First and foremost, conferences are an important opportunity to present your work, learn about others’ research, and generally see some science that you normally perhaps wouldn’t. But as well as the science, conferences have lots of other things to offer that will enrich your trip, and making smart use of your time out of the lab will make it just that little bit more valuable.
One of the most important things to do when you go to a conference is to choose the sessions and lectures that you’ll attend carefully. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t attend all the sessions or lectures because not every lecture is appropriate for everyone and no one can concentrate fully for talk after talk over long periods of time. Therefore, you’ll get more out of the sessions that you’re interested in if you’ve taken a break and haven’t sat through a couple of hours of stuff that you’re not interested in. Let’s be honest, even your boss isn’t going to go to every lecture, so you shouldn’t feel bad about taking some time out too.
Enjoying the Science and the Scenery
Chances are, most of the conferences you’ll go to will be in interesting places and it's possible some of these are places you would never visit otherwise. Therefore, make sure that you maximize your opportunity to enjoy the city and country that you’re in.
In addition to what you can get up to on your own in the area around the conference venue, such as eating and drinking like the locals, there will often be official excursions connected with the conference that will get you to some of the more famous sightseeing spots. Some of these places might be difficult to get to, so these organized trips are a good chance to hit some of the more well-known attractions. If there is one, the conference dinner is also a great chance to indulge in some fine gastronomy, as the conference hosts are usually keen to show off the best of the local cuisine. By taking part in the social program of the conference, you are also guaranteed to get to know some more people and the shared experience is something that you can use to cement new connections with researchers from around the world.
Meet and Greet
As I wrote in my last post, meeting people and making new connections should be an integral part of your conference activities. There’s networking in the conventional sense, which is meeting people who you may find opportunities to work with, or even for, in the future. In this case, there’s no substitute for personal contact, especially if you’re job hunting.
In addition to this, you should also use your time away from the bench to meet some of your peers and go for a drink, a meal, or even, dare I say it, a night on the town with some new faces (during which you are of course encouraged to go to bed at a sensible hour to get up for the 9 AM plenary the next day). It won’t take you long to start comparing notes about life in the lab and you’ll be surprised how much of your experience will be very similar to theirs. Making new friends is always important, but perhaps even more important is the knowledge that you aren’t alone in going through the trials and tribulations of research life. This simple bit of knowledge will help you more than you might expect.
The Complete Experience
Conferences are as much about personal development as they are about professional development and you should allocate your time and energy accordingly. You should feel something between excited, invigorated, and exhausted, if not a strange mixture of all three by the time you get back from a conference, and this is the perfect place to be; excited by all the great research that you’ve seen over the past few days, invigorated by all your new friends and the stories you’ll have to laugh about the next time around, and exhausted after filling your days with all sorts of new experiences for your professional and private self. If you reach this point, then you really have made the most of your trip and you can arrive back home in the right frame of mind to make inroads into your own research, not to mention getting busy with writing your next conference abstract!