagues are there. This is a good opportunity to learn more about your own colleagues’ work and career plans. The daily routine at work often leads to a deluge of generic conversations, on the passing, in the hallway. Here, the environment is fresh and people are in the mood for more meaningful and fun discussions.
  • Arrange before the conference to meet with researchers of interest. If there is a professor whose work you are interested in, send them an email ahead of time. Go into the conference with momentum, and with planned meetings. Do this. It is useful both for learning more about your/their research, and also from a career development point of view.
  • Do not feel out of place. If you are there, you are good enough to be there. Do not overthink how to sound smart or impressive. No one will chat with you for a couple minutes and think: “Wow, you are way too smart. Give this person a Nobel Fields Medal Prize, or even more, a tenure-track professor position.
  • Introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you in a talk. A simple hello can break the ice. You are not expected to start a deep conversation before a talk anyway. But being nice and positive and enthusiastic is contagious.
  • Join a different table for lunch every now and then. Well, this mostly works if the conference is in a closed setting with a common lunch area. Lunches are an excellent opportunity to meet new people and cut through to meaningful professional conversations.
  • Approach and chat with small groups in coffee breaks. It is sometimes easier to connect with a small group of people versus with just one person. Conversations are already happening and there is less awkward silence.
  • Try to learn names. Do not be shy to ask about someone’s name a first time, a second time, and a third time. You are not expected to learn everyone’s name in a couple of days. Actually asking for someone’s name is in itself an icebreaker. People appreciate the effort.
  • Know the meeting. Go prepared. A lot of the above suggestions work best in smaller, specialized conferences where you have a lot of facetime with your colleagues. But large-scale national conferences are interesting too. Among the tens of parallel sessions and thousands of attendees, there are workshops that you can learn from, people you can connect with, and opportunities for career development. Invest time before the conference to know the conference. Go there with an itinerary in mind, ideally having gotten in touch ahead of time with people of interest to know their schedules.
  • Sleep well. Most humans–and graduate students are a subset of humans–need a good night sleep to function at 100%. The conference schedule is already very exerting. Get some rest.
  • Check out our list of cliché but useful conversation starters. It’s one of the next posts in this article series.

Most importantly, be professional and polite. Common sense rules of society still apply at a conference. Make sure you are professional and respect personal boundaries.


Making the most of the conference, at the conference
List of cliché conversation starters that actually work

There are two key points about conversation starters:

  • Your first conversations do not have to be memorable and super-exciting, just polite and friendly.
  • Small talk is good to get acquainted. But after that, quickly cut to more meaningful conversations to learn stuff from/about your colleagues. (See the previous post on making the most of the conference).

I was asked to compile this list by a reader. But hey, do not trust me. Use your best judgement.

Ice-breaker questions:

How long have you been at ____ (institution)? 

Which department are you in at _____  ?

Which year are you in your PhD?

Have you been to this conference before?

Are you here with other colleagues from your group or department?

Lower level ice-breaker questions:

How was your flight? Where did you fly here from?

Oh nice, how are you dealing with the jet lag? (man, this is cliché)

I’ve read about the fire / hurricane / earthquake / snowstorm near you. How’s it like at your place?

The food has been great so far at this conference (or not!). 

Have you been to this location before?

Post ice-breaker questions:

What did you think of the talk on ____ ?

Which is your favorite talk so far? 

Do you have a talk or poster session lined up for this week?

What is the best conference you have ever been to?

How well do you like the University of ____ , is it a good place for a postdoc for example?

I am not really familiar with your research field.

How directly relevant is this conference to your research? Which talk is particularly relevant?

What other conferences are you going to this year?

Other interesting questions:

Which professor or colleague at this conference would you be interested in working with? Why?

What do you think is the cool current question in your research field?

Have you ever written a research proposal? I have not yet, and it seems important.

What advice would you give someone who is interested in a postdoc at: a national lab / a private pharma company / a top school / (wherever you are)?

To professors:

How do you think this version of the conference compares to previous years? Is it a conference you regularly participate in?

What other conferences do you recommend?

What do you think would be a nice addition to the conference schedule?

Are any of your students here at the conference / giving talks?

How do you see funding trends in this field? Is it an exciting time for a young scientist to be part of this research community?

What do you think are the exciting open questions, or maybe one of them, in this research field?

What do you usually look for in a postdoc application?

For faculty search committees at your department, what do you think are the main criteria for selecting candidates?

Here’s the PhDeal. Start with small talk. Quickly cut through to meaningful talk. The better conversations happen when you feel that you are meeting a person for the 5th or 6th time and not simply the 1st time.

Making the most of the conference, after the conference
  • Learn more about the attendees. Look up their research interests and recent manuscripts. With time, you should develop a broad understanding of what more or less everyone does in your research field. You will understand what the key questions are in the research community and how your work contributes. You will also establish the “benchmarks” and the level of work you should aspire to. And you can learn which expert to ask when you come across research questions.
  • Connect with your colleagues on LinkedIn or ResearchGate, if possible. Of course, this is assuming that your profiles on these platforms are updated. You might not gain a clear, career-defining benefit from something like LinkedIn. But it never hurts to have a professional and complete portfolio that can point people towards your skills and work.
  • Deal with the conference paperwork as soon as possible. If you are expecting a reimbursement from your department, make sure you do your part very quickly. Submit receipts, send evidence of attendance, and do whatever you have to do. Soon you will forget…
  • Create a plan of action for you research. Build on the momentum from the conference. Make sure you transform this positive energy into productivity. Now is a good time to think again about your short-term and medium-term deliverables. Time for a fresh start.
  • Most importantly: Send professional follow-up emails to connect with your colleagues, ideally one or two days after the conference. Do not procrastinate. Everyone is very busy after returning to their institutions. They usually go back to the daily routine with piles of accumulated work, so the conference “feeling” quickly dissipates. People who spoke to you only a few times will possibly forget your name soon. So just send those emails asap…

Example template for email:

“Dear ___ , It was really nice to meet with you at this exciting conference. Hope you made it safely back to ____ . I wish you all the best in your future research.” Sign the email with your formal affiliation. This way they can always look you up and remember you.

This simple, formal email is already a good first step. You can also:

1) Look up a couple of their papers if they are relevant to you, and send nice (genuine, not cheesy, please) comments about them.

2) Send a paper related to something you chatted about at the conference.

3) Mention something informal about a shared experience at the conference.

4) Say something along the lines of “Please let me know if you plan to give a talk at a nearby conference anytime soon”

Importantly, make sure you respect the personal space of the person you are connecting with. The email should be a natural extension of your conversations at the conference. Be professional. You will never go wrong with a super-formal email. But a more personal email can make things awkward. Use your best judgment, and if you are in doubt, play it on the safe side.

Here’s the PhDeal. Build on the momentum from the conference. Productivity is contagious. When you meet productive colleagues and hear about their work, suddenly you are motivated to be productive as well. Suddenly that experiment you’ve been delaying does not seem as hard as you thought. Suddenly you are focused on finally writing that paper.

Again, it is important to connect with colleagues and professors. An email connection creates a useful permanent link that you can follow up on. For example, the next time you are going to a large conference, reply to that old email thread from the last time you met and ask if they are also attending. Especially if it is an interesting professor or potential future employer, going that extra step will place you in high regard. Not because you are faking your interest or playing chess, but because you are truly passionate about your work.

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