I enjoy going to academic meetings and very frequently post information about upcoming meetings and symposia. Some people have recently asked me why I put so much emphasis on meeting information on the blog and others have asked how I decide which meetings to attend, including this recent comment. I go to meetings for many reasons – some of which I will cover here – but, specifically for me, the main reason I go to meetings is to interact with other scientists in my discipline.
I believe going to scientific meetings is a vital part of mastering how to communicate your research. The types of communication you have the opportunity to master can range from giving an oral presentation to hundreds (or perhaps thousands!) of other scientists to speaking with someone for 30 seconds in an elevator. Academic meetings give you an opportunity to master your communication skills.
Meetings are also great places to learn about the cutting edge of your research area. Often scientists will present their most recent findings prior to publication. You might be able to learn about new technologies or novel ways to analyze data before you read about them in publications. Often during the question and answer portion of talks, theories and controversial topics are discussed, with a debate in real time. I tend to return from meetings mentally energized with lots of new ideas to investigate and think about.
Meetings are great places to network and meet people in your research area. It’s easier to strike up a conversation or collaboration via email if you’ve met someone in person at a meeting. Also, if you are in academia, the people you speak with at meetings will likely be the ones who are reading your grant proposals and reviewing your manuscripts. Future job contacts and impromptu pre-interviews happen at meetings. Most importantly, there’s the added bonus of developing friendships with your fellow scientists.
Lastly, I enjoy traveling, so going to academic meetings is a way for me to mix business with pleasure, so to speak. I’ve gotten to see some truly beautiful places under the auspices of attending scientific meetings.
If you are a student or a post-doc – or have been asked to present a talk – there may often be registration discounts for meetings and symposia. You may be able to get a discount if you volunteer to help out at the registration desk or other planned events. You might also be asked to provide financial need. You should check with the meeting organizers as soon after the meeting is announced for these types of discounts.
When it comes to choosing a meeting to attend, I personally prefer smaller more intimate meetings, with a range of participants in the hundreds, and not in the thousands like you tend to find at large meetings. Large meetings can be valuable, but I personally find that it’s more difficult to attend all the talks you want to and to locate the people you want to speak with. I will often speak to people who have attended specific meetings in the past and ask them about their experiences in order to gauge if a meeting will be a valuable one to attend.
Before going to a conference, I usually get an idea of which talks I would like to see and who I would like to speak with at the meeting. This can happen before I leave for a meeting if the conference booklet is posted online, but it typically happens right after I arrive at the registration desk. Some people prepare by bringing business cards, and although I haven’t used business cards, this could help people remember you after the meeting. You also want to prepare your “talk” – whether it’s for a speaking presentation, a poster presentation, or just speaking in the hallways or at a dinner of the meeting – you should be able to communicate your research clearly in many different formats.
During the meeting, I have different strategies depending on the meeting size and the types of talks. I try to pick the talks that are most relevant to my interests, but sometimes this leaves me running between sessions. This can be a great time to “bump” into someone you want to speak with, but you may also miss important talks this way too. Sometimes, particularly at the end of meetings when my mind is overwhelmed, I sit through entire sessions just to see if there is something interesting in a disparate research area that can be applied to my research. I’ve gotten some great ideas listening to talks I thought would not be pertinent to my research. I take notes and make sure to write down literature to look up and read when I get home from the meeting.
After the meeting is over it’s important to follow up with those you have started collaborations with and those whose research papers you want to read. If you’ve taken notes, review them and think about posting them to a public forum, like a blog, so that others can share in on your meeting experience.