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How to survive a conference

Tips for a first-timer or seasoned conference-goer
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Conferences can be jarring, especially for students. Spending hours — sometimes days — with your brain turned on, networking with your science idols, and potentially presenting your work is a lot to handle. Despite this, conferences can make up the most exciting moments of your degree. Follow along for tips on how to not only survive a conference, but also how to make the most out of your experience — whether it’s your first or your 50th.

Before the conference

1. Set a goal

Ask yourself what you want out of the conference. Is your plan to network and set up future collaborations? Maybe you just want to soak in as much information as possible. U of T PhD student Samantha Athey follows a method that she learned from the Hello PhD podcast, called the 3-2-1 plan: “I plan to meet 3 potential collaborators, reconnect with 2 colleagues and leave the conference with 1 new idea or project to take back home!” Regardless of what your goals are, articulate them before you go, so that you can stay on track once you’re there.

2. Decide which talks you want to go to

If you are going to a large conference, there’s a good chance that there will be multiple talks happening at once. Look at the conference schedule ahead of time, and make note of the talks that you are most interested in. There are typically only a couple of minutes between presentations and it is much less stressful when you already know where you’re going next.

3. Contact people you want to meet

No matter how confident you are, meeting researchers from your field can be nerve-wracking and difficult when everyone else at the conference has the same plan as you. Contacting the people that you want to meet ahead of time is a great way to guarantee that you’ll actually meet with them, and this proactiveness will set you apart from other networkers — unless everyone else reads these tips too and the system is now saturated.

During the conference

4. Bring snacks

Just because food is provided doesn’t mean that it’s going to be good. I have had conference food that ranged from chef-made seafood platters to lukewarm cheese pizzas. Bring healthy snacks that you enjoy in case your conference has catered food that’s only going to leave you groggy. In this same vein, don’t drink coffee at every coffee break. There will likely be multiple breaks, but no one needs that much caffeine.

5. Get comfy

While conferences call for some level of professionalism, which will vary between fields, don’t feel the need to dress to the nines. You will carry yourself much better in clothes that you are comfortable in, rather than ones that you think other people will want to see you in. That being said, it is generally better to be overdressed than underdressed.

6. Ignore the fear of missing out and skip talks that you’re not interested in

Conferences are exhausting. Sitting out from a session will help conserve your energy for topics or people you actually want to listen to. Don’t feel guilty about this — I promise that you won’t be the only attendee playing hooky.

After the conference

7. Explore!

This tip is subject to your supervisor’s discretion, but leave yourself a couple of days before or after the conference to explore the areas outside the conference building. There’s a good chance that you would have never visited the location if it weren’t for the event, so take advantage of your situation. It’s also a good idea to explore before the conference, instead of after, when your brain is fried.

8. Follow up with the fruits of your networking labour

Don’t take it personally, but with the overload of information that conferences bring, people you had long fruitful conversations with might forget you. Even if you did not set up a specific collaboration, emailing the people you networked with within a few days of the conference is a great way to keep that relationship alive.

9. Give yourself a pat on the back

You survived! Now go hang up your lanyard name tag as a badge of honour.