This week, my lab group has been asked to report on our favorite tips for first-time conference go-ers! In my experience, everyone has their own style for how they get the most out of conferences, but below I've given some of my own thoughts. I've organized them a little bit into categories.
Pre-Meeting and Beginning of the Meeting
If there is a mentorship program or event specifically for first-time attendees, go to it! This is a great way to meet some people that you might see around the conference and to get more comfortable in a setting where you don't know anyone.
Related, sometimes as a first-time attendee, you are eligible for specific travel scholarships or similar opportunities. Make sure to look for and take advantage of these opportunities! If you are not a first time attendee, there are still often travel bursaries or opportunities to help fund your attendance at the meeting.
If you have never presented before, there are often opportunities for new presenters to give a practice presentation and get advice on their talk. Take advantage of these.
Practice your talk! Several times! In front of an audience! The more comfortable you are with your talk, the easier it will be when it becomes time to actually give it.
Figure out what sessions or talks you are most interested in. You don't have to plan your schedule down to the last minute, but once the program is released, make sure you read it through and see if there are lunch-time or evening events you want to go to. Find you own session and see if there are others that are relevant to your topic. You generally should go see any talks that are on topics close to your own. More on this later.
Go to relevant sessions! Scan through the program and find the talks and sessions most closely related to your work and make sure you attend them!
Go to non-relevant sessions! Particularly as a student, its both nice and important to go to sessions for other things that interest you that are not what you are currently focusing on. This is an opportunity to learn about other areas that you might be interested in pursuing, but it's also just nice to stay knowledgable about what research is being done in other areas of the field. I went to a great talk about the work being done with the Perseverance rover that I felt really filled me in on current Mars work and sample return work.
Go to the plenary talks! These talks are the only things scheduled at that time and most people tend to go. The speakers are invited specifically to give talks about new, important, or very interesting research. These are sometimes the best talks.
Not all sessions will be good, some talks will be boring, and that's okay. You can learn a lot about how to give a good talk by watching what not to do. When you are watching a talk and on the second slide you are already lost, you know that that speaker did something wrong there. It's okay to not understand the talks and its okay to leave if you are not getting anything out of it. Just be polite, courteous, and as non-disruptive as possible when doing so.
Depending on the meeting, it is sometimes considered a best-practice to keep your movement between rooms to the time between talks. That said, you shouldn't feel weird or bad if you need to leave or enter a talk early or late.
TAKE BREAKS - this is something that I had to learn the hard way. If you go to session after session constantly, you will be exhausted by Day 2 of the conference. There are built in coffee/tea/snack breaks in the conference schedule, but when there are times that you don't have a pressing talk to be at, take a few minutes to yourself in the hall or outside and just relax. Relate to this, if you are in a location that is new to you, explore the area during lunch breaks or periods when you don't have talks to be at! It's always great to see new places.
Networking (A fancy name for making friends)
Think about it as making friends and meeting new people. We often put a lot of pressure on ourselves when we think about networking. Usually, this is because we are looking for jobs, positions, or opportunities, and we don't know the right way to go about making the connections we need to help us obtain them. More tips on that in this list. But take some of the pressure off and just use the breaks and networking events as an opportunity to introduce yourself to some new people. Learn about what they are working on and what interests them. If you run into them enough times or have a long enough conversation, you'll both leave the conference with a new friend or colleague.
Don't be afraid! At this most recent DPS conference, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to someone who I knew to be a fellow student. After we chatted for a bit, she ended up asking if I wanted to keep chatting at dinner the next day and now I have a real friend that I made through "networking" at the conference. Through a strange series of events, I was specifically forced to introduce myself to many many people over the course of the conference and didn't have a single negative reaction. It can be helpful to try to target people who seem to be in similar positions to you, like other grad students or other new conference attendees. Sometimes meetings even have tags for your name badge that indicate if you are a first time attendee, so that you can find others like you.
Look over the list of attendees for names you recognize from papers or people that you want to work with. If there is someone you want to meet, ask you supervisor or fellow grads if any of them know them. This can help you get an introduction. If nobody does or even if they do, you can always email that person and ask to meet. In either case, it's good to set up some meetings ahead of time if you want to speak to that person.
Posters and Exhibits
Posters and the exhibit booths are great ways to talk to people! Everyone at the booths wants to talk to you. You can always just ask them a little about what they do to get them talking. Similarly, you can ask people at their posters to tell you about their work.
Often, the poster sessions or exhibit openings will have free snacks! It's a great way to eat when you are at a conference location where it is hard to get away and get some quick dinner.
These are all of the things I could think of while writing this blog post. I'm sure there are more, but these are some of the most important.