Conferences, workshops, meeting – a PhD how to guide.

As I’m assuming the SOLAS conference was a success (I didn’t start snoring loudly in a talk, call someone by the wrong name, tip food down myself or screw up my science) then I feel prepared to dispense a few conference/summer school tips to any newbies out there.

During the application process
Check the application/ website thoroughly. A couple of things to look for:
1. What sessions/themes are they using – using these exact phrases in your application will show your work will fit well at the conference.
2. What do you need to include in your application? Abstract? CV? Funding support application? Make a list and tick them off.
3. There’s usually a long list of deadlines; application, acceptance, accommodation booking…get them all in your diary.

Once you’ve been accepted
Get any new dates in your diary now. Get organised! But you all know that right? On to the more interesting points…

If you’re taking a poster or presentation aim to get it finished in plenty of time, remember to leave time to send it via any co-authors (hopefully for comments, but at the very least as it’s polite for people to see something with their name on) or to get posters printed. Go back through the conference or session remit again – make sure what you’re saying will appeal to the potential audience.

Create a digital and physical conference folder and shove any documents you need in there as soon as you get them. I have one in my Inbox for relevant emails and then a document wallet on my desk that keeps all the paper copies I need in the order I will need them; train tickets, flight details, map to hotel, hotel booking confirmation, conference booklet… Do not, I repeat, do not rely on internet to get you from home safely to your hotel room… for once sacrifice a tree or two and get print outs of bookings, maps etc.

Covering the costs
1. Work out a rough estimate of total conference costs (many conference offers student rates on registration fees etc.).
2. Find out how much money you get from your funding body, school, or university during your PhD.
3. See how much more you will need.
4. Talk to your advisor, they should know where best to apply for extra money. Some conferences offer competitive bursaries to students – apply for one of these first to “save” extra applications for non-funded conferences. Many academic societies have bursaries available for student members but some need you to have been a member for 6 months – 1 year before applying. Check and join something relevant now if you need to.

Consider cost saving options. This is a tricky one, it’s a cliché but a true one that a majority of productive conference networking is done outside the main conference sessions. I think this may be even more valid for students, it takes a lot of courage to start a discussion in a talk, but less to sit down next to someone over coffee and start up a conversation (well, that’s my method at least!). So whilst you can save the pennies by booking into a cheap youth hostel an hour bus ride across town, will that really be productive? Will you get enough sleep to function? Will you be stressed the whole time about getting back at night or getting there on time in the morning? What will you miss by not attending the meals or social events? The way I see it, rightly or wrongly, is that there are two sorts of conferences. There’s the conference, the big one in your field or the one that only comes round every few years. Aim for one of these during your PhD and do it properly. Attend everything, network like you’re a businessman from 1999 and go for it. Anything else you get to attend is a bonus and you can cut corners where you want (help out, stay with friends, commute) to get the benefit of the additional exposure and meetings.

If you’re having trouble thinking what to pack, or checking if you’ve forgotten anything, run through your day from start to finish making a not of what you’ll need. Write a list with not only ‘things to pack’ but also ‘things to do’ (online check in, tell you’re bank you’re going to be away) is useful.

1. Clothes
If you’re packing for multiple days pick a colour scheme to mix and match; you’ll need less clothes and accessories. Check if the hotel has an iron if you’re bothered about shirts and such things.

To minimise packing you can hand wash small items of clothes. Travel wash will get things looking and smelling cleaner, but probably isn’t going to fix massive stains. For ease of transport I like these soap leaves but this travel soap is possibly more efficient.

If you’re sharing a room, please remember something to sleep in…

Pack layers; in my experience conference halls vary from icy air-con to sweltering heat with little in between.

Don’t try something you’re not comfortable in (stilettos…) you’ll just look a fool.

Make an effort. Yes, senior professors may well be wearing jeans and scruffy t-shirts but (unfairly or not) what translates as scientific eccentricity on them will look like intentional lack of effort on you. At the very least a tad of power dressing makes you feel more in control.

2. Electronics
Don’t forget the power supply for your laptop, phone, etc. If you have a myriad of devices consider a multiple device charger. If you need an adaptor for foreign plugs don’t forget it (or pay airport prices for a new one!). If you need to charge or run multiple devices in your room consider taking a multi-plug socket – extension leads can be bulky to pack but travel ones exist, or block ones, like this, (which I was always told at school were fire hazards?) are easy to pack. If anything takes ‘real’ batteries remember to pack some spares too.

3. Anything else
Paper, pens, highlighters for note taking and a document wallet/thin folder for storing notes. At some conferences you won’t be sitting at tables so make sure you have something to write on. I use a free conference folder (the sort of hard booklet with space to store notes, a pen and a pad of paper) I was once given to both write and store notes.

Pack a few snacks (apples and cereal bars) just in case, extra tea/herbal tea bags/coffee/whisky as needed, a small ‘First Aid kit’ (paracetamol, plasters, scissors etc.). Safely store spare copies of passports, insurance details, bank details and anything else you may need online (Dropbox, email etc.).

4. Putting it all together
Consider what would happen if your luggage doesn’t make it to the destination. At the one place this year you’re trying to make a good impression how insecure would you feel with no spare clothes or toothbrush? Consider packing 2 days of spares in your carryon just incase.

Anything liquid should be wrapped in plastic bags. Shoes too.

Take a spare canvas bag or a couple of spare plastic bags for shopping, storing dirty laundry, excessive souvenir purchases.

Do not be separated from your poster/presentation. Let them take it over your cold dead body. I’ve never met anyone that had a problem getting a poster tube on a flight as long as you’re polite (also wear it like a quiver, and by all means pretend you’re a character from Zena: Warrior Princess, but do not refer to it as such in front of airport personnel).

Label all luggage clearly with flight numbers, destination and your contact number.

To minimise damage and making finding things easier I use small cloth bags (the sort that, if you’re a woman at least, you’ll have tons of from Christmas gift sets or magazines). One for mini electronics (charger, adaptor etc.), one for jewellery, one for medicines…

Rolling not folding clothes minimises creases.

Other preparation
Check through that folder of key documents once more, printing off any final details. It’s a good idea to print a rough copy of the conference booklet before you go so you can read up on the who, what and why of the event.

Powerpoint presentations look dramatically different on different Powerpoint versions. I usually save my presentation in both major formats (checking them beforehand) so I can then use whichever version they have on the day. If you’re an Apple-addict or Linux user consider asking to use your own laptop (and don’t forget the mac-projector converter) or thoroughly check your presentation on a Windows PC first.

Make sure a copy is saved on your memory stick, laptop and online for extra security. Leave an emergency copy with your Mum. Whatever it takes.

If there’s someone you really want to talk to at the conference, make sure you’re up to speed on their work. Nothing sounds worse than asking someone an inaccurate question about their key paper.

At the conference

Make an effort to prepare yourself for each day by reading the programme the night before/in the morning. Chose sessions you want to attend and make sure you know where everything is. Don’t be late. Again, that only works for Prof. SuperNaturePaper. Preparation is also key for pinpointing tactical sleeping opportunities post-late night scientific discussion/drinking.

Get involved. If you have a question, ask it. It may take a bit of courage but it can pay off. At my last conference there was a serious lack of comments from any ‘early career scientists’. I spoke up once or twice, not with anything seminal or earth-shattering, but people remembered me for it. I’ve found that writing down potential questions as the lecture is going on really helps; even if you don’t ask them they’re a useful commentary when you come back to the notes later on. Even if you don’t have questions to act be engaged through your body language and actions. A smile and an open stance during coffee breaks can work wonders. However tempting it may be, if you don’t have someone to talk to during a break do not retreat to your iPhone.

If you’re not a naturally gregarious person and find approaching that key scientist hard prepare an opening before hand. “I’ve read all your papers” is not the way forwards. I usually collar them during a break and bring up the weather/food. Boring but it works. This is usually followed by an introduction, they’ll ask what you do and realize you work in the same field…and it can all go from there.

Take pen and paper to your own poster/presentation session and as soon as you’ve left the stage/finished a conversation write down useful comments before you forget.

Do not be afraid to say sorry I don’t know.

Forget mistakes. Everybody makes them.

Socialise, even if you’re shy – go for it.

This may be controversial…but please consider NOT taking your laptop to the presentations. It seems to be something that’s crept in over the last three years and I’m not a fan. I’ve stood up to give a talk and looked out at a sea of people pouring over their laptops, it’s demotivating. Once I even had to ask people to stop discussing their data during my talk! You know the majority of people are just checking emails or playing Angry Bird and that’s just rude. If you haven’t finished your presentation then shame on you. If your life outside the conference is so demanding of your time you have to send emails then manage your time better. If you’ve forgotten how to write then consider re-learning, it will probably come in useful during the zombie apocalypse. And to the small percentage of people who really struggle without a laptop due to genuine difficulties in writing quickly then be my guest, I have no problem with that.

If you’re falling asleep take copious notes, even if you will never read them again. It helps.

Consider how you will ‘leave your mark’. A4 Poster copies next to your poster are essential, especially if you will leave your poster unattended during the conference. Mark “not published” if you want people to be aware of this. Business cards have a reputation as tacky but personally I’d much rather give someone a card than a disorganized scribble on a napkin. All you need is a piece of card with your email address, institution and name on – print them yourself before you go.

At the end of the conference make an effort to check you have all the notes, contact details and miscellaneous papers you may need. Keep receipts safe if you’re claiming reimbursement. If you’ve saved things on your laptop create a back up before you travel, just in case.

Do not take “extra work” to the conference. It won’t get done.

And finally, a few more miscellaneous tips from other people:
• Put your twitter handle/blog address onto your name badge
• Learn how to read numbers for Japan, Korea and China – very important when you’re using a lift. (Chinese male/female symbols for toilets come in handy too!)
Finally, I’ve been to a handful of conferences and meetings which I used to write this post, but there are plenty of other people out there who provided advice and tips as well. Thanks to them, especially my ex-housemates and blogging children David and Sarah and everyone who responded on Twitter. Matt Might wrote an extesive post on traveling here and Scicurious also has a good post on conferences here.

Feel free to leave tips and tricks as comments.


2 thoughts on “Conferences, workshops, meeting – a PhD how to guide.

  1. Pingback: Guest post! A networking how to | pipettes and paintbrushes

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