Sunday, 26 October 2014

The art of surviving a week of conferencing

Last week we had the Geological Society of America (GSA) 2014 Annual Meeting in Vancouver. I hadn't been to this particular conference before, mainly because the focus is more on geology than geophysics. But you only get so many chances to have a meeting in your own city, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Turns out it was a really good decision! As I'm sure many of you will know, it's quite exhausting to spend all day listening to presentations, looking at posters, seeing hundreds or thousands of faces, meeting new people, catching up with friends you only see once a year and so much more. With the conference being so close to my home, it was great to come home to my own bed every evening and to have a few minutes to wind down and process everything. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting is coming up in a few weeks, so maybe this post will be useful for some of you out there! Of course the items on this list apply to any field or conference, and they are by no means exhaustive.
But let's start in the beginning.

Preparation. Start your conference preparation way before the conference. Many conferences have a short course/field trip/professional development program around the actual conference dates. These things fill up fast, so look at the program and decide what you want to do early on (and sign up!). Often these events have discounts if you sign up early, so that's another bonus. On the weekend before GSA I sacrificed my Saturday and Sunday for two things: A science communication short course, and student-industry-networking program. Both of them were great! Which brings me to the next topic:

Decide on a theme. Conferences are really bad for people like me, who sometimes try to do everything. There are so many opportunities and interesting things going that it's usually impossible to take advantage of everything. The first step can be to choose a few sessions and sit all the way through them, instead of picking individual talks. You avoid running around trying to find rooms at the last minute, missing half of the talk you really wanted to see because the previous one in a different room ran late, and often the talks with the least appealing titles turn out to be the best. It can also help to identify a theme for yourself. For example for the GSA meeting my theme was "professional development". That mainly meant a lot of networking for me, exploring career options, and signing up for short courses (see Preparation) corresponding to that theme. That also meant that I probably missed out on some really cool science, but something always has to give. And because the meeting was more geology focused that probably wasn't as big of a deal as it could have been for another meeting. And of course your "theme decision" doesn't mean that you can't do anything outside of the theme, it just helps to focus your attention and time. 

Do some pre-conference research. There might be a person attending the conference with exactly the kind of job you could see yourself in. Or the researcher who came up with this awesome method that you've been using already, but that you still have some questions about. Or your friend from your undergrad who now lives on a different continent and whom you haven't seen in 3 years. There are lots of reasons to look at the conference program ahead of time. When you see somebody in the program that you would like to meet, get in touch with them before the conference, and maybe you can arrange a meeting over a coffee, in a specific session, or over dinner (see Have fun).

Check for volunteering options. Some conferences give students the opportunity to get involved. That could for example be a contribution to the planning of the actual meeting, or some student or social events around it, which of course works well if the meeting is happening close to where you live. Another option is to volunteer your time during the conference. GSA was the second meeting that I volunteered for, after the IUGG (International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics) General Assembly in Melbourne in 2011. Both meetings offered free registration in exchange for a certain number of volunteer hours (10 hours in the case of GSA), so there is another incentive. I spent my 10 hours doing two mornings at the registration desk. Even though it forced me to get out of bed extremely early, it was a great way to keep networking (see Decide on a theme). The registration desk was in a central location, so I got to meet lots of people in person who I previously only knew by name, saw some old friends that I hadn't seen in ages, and made new connections (for example I met an artist who uses her artwork to communicate timelines of glacier recession - how cool is that?). And if nothing else, there is no better way to start a conference than with a friendly face and a nice little chat when you pick up your badge, so hopefully I made at least a few people's days a bit brighter. The networking aspect opens up another topic:

Bring business cards. You might think that as a student why would I need a business card? Turns out it's maybe even more important as a student than at a later stage (despite the fact that you don't have a business...). Networking is all about being interested in other people, them being interested in you, and most importantly to leave a lasting impression. You never know when you might meet a person again, and in what situation. That doesn't just apply to professionals in your field who are higher up the food chain, but even more so to your fellow students. They will be your future colleagues, and relationships between colleagues - even in different disciplines - can go a long way. I've been to many conferences before, and never thought about the business card thing. Man, do I wish I had. How many times have you been at a conference, awkwardly scribbling down somebody's email address on a random piece of paper, only to lose it or to be unable to read your own writing after the fact? Business cards are a simple, tidy way to keep track of all the people you meet over the course of a conference, and a great way for them to remember you, too.

Wear your name tag somewhere easily visible. When I went to my first conference I thought it was maybe not super fashionable how everyone runs around with a name tag around their neck. Turns out it's actually super important though. You want people you meet to have a visual of your name, to help you to leave a potentially lasting impression. That applies even more when you have somewhat complicated/foreign/rare name (I can't expect non-German speakers to automatically make the connection from "Ka-tee" to "Kathi", but I also refuse to anglicize my name. The name tag does help.). Also, for the slightly not so tall ones among us, it's good to tie a knot into lanyard or pin your name tag to the side of your scarf or the collar of your blazer. Nothing more awkward than somebody having to bent down in front of your crotch to read your name...

Dress well. The dress code of course depends highly on your field. In earth sciences, at most conferences you'll find everything from hiking boots and trekking pants to suit and tie/business skirt, blouse and blazer. I usually try to dress nicely, I tend to avoid my track pants and hoodies and leave those for winding down time at home. Another factor is your "theme" (see Decide on a theme): Because my main goal during GSA was to make some connections, I decided to go for business outfits. Not only does a tidy, professional look open doors, it also shows some respect for the people you are meeting with. And you never know who that might be... A good rule of thumb is to dress one level higher than the people you are trying to connect with. That also applies for interviews and similar situations, of course. A business outfit doesn't mean that you have to give up your personality though. I personally love bright colors, so I combined my grey business skirt and black top and blazer with a colorful necklace and shoes. A scarf is also a great way to add some color and/or personality, without violating the respect rule too much. Obviously that doesn't work so well in the summer, but you get the gist.

Follow up. That one is a simple one - when you meet somebody interesting make sure to follow up with a short email on the day, just to refresh their memory. Following up, of course, requires some time in the evening set aside for that purpose, which leads to this:

Say no. Sometimes you'll have to say no. There are so many things going on at conferences, from project meetings through evening receptions and dinners/drinks with old and new friends. Once in a while it's good to say no. Set aside 1-2 hours in the evening to be able to wind down, process all the awesome experiences, and follow up on anything that the day brought (see Follow up). During GSA, my advantage was that the meeting was only a 15 minute bus ride from home, so it was easy to go home and relax after a long day at the conference (7 AM start on two days!).

Say yes. Sometimes you'll have to say yes. There will always be surprises, opportunities you didn't expect. Show your face at the reception you've been invited to, even if it's only for an hour or so. Go to sessions that you wouldn't usually go to because it's completely out of your field. I went to a lunchtime presentation about Spacecraft Landing Site Identification on Mars at the GSA meeting, and learned that they use some of the same methodology that I use, despite a complete lack of overlap of my research with theirs. How cool is that? I'll definitely look over the edge of my plate a bit more and try to learn something from other disciplines.

Last but not least, the most important thing:

Have fun! Yes, the conference is the reason why your supervisor paid for your flight, your hotel, and your food. But that doesn't mean that you have to exhaust yourself to the point of collapse by day 3, when the conference lasts for another 2 days. Instead, pick a morning or afternoon with somewhat less relevant sessions and explore the city that you're in. Go to a museum. Or do your Xmas shopping. Use some time to catch up with old friends over a beer or some food. Or spend some time getting to know new people. During GSA, I went to a tweet-up, for example. Another Vancouver-based scientist, Mika McKinnon, had booked a table at a pub close to the convention center, and invited fellow science-y social media people to meet up. We overcame some initial problems (nobody knew each other by their real name, so introductions didn't mean much... in the end we had to introduce each other by our twitter handles) and had a good time chatting over some beers. I can now say that I have met Erik Klemetti - my blogging idol - in person :) I also managed to have dinner with my friend Allan and some of his friends, so now I know a few people from Oregon. 
Doing all these things is a great way to wind down a bit (see Say no), to be refreshed after a little break and to take in more science in the following sessions. Conferences are so much more fun if you put a little bit of effort into spending time away from the meeting itself! I can't wait to learn about more exciting science, meet fascinating people, and catch up with old and new friends during AGU in December!

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