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Careers Café

Getting the most out of conferences


I’m just getting ready to leave for a conference tomorrow. And I’ll admit it. When my students and I learned that the largest wildlife (part of my area of research) conference in North America would be held in Waikoloa, Hawaii, we were… what would be the best word… jubilant. Along with my laptop and external drive, I do have a swimsuit, sunscreen, camera and binoculars packed. I mean, there’s no rule you aren’t allowed to have fun at work, right?!

But despite the joking about “working” in Hawaii, the truth is, conferences play a key role in maintaining the quality of research conducted by yourself and your students. For me, networking at conferences has resulted in more than one seminal and persistent research collaboration, and in joint publications. It has helped me maintain collegial relationships with experts around the globe, meet and invite expert guest speakers to present to colleagues back home, and learn about state of the art research and techniques. Here are a few of my thoughts about how you can make the most of conferences and use them to elevate the quality of your research program.

Make the rounds at meals

At each meal of the day, sit with a different group … your students, colleagues you’re catching up with, people you don’t know, people you heard talk and you’d like to meet. This way you can take advantage of all the different types of networking opportunities.

Go on the field trips

Ok, maybe this is more for the biologists among us. For biologists, the opportunity to visit and learn about a new ecosystem with experts in the field cannot be passed up. I’ve gained everything from cool wildlife trivia (apparently hummingbirds are the only birds in Canada to visit and pollinate red flowers) to case studies I’ve integrated into course lectures. The quality of the expertise in group leaders, not surprisingly, is world-class.

Spend time with your students

I can’t be the only prof to be torn balancing the needs of research, teaching, admin, and home life for most of the year. Take advantage of the new environment and dedicated focus of the conference to relax with students and talk over the new ideas you’ve heard over the day. It will help them integrate their new knowledge with the existing literature, learn to express their ideas and conduct constructive academic debates, and give them a feel for what to think about and look for in conference presentations. Watching your delight and passion in other people’s research will encourage their own enthusiasm, and let them see that they can really make a career out of something they love.

Go to lots of talks

I’ve been surprised to learn that in some academic cultures, conferences are primarily used for networking, and that it is common, even expected, that only a handful of people will show up for most talks. This is not the case with biological conferences, and I think that’s a good thing. Going to a wide variety of talks lets you keep up with the leaders in your field, and learn about species and ecosystems that differ from your area of expertise. This knowledge can allow you to grow, be creative, and innovate in your own field.

Occasionally I run into both grad students and professionals who spend most of the conference in their hotel rooms running analyses and perfecting their talk. This is a waste of time, money, and opportunity. Spending time at the conference proper should be a priority.

My students and I will be following these guidelines in Hawaii over the next 2 weeks. We’ll remember the beach time and sunsets, but the learning opportunities will be the real treat.

Other good UA articles on conferences can be found here:

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