Making the most of academic conferences

I stumbled upon an interesting blog series this week by a PhD student, Owl_Meat, on “Harsh truths and bad conferences” (part 1, part 2 and part 3).

“Conferences can be terrible.”

I have been there, done that.  I have been the awkward poster tube hauling lonely academic wondering who on Earth will come and visit my poster and who I can find to have lunch with.  Whilst I agree there is room for improvement in conference organisation and social events etc., I am not sure the traditional academic conference format is entirely to blame.  In hindsight, I could have been more proactive to make the most of those early awkward conferences.  So whilst we wait for innovative improvements (and I hope they come), here are a few things I have learned that may help to overcome some of the situations detailed over on Owl_Meat as well a few great experiences I have had at academic conferences to prove they are not all bad.

Owl_Meat: “None of us had understood much of what’s been said for the entire morning session”.  You don’t have to, just aim for at least one take away point from each talk, you will glean names, papers and posters you can refer to for more information.  Think about how the talks relate to your research – you may know nothing of the context but learn of a new methodology to apply to your own research.  That being said, if the session is your exact speciality then consider it a wake up call to get reading!

Owl_Meat: “…if you were to find a piece of work you were interested in chances are you’ll never find the person to chat to.” You have to be proactive here.  Firstly my number one piece of advice for conference going (particularly for large conferences) is to have an agenda.  Plan beforehand your objectives and read the abstracts and programme to determine what talks and posters you will hit and who you would like to chat to etc.  For a particularly burning job opportunity or collaboration you could reach out to them beforehand by e-mail with something like ‘I notice you are speaking at X conference (direct them towards your abstract) and I’d really like to introduce myself/talk to you about x, y and z is there a specific time during coffee or lunch etc that is best to catch you?  Or more spontaneously, e-mail or tweet them from the conference!  Of course sometimes you can’t plan on what may spark an idea or interest but there are always ways to find people such as visiting posters from the same lab/department and talking to them – they may be able to introduce you.

Owl_Meat: “The faffing involved with travelling hundreds or thousands of miles carrying a bulky poster tube.”  Two words: fabric posters.  I tried this for a conference in Australia and they worked great, it wasn’t actually that much more expensive especially with a multi-order discount.

Owl_Meat: “It’s very hard to make an effective poster.” Two words and a link: tweetable posters.

Owl_Meat: “People generally don’t stand by their posters, and rightfully why should they do so?” This has not been my experience and here is why you should stand by your poster: exposure. It is often the only chance you get to disseminate your research during the conference. Posters put you out there but don’t forget it begins with writing the abstract itself, see this rather silly post for some advice.  A good abstract and poster presentation can lead to being selected to give an oral presentation, not to mention the prizes that are usually up for grabs. Socially, you can meet neighbouring poster owners and people from all over the world. The poster and conference destination itself are great conversation ice breakers.  Posters work two ways though, be sure to visit the posters of those who you had a good rapport with and who made an effort to chat to you about yours.

Owl_Meat: The purpose of conferences is to bring people with similar interests to meet up, mingle and foster community, but there aren’t many opportunities to actually do this.  Again, knowing the agenda in advance if there isn’t enough scheduled socialising for you, go proactive.  I have been fortunate to have travelled to some great conferences and whilst yes they have at times been filled with awkward moments of loneliness (hotel room picnics anyone?), I’ll share some great experiences resulting from meeting new people at well organised conference events:

The mahoosive conference in San Diego, USA: I’m talking 30,000+ people here! This was my first international conference travelling with only one other student.  Larger conferences such as this tend to have social events for PhD students and particular research interests.  This one had an Alzheimer’s disease karaoke night and I met several people to go ‘sightseeing’ in Tijuana with!

The average sized conference in Perth, Australia.  This was hands down the best conference I’ve been to.  Besides the perfectly tailored science it always has a welcome reception showcasing the location and a conference dinner featuring local entertainment.  In Perth we had koala and snakes to stroke at the welcome reception and traditional aboriginal dancing at the dinner which helped foster a more sociable conference.


The so small you can chat to everyone conference in Geneva, Switzerland.  This conference was very niche which perhaps made socialising a little easier, I ended up sightseeing with a group leaving on later flights and have met them several times since at larger conferences – an example of how even the most mundane ‘when is your flight?’ conversation can actually lead somewhere!

On the whole the conferences in my field are enjoyable and certainly worthwhile, although it has taken time for me to learn how to play the conference game for maximum benefit.  So my advice to Owl_Meat and others is to:

  • Choose your conferences wisely
  • Stick with it and consider it part of your training and professional development
  • Be proactive in bringing about changes to make students feel more welcome

I have written the word ‘proactive’ no less than four times – it really is the key to making the most of academic conferences, particularly for early career researchers.


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