Maximizing Your Conference Experience

By David Wren

Conferences are many things to many people. They can be both exciting and stressful, a lot of work and a lot of fun. Conferences can be expensive, when registration, travel, food and lodging are all factored in. So how do you maximize your conference experience? We (Younger Chemistry Education Scholars) asked 22 experienced conference-goers for their tips on how to get the most out of a conference. We are excited to share with you the results of this informal survey and hope you find their sage advice beneficial! So, before heading to your first or next conference, here are some pro-tips on getting the most out of your time at a conference.

General Trends
As the name suggests, conferences involve a lot of talking. Talking involves at least two people. There are three types of people at conferences: Those who you already know, those who you would like to meet, and those who you didn’t know but now are glad you do. Chances are, you will not know many people at your first conference, and not have a huge list of people you would like to meet, especially if you are newer to the field of study. This will likely mean you will spend more time focused on going to talks aligned with your research interests, and try to find friendly faces at social events. In these interactions with people, some of the expert conference-goers felt a larger level of stress while others tended to enjoy the many interactions. Respondents generally changed their priorities after attending multiple conferences by attending less research talks and pursuing more networking and collaborative opportunities. But before we get too far into the responses, let’s meet the respondents.

Figure 1: Academic Standing

The 22 respondents spanned all stages of a professional career, both in and outside academia. Non-academic positions included being a consultant and being a graduate student (not listed as option in survey.

The majority of the respondents have attended conferences for over 5 years, with 19% attending for conferences for more than 15 years. No significant differences were seen in free responses between the respondents with 10+ and 15+ years and those who selected 1-5 and 6-10 years.
The most common conferences attended by respondents were ACS national meetings and the BCCE (Biennial Conference on Chemical Education). A sizable number (18%) also attended Gordon Conferences, while 10% attended local and regional ACS meetings. Other conferences attended but not listed included: NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching), TRUSE (Transforming Research in Undergraduate STEM Education), RUME (Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education), ChemEd, Online Learning Consortium International Society for Technology in Education, International Society for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, ASMB (American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology), and HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) conferences.

Figure 2: Conferences most likely to attend in a 2 year period

Of the 22 respondents, all attended conferences to present their research and all but 1 also attended to see others research presented. About half attend committee meetings or go for other professional obligations. The main “other” reason provided by respondents to attend a conference is to network, in order to get new business, find new collaborators, and engage in meaningful discussions. 

Figure 3. The primary reasons for attending a conference

What advice would you give to undergraduate and graduate students who are attending their FIRST conference?
If your first conference is a large national meeting, there is a three prong full-proof plan based on survey responses. The first is to plan ahead. Things like research symposia, social and networking events, committee meetings, meeting up with friends, and tourism quickly fill up your schedule and to see it all, you’ll need to plan out your events in advance. Though each person may have a different priority for these obligations, all involve careful planning, as to avoid double-booking or missing out on an important networking opportunity. Using the conference scheduler on the plane and emailing potential “meal meet-ups” are two popular suggestions. The second prong is to put yourself in positions that will allow you to build your professional network, even if this might put you outside your comfort zone. One respondent said, “Talk to people. To me much of the point of going to a specific symposium is to find others that are there and have discussions. Don't be afraid to skip other talks if you get the chance to go for lunch with people you met.” Finding an experienced conference goer to help you meet new people, or join a fellow newbie and pair up. Older graduate students, post-docs or your research advisor are all great people to hang around for potential introductions. The third prong is to give yourself mental breaks by having some down time. One respondent summarized this three-prong approach best: “It is overwhelming and simultaneously awe-inspiring to make the time and have the courage to approach peers and faculty alike. The key is to let it sink in and enjoy the experience; if presenting a poster, have stimulating discussions with those who are interested; if presenting or attending talks, ask questions and interact with others during symposium breaks. It is a great chance to know who's who.  Gather all swag possible from the expo just like a first timer. This might not be that enjoyable during subsequent conferences.  Mostly, keep time for yourself.  You might not get to speak to everyone you wanted to or not answered questions the way you wanted to, but always have some lone time, recharge and have a fun experience.”

What is a best way for an undergraduate or graduate student to introduce themselves to their favorite CER "rock star" (influential, well-known researcher) who they might see at a symposium or social event?
Some definite Dos and Don’ts were provided. First the Don’ts. Don’t interrupt a conversation already in progress. Don’t make it awkward. Do be yourself. Do prepare ahead of time by reading papers, going to their talk, and having simple well thought-out questions in mind. Do find a mediator to introduce you, such as your advisor, fellow researcher, or new friend. One person said, “Ask their major professor/advisor or another professor that they know to introduce them. Also, one of the "rock star's" students/postdocs could make the introduction as well. I think that helps 1) make it less awkward than approaching at random and provides a conversation starter and 2) helps create a memory link for the "rock star" because they will meet and talk to a lot of people.” Another way to help create dialogue is to “ask the "rock-star" if there is a "must see" event/talk at the conference.  That's a good way to talk to them without having to talk about yourself, necessarily, nor feel the need "talk up" the rock-star.”

Has the way you approached attending a conference changed over time? If so, in what way?
Generally, it’s pretty natural to change your perspectives as you go to more conferences over time. As a graduate student, your priority is your research, so attending as many talks related to your research was the focus. Meeting people and networking was secondary to attending talks. Almost all respondents mentioned that they go to less talks now. Some because they are more selective with how they spend their time and focus more on networking and having discussions. Others are more obligated with committee meetings and events, and only go to talks when there are openings in their schedule. One respondent put it this way: “The longer I do this, the more I realize the importance of networking.  To get involved in the community you need the appropriate contacts.  I used to go to conferences to present my research and socialize.  Now I go to conferences to find my next collaborator and advance my own work.  Don't get me wrong, I socialize too, but it is not my primary focus.” Another simply said, “I spend more time in discussions with others and less time at actual talks.” Or “I used to just try to get as much information as possible. To attend the most number of talks and sessions. I recognize now that conferences are really about relationships with colleagues.”

What strategies do you use to maximize your time at a National ACS meeting?
By far the biggest overarching theme was proper planning. Scheduling “meal meetings” or “meal meet ups” in advance of the conference was a popular suggestion, because as one person put it, “Everyone has to eat after all!”. If you are not meeting someone at a meal or making new friends, one suggestion was to keep meals short: “Food takes time. Yes, you're in a big city with absolutely great food and heck, you may even have your meals paid for! But for breakfast and lunch, try to grab something quick and save dinner for sit down restaurants with colleagues. Bringing granola bars or snacks is a great way to save taxpayer dollars and be able to fit in some food in the 45-60 minutes you get for lunch between symposia.” Social events can be a very efficient way to meet many people in a short period of time and set up meet ups later in the conference. There is a balance between over scheduling and under scheduling. You want to have flexibility to keep a conversation going, but you don’t want to eat alone or miss the chance to catch up with old acquaintances.

Other advice
Finally, we asked if there was any parting advice that our experts had. Some of the noteworthy quotes included:
“Wipe yourself out and don't worry about staying out late and getting up early - there will be time to rest when you get back. To take the most advantage of the conference, you'll need to say yes to everything you can and just do it. If you're sitting in your hotel room waiting for your talk/poster, you're (or someone is) paying top dollar for professional development that you're not getting!”
“Don't be afraid to ask to join a group for lunch at the end of a morning symposium - but don't be offended if the response is negative. This is something I still do. Sometimes people have a meeting to do work on a project or to catch up with friends and don't want extra company - but often people are just grabbing a bite between sessions and are happy to include others.”
“Sometimes paying a little out of pocket yourself to attend that amazing conference in Europe or to attend a national meeting that your advisor says the grant cannot swing your registration is worth doing. Think about how this conference will impact your future research and what your motivations are for wanting to attend. If they are about the research and not about the location, run it by your advisor and let them know you are willing to pay for some or all yourself. There are always ways to do a conference on the cheap!”