Professional conferences are strange activities. We travel long distances and at great expense (sometimes personal expense) to participate in what is often a glorified middle school science fair. Sometimes we are nervous about putting up our posters, playing Vanna White as we try to draw attention to our work while conference goers walk by, afraid to make eye contact. Other times we are semi-terrified to have the opportunity to engage in public speaking to an army of critical or supportive colleagues. We often go to listen to super impressive rock star colleagues hold court in a two-star hotel ballroom and then later at happy hour. It is nice to catch up with friends and colleagues. For the most part, professional conferences are a good opportunity to escape from the day- to-day work and have a nice time. Conferences are also essential career opportunities.
As a disclaimer, I do not tend to like conferences much anymore. I am quite introverted and often need to retreat to my hotel room to rest and recover at some point in the middle of the day. At about midway through the second day of the conference, I am ready to go home. I do not find most of the breakout talks interesting and the keynotes are about 90% entertainment and 10% information. At this point in my career, I do not have to go conferences and only go if there is a specific purpose for my attendance. Often, I go because someone is paying me to do a talk or I am doing a favour for a friend. Other times, I attend to have dinner with a friend or engage in a happy hour working session with a colleague (I outlined 3 books with a colleague on napkins at a happy hour). And sometimes I go simply to support my students. I would say that I am now a reluctant attendee of conferences.
Graduate students and new scholars in the developing stages of their careers often must go to a few major conferences to make professional connections, to develop a positive reputation, and to disseminate research findings. Conferences are required and exciting for graduate students and early career researchers. No matter your career stage, level of misanthropy, or the norms of your profession; there are ways to make the most out of your professional experiences at conferences.
Develop an agenda with at least five specific and actionable goals for your conference experience. The conference needs to forward your professional agenda or else there is no reason for attending. There are many specific goals that you can address: promote your research, sell books, have dinner with a former colleague, acquire partners and collaborators for the next grant project, establish yourself as a leader in the profession, to meet and speak with a leader in the field, or whatever. It really does not matter what your goals are. But setting an agenda creates a mindful approach to what you are doing at a conference and provides a structure for how you spend your time and energy. This does not mean that you should avoid spontaneous activities, opportunities to grab a coffee with a potential collaborator, or just having fun with colleagues; but a mindful agenda with specific and written goals helps make conferences useful professional activities.
Most people make a personal conference schedule. The schedule should reflect your agenda. The hard part about conferences as they are not typically eight-hour days, but typically 12 to 14-hour days. In addition, be sure to make some allowance for any time changes. For example, I tend not to schedule a late night on the first day of a conference when I travel to the West Coast. Generally, you fill your calendar with your talks and meetings first; talks and poster sessions that you want to attend to see colleagues or support students; make breakfast, lunch, happy hour, dinner plans well in advance with people that you want to spend time with (do not forget to make reservations if necessary); some talks that you may be interested in hearing; meetings; and plans for rest, recovery, and naps.
Conferences are amazing opportunities to establish your name as a leader in your field. The Woody Allen phrase that 90% of life is just showing up truly applies to professional conferences. There are many important business meetings that take place at conferences, which are open to all conference goers. In many cases, these business meetings are actively seeking participants. For example, often journals have editorial board meetings at conferences and frequently these board meetings are open to the general membership. Show up, express interest, be productive, and instantly you are considered a research leader. Interest groups and policy-making groups are often similar. Graduate students are rarely dismissed as mere beginners, but are embraced as future leaders. It is inappropriate to crash these meetings that are closed to the general membership, but few are. This is a golden opportunity to wedge in and take a leadership position by simply showing up.
You can also establish yourself on a small scale by asking questions at research presentations. I tend not to ask questions of the presenter during the question time. I do not want to fluster an inexperienced presenter nor do I wish to directly challenge a senior researcher. I am just not a fan of trying to establish myself by pointing out a flaw in the research of a colleague in a public setting — I know some people live for this, but it just does not work for me. My preference is to wait until the talk is over and the presenter is packing up and asked them productive questions while walking out of the room together. This creates an informality, opportunity to exchange business cards, and have a chance for a productive give-and-take discussion. If it works well, ask the presenter out for a coffee. This is a way to wedge in to the discussion of top research.
Conferences are like most meetings: about 30 % of the value of a conference is in the preparation and 50% is in the follow-up. Collecting business cards and having informal chats or drinks with colleagues is not especially useful unless it leads to something long-lasting. It is appropriate and necessary to follow-up by sending a simple email, ensuring that you send appropriate copies of papers to people who requested them, and otherwise continue to engage long after everyone flies home.
Conferences are strange professional and scientific gatherings. They are often confusing and intimidating for graduate students and early career researchers, but are often an expectation in the profession. It is easiest, most productive, and safest to have a clear and purposeful approach to your conference activities.