Few graduate students at my institution attend as many conferences as I do, and while this hardly makes me an expert on the subject, I would like to share some of the experiences and insights I have gained that might be useful for first-time attendees. Attending a conference can offer a myriad of opportunities to a young researcher. You may:

  • raise the visibility of your research

  • get input/feedback on your work (esp.  with talks or posters)

  • get inspired and develop new ideas on how to approach your research

  • learn about some emerging ideas and methods in your field

  • scout out potential career options and job openings

  • meet people, network and establish collaborations in a fun and relaxed setting (e.g. conference social events)

  • collaborate to write up and publish  a conference paper

  • travel to new places, eat new foods, and take a break from the daily grind

Depending on the size of your institution and funding scheme, you may not get the opportunity to attend a scientific meeting all too often. Some advisors do have the funds to cover the costs (which can easily add up to €1500), but alternative funding options – while  limited – do exist! However, conferences take up time that could otherwise be spent in the field and lab, analyzing and publishing data sets or teaching. Thus, it is all the more important to choose carefully which scientific meetings to attend.

Which conference should you go to?

In the beginning, I mostly relied on my advisers and colleagues for recommendations, but now that I have gotten my bearings, I like to attend different kinds of scientific meeting for different reasons:

Big conferences and conventions

These meetings tend to be quite broad and, admittedly, one can easily get lost in the crowd. Personally, I like to attend conferences put on by scientific societies that I belong to (e.g. BES, ASAB) In fact, I  try to do so every year, so that I’ll get to know people and can make some long-lasting connections.

Example 1: Annual Meeting of the British Ecological Society

The BES Annual Meeting has grown into Europe’s largest and most influential conference dedicated to the ecological sciences with 1000+ participants each year. The conference program usually includes 10+ symposia on a broad range of ecological topics, as well as several meet the expert sessions, workshops and poster presentations. Bonus, the BES offers travel grants to PhD students and organizes special events/workshops for early career scientists and new conference-goers, which I highly recommend you go to. In my first year I attended the ECR workshops on day prior to the actual conference, which not only helped me to ease into the conference much better, but also make many connections with people at a similar academic level. In 2016, Daniel Pauly was one of the keynote speakers and thanks to the ‘Meet the Plenary’ initiative I got to meet and cat with the author behind all the papers and research that I’d read during my Fishery Science classes.  Thanks to the size of the BES, flipping through the program can be quiet overwhelming, but presentations are grouped into thematic session, so you can decide whether you wanna spend a morning learning all about the newest research in one field of ecology or switch around a little. Scheduled coffee and lunch breaks allow for plenty of opportunity to catch up with people, but I highly recommend attending some of the many recreational events planned (e.g. Women in Science breakfast, conference dinner, Science Slam, …).

Small scientific meetings and workshops

I also try to go to attend conferences that are more directly related to my specific subject and/or more interdisciplinary.

Example 2: Annual Meeting of the German Ichthyological Society

The GfI aims to promote the investigation of the biology of fishes under natural and artificial life conditions, encourages actions for the conservation of biodiversity and protection of natural habitats of fish, and supports ichthyological teaching on all education levels. And they host an annual meeting held (mostly) in German. You aren’t likely to rub shoulders with star scholars in the field, nor will you encounter presentations about the new intellectual movement of the year, but I’ve come to appreciate the strengths of small conferences. The Annual Meeting of the GfI is always a colorful potpourri of topics on all things fish:  ecology & evolution, anatomy & morphology, taxonomy and systematics, or molecular ichthyology for marine as well as freshwater species. Attending a small conference means you’ll get the chance to see everything and meet everyone. Presentations are scheduled one at a time over two days, so you don’t have to rush or miss anything. The takeaways are priceless, and the price tag is comparatively small. So far, I have attended three of these meetings (2015 at the IGB Berlin, 2016 at the Naturkundemuseum Potsdam and 2017 at the Zoological Museum Alexander Koenig Bonn) and I intend to continue to do so in the future. Check out the information for the 2018 meeting here.

Example 3: BfN workshop on biodiversity on the Isle of Vilm

If you ever have the chance to go to the International Academy for Nature Conservation – GO! I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop hosted by the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN) about interdisciplinary perspectives on the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in August 2017. Together with thirty-four early-career scientists, I got to spend a whole week on the idyllic Isle of Vilm – a true nature paradise in the German Baltic Sea. With only 94 hectares in area, this car-free island is ideal for undisturbed and productive work in direct contact with nature! In true Baltic Sea fashion, you arrive by ferry and stay in beautiful, thatched cottages that were once built for the GDR council of ministers. I gave an oral presentation on ‘Invasive species in thermally altered freshwaters as a threat for local biodiversity’, allowing me to spend the rest of the time to enjoy other peoples’ talks, network and take several walks around the island, which takes about 50 minutes. Only very few other places in Germany remain as untouched as Vilm and especially the ancient woods with several hundred year-old oaks and beech are a real treat! All meeting contributions were recently prepared for publication in a special volume, which is available to policy-makers and practitioners, as well as the general public: BfN-Skripten 487.

How to get the most out of a conference

Personally, I find conferences rejuvenating, but at the same time they can be intimidating and overwhelming. Here are a few pointers on how to keep track of it all:

Preparations (1 week prior)

  • finish up everything before leaving for the conference (yes, this includes your presentation)

  • plan which sessions/talks you would like to attend ahead of time (but be selective and feel free to adjust your schedule as you meet new or get recommendations)

  • identify people you want to meet up with and possibly reach out beforehand (e.g. Mail, Twitter) to introduce yourself and possibly set up a meeting

  • prepare an elevator pitch to explain your research a) in 30 seconds and b) a more elaborate version (2-5 minutes)

  • have some business cards at hand stating your contact details and research interests

  • dust off that old Twitter account – many scientific conferences have an active community of live-tweeters, so join in the fun

Attendance

  • condense each talk you attend to a 1-2 sentence summary and try to connect it to you work

  • ask questions (if not during the Q&A, find speakers during coffee breaks and start a conversation)

  • in fact, lunchtime, dinnertime, and snack breaks are a great time to network

  • feel free to switch between sessions, but be respectful of the speaker so wait until the end of the talk (and sit somewhere in the back).

  • go to a few talks that are not necessarily within your area to broaden your horizon

  • I live tweet during conferences, but I try not to tweet during presentations so that I can focus on the topic

  • Twitter

    check out the exhibition hall, but have an idea in mind of what you’re looking for or which vendors might be of interest (e.g. equipment inquiries)

  • unwind and socialize: don’t spend all your time at the conference, take time to enjoy the area and the company of your colleagues or new friends

Feeling confident? Challenge yourself and others to a little  ‘conference bingo’ 

Debrief (1 week after)

  • write down the most exciting and important ideas and key themes and present during the next lab meeting

  • follow up with new contacts and potential collaborators

  • consider following researchers you met on social networks such as ResearchGate or Twitter

Conference season is just around the corner, so enjoy!