From the Science Student Council

Making the most of conferences

How to use conferences to advance your academic career.

By Elizabeth Necka

As an academic, attending conferences is an important part of professional development. Conferences present the opportunity to present and receive feedback on research projects before publication, to forge collaborations, and to network and share research ideas. Yet, like so much of graduate school, there is no handbook on the practice of attending conferences. To graduate students, conferences can either seem like a vacation or be overwhelming and stressful. Striking the balance between fun and career development at a conference can be challenging. However, many of the fun aspects of a conference, such as attending talks and social functions, can also be opportunities for career advancement. Here are a few tips for maximizing a conference’s potential to positively influence your future career.

Give a presentation

Aside from making you eligible for a number of travel awards, giving a presentation at a conference is one of the best things you can do to advance your academic career. 

In preparing your research for a conference talk or poster, you are also preparing your research for publication. For instance, your preparation will help you realize the strengths and weaknesses of your project. How might you address alterative hypotheses that explain the same results? What gap in the literature are you actually trying to fill? The time and attention that you put into refining these details at the conference stage will help you to produce high quality manuscripts to submit for publication. Furthermore, presenting at the conference gives you an opportunity to workshop your research with the people who might eventually become your reviewers. At a conference, colleagues have the opportunity to give you comments in a low-stakes, collegial manner, rather than in the form of a rejection or revise-and-resubmit letter. The onus is then on you to incorporate your responses to their comments in your manuscript, making it a stronger piece of science and enhancing its chances of being published.

These same peers who give you critiques may also help you to reframe the way that you approach your research. Perhaps you have been stuck trying to reconcile some of your findings with the previous literature. Although your advisor and lab are most definitely a resource, an outside perspective may help you to see the broader impact of your study. Frequently, the people who will attend your talk or stop by your poster are people who have overlapping interests and expertise, but they also might offer a slightly different focus. By encouraging you to take a different theoretical approach to explaining your results, their point of view may help you make sense of your own work or identify gaps in your research. You might even find a potential future collaborator. Presenting at a conference does more than just add a line to your CV. The benefits of presenting will foster your growth as a scientist.

Be social

As a graduate student, we are encouraged to be social at conferences. At most conferences, it’s even built into the programming in the form of social hours or events. Conferences are a time to celebrate the hard work that you have done and to congratulate others on their achievements, but they are also a time to reinvigorate yourself with exciting and new research ideas. 

Maybe you start to talk about percolating ideas with that person who stops by your poster. Why not try to pursue some of those ideas? If you and another graduate student discuss an idea, maybe one of your advisors would be willing to sponsor a joint project that encourages a collaboration between the two of you. Your conference buddy who you see once a year can turn into a collaborator and serve as a resource. Perhaps he lets you know of grants that you might be eligible for or invites you to give a talk at a brownbag. When it comes down to it, academia is a small world that is geographically diverse; conferences help bridge that divide and foster connections between scholars from different institutions.

Do not forget, too, that networking helps no matter what your occupation. It is likely that you will eventually apply for internships, post-docs or faculty positions. Although a lab or an institution will look for the best candidate for the job, part of being the best-suited candidate is often one’s ability to fit in with the rest of the lab or faculty. People who fit in well are going to be more likely to jump into collaborations and contribute to the lab’s or department’s productivity. If your application lands on the desk of someone that you have chatted with at a conference and that person enjoyed her conversation with you, she may be excited at the prospect of having you right down the hall with the opportunity to generate so many exciting research ideas on a daily basis; this may influence her hiring decision. In many ways, social interactions at conferences give a face and a name to the CV sitting on her desk.

Go to talks

Even if you aren’t planning to present, you should still attend conferences that are related to your research. Listening to talks gives you a sense of the current state of the field in a way that no journal can. A multi-study project being presented today may be years away from publication, yet it may have implications for your own research. Learning of research while it is still being conducted, gives you the opportunity to learn about it well before it appears in a journal.

Conferences are also a great place to get exposure to material that is less accessible at your university. For instance, many conferences will have workshops dedicated to advanced statistical methods, new research techniques, or the basics of programming languages like R or Matlab. Attending these workshops will broaden your skill set, possibly removing barriers that were inhibiting you from asking certain types of research questions. The APA Student Science Council and the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS) publishes a guide to the APA convention that highlights talks and workshops that are of interest to the science-oriented graduate student. Using this guide, or creating one for yourself for other conferences, will help you keep track of the workshops and talks that are most interesting and applicable to you.

No matter the content of the talk or workshop, conference sessions give you the chance to hone your scientific thinking. At conferences, you can hear the brightest minds argue over a theory (that, by the way, one of them established), and you can even contribute to and join the discussion. Conferences present the rare opportunity to get some of the biggest names in the field together in one room: the valuable learning experience that comes from experiencing their interaction cannot be overstated.

Collect souvenirs and take notes

By the time you get back home on Sunday evening after the conference, you will have seen and talked to so many different people and learned about so much new research that the whole weekend will seem like a blur. That is why it is beneficial to take notes at all of the talks that you attend. Create a list of email addresses of people with whom you want to collaborate. Take print-outs of others’ posters to remind you to follow-up with them for more details later. Keeping the conference program can also be a valuable tool. Doing so can help you remember how sessions were organized, in case you are interested in coordinating a symposium next year. There’s a lot going on at conferences. The easier you make it on yourself to reconstruct the conference experience upon your return home, the more you will have maximized its positive influence on your day-to-day work and research.

The conference experience is slightly different for everyone, and each conference may have different norms and expectations that facilitate or challenge one’s opportunity to take these suggestions. Ultimately, however, by attending conferences, you have the potential to bolster your career and the quality of your research and scientific discipline. If you approach conferences strategically, the fun comes along with the work.

Elizabeth (Liz) Necka is the social psychology representative on the APA Student Science Council. She is a doctoral student at the University of Chicago.