I guess many young scientists know that feeling: They collected their first useful data in the lab and are finally allowed to go to their first big conference in their field.
But what is going to conferences all about?
You must spend a lot of money in advance, you have to arrange your travels by yourself, you spend much time on preparing your data for a poster or a talk, and at the end you will lose important time in the lab; you have to freeze down your cells, stop running experiments, find a nice colleague taking over your daily duties in the lab… Even worse: you go to the conference, you attend the different talks but they are not really what they promised to be. Not every great scientist is a great lecturer…
So why is it important to go to conferences?
Yes, it might be good in your publication record or in your CV, but come on, this cannot be the only reason. It is more about the time between the talks. Talking to other scientists, even if they are junior researchers as you, is really helpful and motivating. Presenting a poster gives you the opportunity to discuss your ideas and questions with other interested scientists in a rather informal way. For example, you might struggle with a certain staining technique and someone has experience with the antibody you use. Or you are wondering how to interpret your data and someone comes up with useful suggestions. Especially the after-conference hours can be very vivid and creative and should be used for pushing your own little career. It is much easier to talk face-to-face than writing long emails and spending time finding the right contact person to ask. You shouldn’t underestimate that.
Conferences are the best place to network.
You might also simply take the conference as an option to meet former colleagues or to go job-hunting if you are planning the next career step.
How to prepare for a conference?
Well, it starts even before you have registered for it. Ask yourself which conferences might be useful. There are big and small conferences. Some cover specific and others cover rather broad topics. Some of them are just around the city, others are abroad. The conference topic should suit your research interests and you might have a look already to the speaker’s list. (Your budget might also be relevant in your decision, but there are always ways for financial supports, like the travel grant from the Immunosensation cluster.
Next step: Define a goal for yourself. What would you like to achieve by attending the conference? Make a list and set priorities (e.g. presenting data to distribute a new idea; starting a new collaboration; finding your next boss; making yourself visible as researcher…). Based on this list you should arrange the conference. You should really be prepared to achieve your goal (e.g. ready-to-use CV, prepared elevator pitch about your work, etc.) and keep in mind: At small conferences, it is normally easier to network and to become visible.
Here is an example: You want to interact with a well-known person in the field
- Have your data ready:
Prepare your own data in a few catchy sentences (“elevator pitch”). It should be understandable and not too detailed. Learn it by heart and be ready to sell yourself well whenever there is the chance.
- Get in contact with the PhD students of the person of interest to overcome the “first barrier” and form a “helping alliance”
- Use the “after-conference hours”: Try to meet the person in an informal setting, e.g. at the social event arranged by the conference coordinators
- Get out of your comfort zone and dare to talk to them 🙂
- Advanced: Contact the person in advance and arrange a meeting at the conference or invite the person to your poster
But there are other general methods to become visible at conferences:
- Become part of the organizing team
- Give a talk instead of having a poster for presenting your data
- Ask questions during the talks
After the conference:
Resume the conference: Did you manage to achieve your goal(s)? If yes – well done! If not – don’t hesitate. Think about what went well and what needs still improvement. Think about the situations you felt comfortable with and why. Can you use this information for next time?
Some general financial things to know:
Before you register for a conference, make sure your PI is informed. Also fill out the “Dienstreiseantrag” a few weeks before you go. Otherwise you are not insured during the trip and you won’t be reimbursed afterwards. There is also the option to get an 80% reimbursement of your planned expenses already before the trip (“Abschlagszahlung”). This really helps if you have to spend a lot of money for transportation, registration and accommodation. Best is to ask a colleague for help if you have no experience with that. After your trip you have to fill in the reimbursement sheet (“Reisekostenabrechnung”) to be fully reimbursed.
Some final notes:
Don’t forget to enjoy the conference and take it as a great option to get out of the lab and meet other scientists. Always remember: They all have started in a position similar to yours and they are all human beings; even if some pretend to be more 😉