International conferences: A survival guide…

…by Bérengère / from France / PhD Psychiatry / 5th Year

My colleague Maggi and I (Bérengère) just got back from the gigantic, 4-days long International Society for Autism Research Annual Meeting (aka INSAR), and we felt like we should share the essential skill we gained there: surviving big conferences.

The pre-conference situation:

– Maggi — Sort of a highly successful PhD student (according to others), have already been to quite a few small conferences, and more importantly here, have already been to INSAR last year. This year, I knew how to prepare myself! If you’d like to hear more about my 1st INSAR experience, read my post in the Autism Share Magazine right there.

– Bérengère — Blooming at my own, slow pace, I’ve only been to one smaller size, 2-days long conference. With INSAR, I suddenly and reluctantly jumped into the deep end.

The post-conference situation:

– Maggi — In short: I had a great time, did all the networking, met loads of interesting people, and more generally aced it (at least according to Bérengère).

– Bérengère — What I anticipated to be awful, was indeed unbearable (I don’t do touching, remembering names and faces, can’t follow a conversation in loud environments, crowds, loud noises, and crowds chatting. Imagine me at a conference.) What I anticipated to go well, went absolutely smashingly well. My poster session was a success, I listened to fascinating talks, met nice people, and got a tan. I’m now going on holiday back home to France to recover (and get a better tan).

Now, here are our top tips to survive these first big conferences.

1. Preparation is key

The conference will be overly busy, so prepare as much as you can in advance. Get your hands onto the program and start thinking about what you’d like to see, so that you don’t have to waste 1h each morning losing yourself into the conference manual. Also, it goes without saying, but if you’re presenting a poster / talk, know exactly when and where this is happening. As conferences slowly become more environmentally friendly, do check out whether you can download a .pdf document or an app onto your phone to keep yourself on track. Use your phone calendar to mark the most important sessions.

2. Make it smaller (& realistically achievable)

As mentioned above, these conferences have so much to offer, for your first ones you probably want to see absolutely everything. You could, but honestly, don’t. If you try to do everything, you’ll burn out before the end and won’t enjoy the experience as much as you could. We’ll say it again: Preparation is key! Identify what will really be relevant for your research or personal interests, and stick to it. Instead of running through 3 simultaneous poster sessions and not pick up anything, only attend the most relevant one and take your time to talk to the presenters.

3. Cut your losses

Big conferences = clashing schedules. Think about an efficient way to make up for that. If you have to miss a talk, see if someone in the speaker’s team is presenting a poster, and go and meet them there. In the same way, if there’s a talk or a poster you’d like to see but can’t, check if the abstract is available, and email/tweet the presenter or someone in their team to schedule a 30min chat during the conference. If you miss them entirely, don’t sweat, there is always another opportunity at the next conference, or even before then! Twitter is great for connecting remotely with researchers you didn’t catch, in a slightly more casual way than cold-emailing them.

4. Talk to people

Networking is a big part of academia, and conferences are also made for that. You don’t have to attend the networking events, but do try and talk to your fellow students and early-career researchers from around the world. PhD students are super easy to spot! If someone is looking entirely lost or lonely, this person is definitely one of us ! Just say Hi, have a wee chat, and you’ll be 2 lost PhD students instead of one! As our fabulous supervisor Sue said, maybe you’ll end up doing some great research with these guys! So instead of running around for 4 days, allow time for talking to your peers (and make new friends).

5. Leave the conference center

Bérengère- Know yourself and your limits. If you, like me, know you simply don’t have the emotional ability to stay in a conference center surrounded by thousands of people for 4 full days, don’t. Sometimes making the most out of a conference is also allowing yourself some time outside the conference. This event is probably in a city, or even a country, you’ve never even been to. Enjoy it! Allow yourself some quiet time when you can relax (and tan a bit). Find the nearest green space, an indie coffee shop (or a cat café and a pannenkoekenboot!), basically whatever makes you feel good. Simply by escaping the conference for a couple of hours, you’ll be more able to enjoy the rest of the experience. That being said, I still advise going on holiday afterwards. For recovery purposes.

Maggi- I know that I don’t get a much out of poster sessions, so I don’t really attend them unless there is someone super important there. If you can, plan some R&R straight after the conference. After INSAR last year, I cycled the Golden Gate Bridge and visited the San Francisco Science museum!

There you go, this is what we learned so far to survive conferences. We are still learning and discovering, so after next year’s INSAR we’ll probably tell you different things!

And you, do you have any advice on how to survive these humongous conferences?


Bérengère and Maggi

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