Conferences and Networking – How to Science (outside the Lab)

Conferences are part and parcel of working in academia or studying for a PhD.  They come around maybe once or twice a year (or more depending on your field) and give you the opportunity to present your data to other scientists in the field so that you can get prompt feedback on the same day (and in person).

Once you have decided on a national/international conference that suits your work, you must apply to either present you work in the form of a poster or an oral presentation. Both have their pros and cons:

  1. A poster presentation allows you to showcase your work in an easy to read, quick format.  You will bring your poster to an allocated area where you will have it put up alongside many other posters; a specific time on a certain day (known as the ‘poster session’) which usually lasts an hour or so will give you the chance to answer any questions people have about your work in a relaxed, social environment.  While this may sound like the better format to present your data (less pressure talking one to one), you must keep in mind that there are going to be many posters at the session, and that it’s hard to get around all of them and devote time to each one within the timescale. Therefore, the more posters in a poster session, the less people there will be available to talk to you about your research.
  2. An oral presentation gives you the opportunity to stand up in front of a large audience and present your data in a strong and story-driven manner.  Giving a presentation using slides (usually MS Powerpoint) is a great skill to hone and one which will come in handy as you move further into your career.  Gaining experience presenting your work to large audiences at conferences is a core skill and one which should be practiced often. A large pro to an oral presentation is that you have the attention of the entire audience (provided you don’t lose their attention) and therefore you will have the chance to explain to them what you have been researching and the impact it can have on the field.  You will also get the chance to answer any questions that people may have about your work; this can benefit the person asking the question (perhaps they’re interested in a technique you have used) and you (they may point out potential flaws or future directions you have overlooked).

Networking – In order to collaborate and increase your contacts, you must interact with others.  There are many ways to do this, though perhaps the most popular method has been to attend conferences in your field.  By attending these events, you immediately open yourself up to unique opportunities you may not have had by only interacting with people in your own laboratory or those that visit your place of research. When you arrive at a conference, you will most likely be attending either on your own or with some people from your own research institution.  If you attend a conference on your own, you may think you are at a disadvantage, and that it will be much harder to get involved with group conversations; however, there are pros and cons for both.

Arriving in a group will allow you to meet people that are already known to your friends and colleagues easily as they can simply introduce you, however there is a downside to this; if you’re only meeting those that are already familiar with your labs work, there is nothing pushing you to go out and interact with new people, potential collaborators even. Therefore, I advise that you build up the courage to approach other people at conferences so that you can make your own connections. A great place to network is at the poster session; you can walk around at your own pace and talk to those whose work interests you, or you can talk to those whose work you are unfamiliar with; this will give you the chance to ask a lot of genuine questions and will give the other person a chance to explain their work. By doing so, you can open up to new areas and new ideas (you never know where a unique collaboration can come from).

I hope this post has given you some ideas about attending conferences and creating new contacts through networking.

Thank you for taking the time to read this; as always, please leave any questions or comments down below or reach me on Twitter (@drmikeographer)

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