Thursday 26th July saw the launch of SciLogs.com, a new English language science blog network. SciLogs.com, the brand-new home for Nature Network bloggers, forms part of the SciLogs international collection of blogs which already exist in German, Spanish and Dutch. To celebrate this addition to the NPG science blogging family, some of the NPG blogs are publishing posts focusing on “Beginnings”.
Participating in this cross-network blogging festival is nature.com’s Soapbox Science blog, Scitable’s Student Voices blog and bloggers from SciLogs.com, SciLogs.de, Scitable and Scientific American’s Blog Network. Join us as we explore the diverse interpretations of beginnings – from scientific examples such as stem cells to first time experiences such as publishing your first paper. You can also follow and contribute to the conversations on social media by using the #BeginScights hashtag.
It’s that time. You’ve been holding it off for as long as possible, but now the inevitable is upon you. You have to attend your first conference. You have to meet and be scrutinised by your peers, while convincing them that you are someone of value to the research community. Your first conference can break you as an academic, or you can leave so richly fulfilled that all you want to do from now on is attend them. The key is picking the right one. Larger international conferences can be a bit overwhelming. You want something a bit more chilled out, a bit more intimate, and a bit cheaper if possible. Break yourself in nice and easy.
As far as conferences go, my first, Progressive Palaeontology (ProgPal), was a bit of an odd one. It’s pretty low key and designed largely for postgraduate students in the UK. The great thing about this conference is that many of the attendees will be first timers too, so you’re kind of eased into the whole scene through commonality. Specialist events like ProgPal are cool, as instead of the “Oh, like Ross from friends” response to declaration of fossiliferous intent, you can actually be a little more specific about what it is you do.
“My key advice for your first conference is don’t be afraid to talk to people.”
The two things you’re aiming to do at conferences are professional networking and learning. You should decide in advance which you will bend more of your time and effort to. This will also be largely dictated by the format of the conference. My key advice for your first conference is don’t be afraid to talk to people. For me, as an early career scientist (still a Master’s student at the time) without much high impact research under my belt the most important thing about the conference was social networking. With only 40 or so attendees, and spread over two days, ProgPal pretty much gives a chance to talk to everyone. For larger conferences, it’s worth asking in advance for a delegate list so you can decide how to spend your time networking more efficiently. If you see someone you really want to talk to, drop them an email (or tweet, Facebook message etc.) to let them know. In the electronic age, the strengths of networking are becoming increasingly prevalent, as are inter-institutional collaborations. Informal conversations can provide a wealth of information and perspective about presentations too, and the two information sets should be valued as equals.
“If you’re presenting a poster, don’t stand guard like Cerberus. Invite people to come and talk about it.”
Deciding whether you should present a poster or a talk can be difficult. You have to find the compromise between stress and content volume. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, but if you’re at a pretty chilled out event, like ProgPal, give a talk – the practice will be invaluable. If you are giving a talk, there are plenty of excellent guides out there on style, preparation and delivery, which are always worth checking out in advance. You want your first talk to be memorable, but for the right reasons. If you’re not prepared, there will always be a drunken person in the audience with a loud voice and a willingness to use it. Taking notes on talks is always good. It shows your supervisor that you actually went, that you paid attention and didn’t waste your time, and can be handy for future reference or if you’d like to write a blog about the event. If you’re presenting a poster, don’t stand guard like Cerberus. Invite people to come and talk about it. Discussing your work is the best way for you to understand if you really know what you’re doing. At a first conference, this can be daunting, but can be precious experience.
Drinking (aka social lubrication) is fine. It helps conversation come more easily. Just don’t be excessive. The last thing you want is your future peers to remember their first contact of you trying to arm wrestle a dog. If there are any social events like dinners or after parties, attend the damn things! These are where the best and most relationships are at built at conferences.
Unfortunately, some people can be quite judgemental based on how you dress too. If so inclined, I’d advise losing the Goth makeup, new rocks, hoodies, banana hammocks, and the like. Smart casual attire usually suffices. If, however, there are associated field trips (as there are frequently at geoscientific conferences), don’t be afraid to geek out for the whole conference with your hiking boots, khakis, and camo.
If other disciplines don’t have dedicated postgraduate conferences, I’d recommend establishing them. They’re great training ground for future conferences, and great for developing contacts early on in your career.