6 good reasons to go to a conference
Lea – Going to a conference alone
After having attended a few conferences with my lab or other people I know, this year I went to the European Conference on Behavioural Biology on my own, after my lab mate, who was going to come along, was denied her visa for the UK. This turned out to be a very good experience as it forced me to get to know new people. If you don’t know anyone it is often tempting to just stick around to the people you came to the conference with, but this might keep you from growing your circle wider. As I was on my own, I didn’t have another chance and from the first day on joined different groups from different labs for social events and lunches. It was a good opportunity to chat about science in different groups, hear new opinions on my own research and find inspiration. The more people I had talked to, the more confident I got, and in the end I had made quite a few new conference friends. Of course, it can be helpful to have your lab members and supervisors around to introduce you to people you want to talk to, but if you take the courage to walk up to them by yourself, this can be even more rewarding.
I went to two conferences before the start of my PhD: one about hallway through my master’s thesis, and another in the months shortly after completing that degree. The first was small but invaluable for helping me practice talking about my own science with an unfamiliar audience and I think my work would have been worse-off without the feedback I received at such a crucial stage in my thesis project. The second conference was much larger and, once again, came at a crucial period in my academic development. This time, presenting the finished work from my master’s and with a head full of new ideas for the PhD I was about to start, I was really able to discover something of my own “identity” as a researcher in the larger community, and not just in the context of my parent lab (although their presence at the same conference definitely helped calm my jitters leading up to my first proper presentation).
I went to a conference in the first few months of starting my PhD, and while it was pretty daunting, I found it to be a genuinely worthwhile experience. Being thrust into an environment full of people who were thinking about all of the same types of questions as me, but using different systems and approaches, really opened my eyes to the world I was about to spend three years doing a PhD in. This conference I went to was quite specific (a GRC on Predator-Prey Interactions), so I was able to go to a ton of incredibly relevant talks from researchers whose work I’d spent the past few years reading. I also had opportunity to speak with Postdocs and PhDs over posters, which worked to catalyse many of my own ideas into more fully-formed concepts. Ultimately, the conference talks, posters and conversations with other researchers provided a great foundation of knowledge and ideas that I used to build my entire PhD.
How do I get to a conference?
If you are working on a project or are about to finish your thesis, ask your supervisor about any conferences they might be attending that could be relevant to you as well. They will usually be happy for you to present your study as a poster and might even fund the costs. There is also usually funding available students can apply to, to cover their travel costs if they are presenting. You can also look for yourself for small conferences or symposia that aren’t as expensive as big ones. During my undergraduate, I attended the ISFAS in Nuremberg which is a small symposium mainly directed at students about research and conservation of mammals in South America. With only about ten talks and few workshops it was the smallest symposium I ever attended, which was nice as a start and, with 20 € conference fees, really affordable. If you are based at a university or institute that has conferences of its own, you can also ask the conference planning committee if they need volunteers. This way you not only get valuable insights into the organizational part but will be able to attend the conference and many of its talks for free.
How do I get to talk to people relevant to me?
In general, check the “line-up” of the conference before you go and at least look up the plenary speakers and see what they’re working on if you don’t know already. There might be people that could be interesting for you to meet that you haven’t heard of yet. It also makes sense to skim through the titles of the talks and posters and look up the people that seem to have interests related to yours and later maybe track them down at the conference. If you’re hoping to talk to any of the attendants with “big names”, it might be difficult to catch them as most likely there will be more people trying to do the same, often further along in their career than you are. If you have a particular question you want to discuss with them, it might be wise to send them an e-mail beforehand and ask them to meet you for lunch on one of the days. Otherwise, if you’re visiting a conference with your lab, you can ask your supervisors if they could introduce you to someone if they know them. Another opportunity is also to get to know the students from a particular lab you’re interested in and ask them if they could introduce you to their supervisor if there is an opportunity.