The student’s guide to getting the most
out of a conference

Published February 01 2019

A scientific conference can be an exciting place to increase the visibility of your research, establish new collaborations and develop novel directions for future work.

But attending and presenting at a national conference also can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience. I understand that. Having been part of the biomedical research community for a while, I’ve had the opportunity to attend and present at several large and small conferences. Along the way, I’ve picked up some useful knowledge about how to approach these events.

To help you build strategies for a successful experience at the 2019 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Annual Meeting (April 6-9 in Orlando), here are some things to consider before, during and after the conference to make the best use of your time and financial investment.

Before

(Some of these deadlines have passed for the 2019 ASBMB meeting. Keep this advice in mind for 2020.)

Select a meeting: Choose a conference that not only interests you but also will benefit you most. For example, early in my undergraduate career, I attended smaller local and regional conferences and more undergraduate-focused meetings, such as the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. As I got better at navigating these events, I started attending larger national conferences, including the ASBMB and Experimental Biology meeting.

Submit your abstract: Abstracts are due about four to six months before the conference (the ASBMB deadline was in November), so plan your research accordingly. Make sure to follow the guidelines. Your abstract can be disqualified automatically if you exceed the word count, if the abstract has too many spelling errors, and so on.

Apply for travel funding: Most conferences offer travel awards to offset some costs. (The deadline to apply for the 2019 ASBMB meeting has passed, but be sure to apply next year.) I’ve been able to attend a number conferences with either partial or full travel funding covering transportation and lodging.

Register early: Most meetings offer discounts; the earlier you register, the less you pay.

Create your poster: If this is your first conference, making a poster can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Most researchers create posters using Microsoft PowerPoint, and the National Institutes of Health has a great resource on its training site. Depending on how much data you have, it may take upward of 15 to 20 hours to make a poster, so be sure to start early. Your poster should not be a wall of text, but it must show your work without requiring additional explanation. The exact ratio of text to graphics depends on the project, but remember a picture is worth a thousand words (literally). For example, instead of writing a block of text for the methods section, add a graphic outlining your experimental workflow with pictures and a few words. Finally, proofread your poster text with your PI and lab members to make sure it’s all correct — any error is magnified when the poster is printed.

Prepare to present: You’ll need to plan three versions (two, five and 10 minutes) of your verbal presentation. Practice these with your lab mates, PI, friends and family as if you’re talking to someone who’s unfamiliar with your work (which, at conferences, you will be). In my previous lab, in place of lab meetings, we held presentation practice sessions — an effective way to solicit honest, constructive feedback from people who have your best interests in mind.

Prepare your elevator pitches: You’ll also need two elevator pitches: a one- or two-minute pitch for those in your field of study and a 20- to 40-second pitch for those outside. The pitch for those in your field should capture the essence of your research question, methods (if novel) and significant results, while your speech for those outside your field should communicate the broad impact of your research.

Prepare documents and business cards: You will need to have several copies of your job-related documents (primarily your resume and CV) and plenty of business cards with you throughout the meeting for exchanging with possible collaborators, internship coordinators, graduate/medical school directors, admissions representatives and others.

Schedule yourself: Conferences are hectic. Combat this by scheduling your days beforehand. The meeting program is a great starting point. But remember to remain flexible: sessions may run overtime or you may need a mental break to gather your thoughts. Also, if the meeting is in a place that’s new to you, schedule some time in the evenings to explore. Marya Sabir stands in front of her poster at the 2016 ASBMB annual meeting. Marya Sabir stands in front of her poster at the 2016 ASBMB annual meeting, where she received the best poster award in the Cell and Developmental Biology section.Courtesy of Marya S. Sabir

During

General etiquette: Two rules: (1) Always wear your badge so people can identify you. (2) Dress in business or business casual attire, especially for your presentation.

Present your poster: Presenting a poster is an art as much as it’s about the science. Do not stand in front of your poster; stand to the side or turn sideways to give the audience an unobstructed view. Make eye contact and smile at those walking by, but don’t expect everyone to be interested in a presentation. When someone expresses interest in your work, greet them with a smile and handshake and introduce yourself. Find out who they are and why they are interested in your poster before launching into your spiel so you can address their needs and expectations. Stand tall (everyone has nerves when presenting), speak with enthusiasm (who better to talk about your research than you?) and use hand gestures to illustrate key concepts. Finally, ask your audience if they have any questions before thanking them for their time and attention.

When not at your poster: Take time to attend symposia, lectures and workshops. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to your neighbors in the seminar auditorium or standing in line at the coffee shop. When I first attended seminars given by established scientists, I was afraid to ask questions, but I’ve learned that often many people in the audience have the same question I do — so gather up your courage and ask.

After

General tip: On your way home, take some time to decompress and review your notes. While the conference is still fresh in your memory, transcribe your questions and the names of people you want to follow up with.

Follow-up emails: Thousands of people attend big conferences, so it’s important to start a correspondence with those you met to create a more personal connection. In the first email, I like to express gratitude for meeting them with a brief line about how much I enjoyed their presentation or conversation along with any remaining questions I may have or ideas for a collaboration.

Follow up on social media: Connect with the people you’ve met on LinkedIn or Twitter to stay updated on their professional endeavors. Use Facebook only for more informal connections.

Conferences can feel like science marathons, but equipped with the tools outlined above, you can conquer the conference experience. How can you tell how well you did? Here’s a metric given to me by a PI: If you walk away with one new collaborator and one new (and viable) research idea, consider the conference a success.

Peter W. Jurutka assisted with revision of the article.

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Marya S. Sabir is a post-baccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award fellow at the National Institutes of Health studying neurogenetics. She has presented at numerous local, regional and national conferences including the 2016 ASBMB annual meeting.