Hello from Reno, NV!
I am writing this post in the midst of The Wildlife Society Conference. I spent the last three months preparing for and attending this and another conference at the end of August, so I think it is a fitting time to write a post about my perspectives and experiences at conferences. What you do at a conference has ripple effects in your career: In fact, I met my current supervisor multiple times at conferences which eventually lead me to this PhD opportunity.
Conference success begins well before you arrive. Of course, it takes time to prepare your presentation, but you should also plan for other important aspects of the experience. In our lab we strategize our #conferencegoals and work together to make them happen. I would recommend a number of short-term goals, and a few aspirational ones that you can work towards over multiple conferences. One of my conference goals was to get more comfortable at asking questions at the end of presentations. I consider the attempts I made successful. Most of my other goals were related to the people I want to meet and conversations I want to have.
Focus on connections that you can make with other attendees. Search the conference program for people whose research you follow, or find speakers presenting on subjects you are interested in. Talking with other researchers should be your primary goal. This can be difficult: you may never feel completely ready for a conversation and there will always be room for improvement. I challenge you to embrace imperfection and instead of perfecting your presentation, prioritize time for reaching out to new people and those you have met in the past. Making connections in sessions can be a good icebreaker, but the best interactions will rarely be in sessions, so don’t feel pressured to attend every presentation.
If you are fortunate enough to have a community at the conference use it to your advantage by asking for support and advocacy. For example, practice your presentation and ask for input. More importantly, ask peers and mentors to help facilitate introductions.
Conferences are full of people and socializing, and often sleeping and eating are low priority. This means that it is very important for you to take care of yourself. Don’t feel badly if you can’t go to every session or networking event. Taking a break could help you be more present for the events you can attend and keep you going through the conference marathon.
Check in with your friends and colleagues who are also at the conference. It’s likely they are struggling with the same things. Small gestures can go a long way to communicate that they are a valued and belong. If we all put in effort to make everyone comfortable, the environment becomes a welcoming one.
Finally, when the conference is over be sure to reflect on successes, both your own and your colleagues’. Evaluate areas of improvement, but focusing on #conferencewins motivates you for future conferences to continue to engage. Applaud yourself and forgive yourself. It is also important to follow up with the individuals you connected with and to get the wheels turning on your involvement in future conferences. For example, following the Canadian Society of Ecology and Evolution conference in August, I expressed my interest in being involved with the Symposium for Women Entering Ecology and Evolution Today. I also contacted colleagues to brainstorm possible symposium topics for the conference next year.
In conclusion, conferences can be really exciting and valuable in your professional life. I hope you all find a healthy balance of energy when you attend them. Every conference is different, and some will be better experiences than others. Learning what works for you in different conference environments, and practicing being engaged, are all skills acquired over time.
My perspective is just one among many shared by our great graduate student writers. Check out other conference related posts by Courtney Laprise, Patrick Wells and Shannon Pearson.
I want to thank my wonderful conference community for their support at the events and the helpful discussions when I was writing this blog post.