A Beginner’s Guide to Conferencing

It’s just over 10 years ago that I was preparing to attend my first conference, a workshop in the very pretty Dutch city Groningen. I presented preliminary data from my Master thesis as a poster, and was appropriately nervous and excited. Just a few months later, I even travelled overseas to Boston for another poster presentation. 

Looking back I realized that there are many aspects of going to conferences that nobody thought to explain to me. As a consequence, I had to learn to swim pretty fast and in luke-warm to icy water. So to make life a little easier for future generations, here are a few questions I remember having before attending my first conference, and a bunch of “conference hacks” I learned along the way. Of course, they are all based on my personal experiences and viewpoints. Depending on your field and personality, your mileage may vary, as they say. 

Is there a dress code?

I still remember how I asked all my friends, who were similarly inexperienced, what one should wear to a conference. I did not realize that whether or not there is a dress code strongly depends on the location, (sub)discipline, and size of the conference, and neither did my friends. 

My main recommendation is to wear what makes you feel good. For me that’s comfortable but professional clothes (blouses or nice shirts, skirts, etc – but flat shoes). For others it’s a colorful t-shirt. It took me some time to figure out my favorite conference outfits, so it’s ok to try a few things and pack a bit more. I stopped wearing heels for example, because I find them tiring and don’t think I do my most confident walks in them. 

Depending on the field, there is the added minefield of being taken seriously as a woman / underrepresented minority. I was for example extremely happy to have a more professional appearance that gave me an almost armored feel at a more technical (read: male-dominated, who-did-your-programming) type of conference. 

There’s one key trick though when going to conferences in North America: Bring a shawl, the conference rooms will be very cool for European sensitivities. During poster sessions, however, it might get crowded and warm, so layers, water, and comfortable shoes are key here.


Do I have to keep busy, attend all talks, and fill all free slots with meetings?

Conferences mean you are often bombarded with new information, with barely any time to digest it. On top of that, you might meet a lot of new people and, especially if you already have been moving around (e.g. for a Master, PhD, etc), catch up with old friends and colleagues. It might make sense though to leave a few meeting slots open and not plan every coffee and lunch break in advance to be able to connect with new people or with those you were not aware are around. 

Conferences can be overwhelming, and I would recommend to pace yourself and find out what works best for you. Are you an introvert who needs time to recover or an extrovert who thrives in a busy conference setting? For the former, taking breaks and for example going for walks or skipping a social event might be exactly what you need to really enjoy the conference and get the most out of it. So don’t hesitate to do it!

At the other side of being overwhelmed with too many options is the apparent lack of interesting things to do. Particularly at a large interdisciplinary conference you might not find a session on your topics of interest in every time slot. But that can be an opportunity, because hearing what researchers from other field work on and how they go about it can be quite inspiring. 

In sum, listen to yourself, and stay open for opportunities.


Is a poster less prestigious than a talk?

Many conferences have both oral and poster presentations, and in some cases, yes, those contributions with lower scores that are still good are assigned poster slots. But remember: Review scores have a lot to do with luck, too! So in either case celebrate that you got to present at the conference!

And in some cases, talks are selected based on the topic. Often talks are grouped in sessions of 4 or 5 contributions on a similar theme, so you might also have gotten a poster because your topic is a bit less widely research or by coincidence others did not submit to this particular event. 

Both posters and talks have their pros and cons. At a poster you can interact 1:1 and discuss some details of your work (after giving people the 2-minute walkthrough of course, don’t jump into too much detail unless prompted!). A talk is more one-sided but might seem easier to prepare as you can decide how you fill most of your allocated time (bar the question session) – but be sure to stick to the time limit. 


Can I also ask questions? 

Often you only see senior researchers ask questions, but in most cases organizers and moderators would be very happy to hear from junior researchers, too. Some places even have a policy to promote questions from junior researchers; the MPI in Nijmegen (my home institution at the moment) for example will always take questions from students (undergrad and master level) and PhD candidates first. I think this is an excellent policy, and it shows that your thoughts have value, no matter how junior you are. It also gets boring to always hear the same 3 people. So for the sake of variety alone, if you have a question and feel up to it, don’t hesitate to raise your hand and ask it. But remember: do use the microphone if there is one, it’s so everyone can hear you. 


What do I do when someone is rude or acts inappropriately?

Let’s be blunt: unfortunately, some see the social dimension of conferences as license to act less than professional. There are a lot of justifications, from the involvement of alcohol over “it was just a joke” to “that’s just how they are”. None of these actually make any sort of comment that makes you feel uncomfortable okay. It’s important you know that!

These types of remarks can include anything that comments on your appearance, gender, race, presentation, etc. It’s not your job to just deal with it and smile through situations that can in fact nag at your confidence and make you feel less than. Remember: You’re a capable scientist (why else are you at this conference, after all?) and deserve to be treated with respect.

I am spending so much space on this because I had to learn this myself. During the first few years of conferencing, I was lucky and had no negative experiences, but then I attended a few meetings as PhD student that led to a string of experiences with various degrees of sexism. And I did think this is just how things were and I had to just deal with it. The sad fact is that for those meetings that was true and I adopted alternative strategies such as having a group of fellow women around me at all times. Fortunately, now Codes of Conduct are becoming more and more common at conferences, and they clearly line out what to do if you find yourself in a bad situation. I hope you’ll never need this, but it’s good to (1) check whether the conference has a Code of Conduct (usually you should find this information on the meeting website) and (2) know what to do just in case. 

Here is an example of a code of conduct: http://www.bu.edu/bucld/conference-info/conduct/ 


Can I approach this professor whose work I read in class? 

It’s really easy to get a bit flustered when you finally meet the person behind the name you’ve encountered a few times in class or during background reading for your own study. In those situations, it’s good to remember that they are also human. And it can be nice to meet someone who is enthusiastic about your work and has some interesting thoughts. So in principle, I would say do approach the person you want to meet. 

There are even a few things you can do to make such encounters more successful. First, have a goal in mind: Do you want to just let them know they influenced you? Which work or idea specifically? Or do you maybe want to ask about opportunities to work together? Do you want to apply for funding together or propose a visit? Second, if you want to have a longer conversation in particular you could think about arranging a meeting in advance. Why not email them with a short introduction of yourself and a brief sketch of what you want to discuss? Third, if you can try to arrange an introduction through a colleague or mentor. Let them know why you want to meet this person, so that your strengths can be highlighted accordingly. Fourth, remember that they are really human, which also means they might just be catching up or networking when you’re about to approach them, so try to be polite about the whole thing but don’t be discouraged when they must rush off or are always in conversation. If you cannot catch them at all, it’s also always an option to email after the conference. 

By the way, Sho wrote an excellent post on in-person networking that goes into more detail, do check it out for all sorts of advice on conference interactions.


Do I have to attend all the conferences?

As a Master student and PhD candidate I tried to attend all the conferences that seemed useful and relevant. I certainly learned much and met many great people, including future collaborators, so there are advantages to traveling a lot.

But as it turns out conferences eat upa great amount of my time. First, there is preparation, which always takes longer than expected. Then, the trip itself can be exhausting, which gets worse the longer the trip is for me (especially when flights and jet lag are involved). And nowadays, traveling also means either dragging along my family or leaving them. So the cost of attending conferences is not small and I have become more selective over time. 

I would recommend to consider costs and benefits (including the financial ones) and then decide. 


Did I miss anything or do you want to add useful pointers? Leave a comment!


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