Getting more from conferences
By Andrew Boulton
Most of us remember our first few conferences as a mixture of anticipation (going somewhere new, seeing some of the ‘big names’ give talks), terror and trepidation (the hours before we have to speak or the anxiety of going up to a ‘big name’ to ask a question) and pure relief (those fears were pretty unfounded after all). As we build up a network of friends, we look forward to conferences so that we can catch up with all the science-goss over some drinks, maybe sussing out some future collaborations. The fear of public speaking never goes away. However, as our confidence builds, it becomes more a case of healthy nerves rather than mind-numbing terror.
But do most of us use conferences fully? Especially early in our careers when there is such a need to forge professional links and to promote our work (and employability) in as positive a light as possible? Is there more we could get out of them? If so, what can we do to enhance the value of them?
I’ve tried to collate a few ‘tips for early-career players’. These tips are drawn from my own experiences and from comments and ideas from friends and colleagues. I hope they are of some help. Additions, comments and responses are warmly welcomed.
1. Always be ready for the question you know you will be asked. Yes, the one that goes: “What are you working on?” A mumbled and incoherent reply that is too superficial (e.g., ‘looking at fish dynamics in different habitats’) leaves a bad impression. Weigh up your questioner’s likely expertise and then present a clear statement of your work’s hypothesis and likely significance. You may want to have several versions of the same reply depending on the context of the question. A deft answer often leads to a fruitful conversation. And don’t forget to return the favour and find out what other people are doing.
2. Present either a talk or a poster, if possible. Passively attending conferences is very different from the adrenalin-charged active version where you have to present something. Somehow, the conference is much better if you are presenting something and actively getting involved in it. Conferences make great deadlines for completing work. They are also perfect places to showcase new findings. Avoid presenting work that you’ve already published or talks that you’ve given before. A good conference presentation is one where you can get handy feedback on your ideas before they’re committed in print. They often lead on to further ideas and collaborations.
3. Carefully plan which talks you’ll go to. Leave enough time to get between sessions and allow for mismatched timing. Don’t try to go to all the talks possible – you’ll quickly tire out and speakers are understandably offended when listeners nod off. Don’t only go to talks in your field; some of the best talks you’ll see will be those with perspectives or ideas that are new to you. If possible, attend all the talks in the session in which you are presenting as it is polite to support fellow speakers when you can. Attend the plenaries and award talks because these are usually very good.
4. Ask questions…sparingly. Few things are more awful than a talk that ends and there are no questions. Just silence. Crickets chirp. The speaker is dying out there, nervously laughing and making weak excuses. A good chair might pop up with a fabricated query but that is not the same as an audience question. Someone once said that ‘learning is a contact sport’ and I think that one of the best contacts you can make is to ask a good question of the speaker. However, don’t be someone who asks a question at EVERY talk. Save the very complex questions or your observation of some fatal flaw for a quiet word with the speaker later. Respect a speaker’s nerves and don’t hound them if the reply is substandard. As a speaker, you will be grateful for questions and it is worth preparing some answers for obvious ones. If you don’t know the answer, say so. Maybe organise to chat with the questioner later.
5. Carefully plan some of your free time to catch up with key people. All too often, we want to chat about our plans with a few key people. Sometimes, these people are in high demand and a fleeting encounter while rushing between sessions is inadequate for your needs. Even worse, you might never have the chance to catch up with them. One good tactic is to email the person before the conference and introduce yourself and the topic to discuss. Suggest a place and time to meet, possibly a morning or afternoon tea session rather than a meal-time (unless it is a big deal and you really want to talk a lot with this person). Remind the person if you see them beforehand. Don’t feel too upset if they are late or miss the appointment – sometimes this happens and it is not because the person feels you or your work is unimportant. Make sure YOU don’t miss the appointment.
6. Be ready to change your plans and miss some talks if a chance to chat with a key person arises. Sometimes, a serendipitous meeting with a key person arises and both of you may decide to miss a few talks so that you can discuss important issues. It is more likely that you’ll be able to catch up with information from the missed talks or their presenters later than recover the chance to chat with the key person. Be flexible and opportunistic.
7. Be available to help others. We all got to where we are by being helped and supported by others. Return the favour. Happily, most aquatic scientists are very willing to help each other, provide advice and share tips. Never be afraid to introduce yourself to a ‘big name’ – you will usually be pleasantly surprised by how nice they are. Respect and admire the courage it takes for someone to come up to you to talk, and always be willing to help them. Maybe you can introduce them to someone else who is working in the same field? This could be the start of a great collaboration.
8. Don’t always hang out with the same people in a group throughout the conference (see Fig. 1). One common but understandable mistake for people at their first few conferences is to seek security with the same group of friends or lab members. By all means retreat occasionally to gather courage or exchange goss. But bear in mind that being in a group may intimidate people who want to talk with you while hampering your own efforts to meet others. It is a delicate balance. I usually find it easier to go up and chat with someone new who is on their own or in a couple than to break into a group of three or more.
9. Consider organising a special session or mini-workshop. Conference organisers usually advertise for expressions of interest in special sessions or workshops to be held during the conference. Although getting these together takes extra work, it is a wonderful way to meet people who are doing similar work to you, often leads to a publication or future collaboration, and is usually good fun as well. Even if it only ends up being a handful of people in a room or perhaps 3-4 consecutive talks on a topic, these sorts of activities help raise your profile in a particular area.
10. Go to conference dinners and on field trips. Although these are additional expenses, they are worth the costs for the opportunities to meet others and share unique experiences. You usually remember these events better than any other part of the conference. Ensure you don’t organise a table where you always sit with lab members. Don’t only hang out with them throughout the field trip.
I’m sure there are other things but ten tips are enough. Main thing is to make sure that you don’t simply go there to give a talk or poster, listen to others, chat with the same old friends and come home. Treat a conference like a scavenger hunt and go out to gather extra stuff. Extend yourself and enjoy the contact sport of learning. Have a good conference!
Editorial note: I have it on good authority that Andrew angles for the odd garfish. Professor Andrew Boulton is also the author of a kazillion papers and the recently released books: Freshwater Ecology: A scientific Introduction; and the second edition of Australian Freshwater Ecology: Processes and Management. He has a swag of achievements to his name but more importantly he is one of the most dependable, approachable and interesting researchers that you are likely to encounter. A wet fish can slap you in the face sometimes, so please realize that he’s a little shy in the early stages of face to face encounter. Don’t be afraid to wander over when you see him at a conference venue near you, and maybe in Darwin…