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How to make the most of an academic conference: Perspectives from a graduate student

By Julia Baak, PhD student at McGill University

I want to preface this blog post by saying that I have no professional experience with giving conference-related advice. However, I am a graduate student, and I attend conferences, so I figured I would use this space to share some of the tips I’ve gathered along the way to make the most out of each conference I attend. 

Before I list my  conference tips, I’ll begin by telling you a bit about the last two conferences I attended. First, from December 4 – 8, 2022, I attended the ArcticNet Annual Scientific Meeting 2022 (ASM2022) in Toronto, Canada. This conference brings together many researchers from the natural, health, and social sciences, along with community members, to discuss both the challenges and opportunities in our rapidly changing Arctic environment. At this conference, I presented a poster (see below, and as a bonus – try to find the QCBS logo!) on the diet of black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) in the Canadian Arctic. I’ll let you read the poster if you’re interested in the specifics of research (for a text description of this poster, please see here).

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Second, from January 25 – February 2, 2023, I attended the Arctic Frontiers 2023 (AF2023) Moving North conference in Tromsø, Norway. This conference brings together community members, policy makers, industry representatives and researchers to discuss environmental and social problems (and solutions) in the north. Here, I gave two oral presentations, where I discussed key results from various long-term monitoring programs in Arctic Canada. Below are the titles of the talks, with a photo of my final “Key takeaway” slide for each presentation. 


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Myself on stage at the Arctic Frontiers conference, in front of my final takeaway slide that says “Long-term monitoring works: Arctic countries should continue to work together to conduct harmonized monitoring of plastic ingestion by Arctic seabirds”
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Myself in front of my final takeaway slide that says “Black-legged kittiwakes in the Canadian High Arctic can handle variation in weather, but long-term monitoring should continue as climate change impacts increase”

Now, onto the important part: What did I learn from these conferences? Below are some tips on how to make the most of an academic conference (either in person or online), both before, during and after the conference takes place. 

Before the conference:

Look at the conference program and attendees beforehand

  • Plan presentations/sessions to attend
    • Look through the conference schedule beforehand and make a schedule of the presentations or sessions you’d like to attend
    • Take a note of presentations that are related to your research and talks that are being given by colleagues, but also plan to attend talks that are outside of your area of expertise or interest. This is how you learn!
  • Contact colleagues to set up a meeting
    • With your list of presentations or sessions to attend, take a look to see if there are specific colleagues or collaborators of yours attending the conference. For example, maybe those that you have only met with virtually. Contact them and ask to meet for a coffee (in person or virtual) during the conference!
  • Reach out to people in your field that you do not know
    • Similar to the previous point, use the conference plan to see if there are any potential future colleagues or collaborators attending. For example, maybe there a person who is doing similar research to you that you can discuss methods with, or a professor that specializes in a method you would like to use. Again, contact them and ask to meet for a coffee (in person or virtual) at the conference!

Considerations for your presentation or poster (if you have one)

  • Add your name and email on each presentation slide or somewhere on your poster
    • This will make it easier for people to reach out (especially as your final slide may not stay up during the question period)!
    • If people tweet your presentation or poster, your information is right there for anyone (even those not at the conference) to contact you!
  • Add a QR code of the publication, your website and/or your Twitter account to your final slide.
  • Practice your presentation
  • Do not go over time
  • Leave time for people to ask questions (e.g., If you have an 8-minute talk with a 2-minute question period, do not present for 10 minutes)
  • Going overtime is not respectful of the others in your session that may be presenting after you (and you also do not want to cut into people breaks)!

If you have Twitter… tweet!

  • Tweet before the conference so people know that you are attending!
  • Use conference #hashtags (if available beforehand)
  • You can tweet…
    • When you submit your abstract
    • When your abstract is accepted
    • A few days prior to the conference to inform people about what you will present
  • This is a great way to get more exposure for you and your research beforehand!

During the conference:

Attend all sessions and events

  • Try not to skip sessions
    • It was all included in the price, so make the most of it!
    • Attend sessions even if the topic is not in your field (this is how you learn)!
    • You can also switch between sessions if there are interesting talks in both
    • Attend the last day
      • A lot of people leave before or during the last day of the conference. However, imagine how you would feel if no one came to your presentation. If you are able to be at the conference on the last day, attend those presentations!
    • Most importantly, take care of your mental health. Conferences can be overwhelming, so if you need a break, do not be afraid to take one. 
  • Go to the poster session
    • Even if you do not have a poster, go to the poster session. This is where the majority of networking happens at conferences.
    • Moreover, people are waiting at their posters for you to come talk to them! This is the perfect opportunity to start up a conversation without the pressure of having to be the first one to say hello. 
  • Attend free side events (both professional and social events)
    • These events are another great way to network in a more relaxed setting, with other students or professors alike!

Start conversations

  • Approaching people can be intimidating…
    • Ask friends or colleagues to introduce you to people they know
    • Approach people at poster sessions (this is what these are for!)
    • Join group conversations (someone will usually introduce themselves)
    • See someone else standing alone? Try to talk to them! They may be feeling the same way as you and would welcome the conversation!
  • Ask questions
    • During the question period in the session or one-on-one after the presentation, asking questions opens doors to lots of conversation and potential collaborations!
  • Utilize coffee breaks and lunch breaks
    • These are meant to take a break, so do that first if you need it. But you can also use this time to chat with people over a coffee and (hopefully) free snacks. 

Take notes 

  • Take notes on presentations
    • This not only helps you focus and learn, but can be useful when you return home
    • You can take notes on…
      • Interesting findings related to your work
      • People to contact after the conference (e.g., for collaborations, data access, etc.)
      • New papers to read
      • New data sources you were unaware of
  • Take notes on ways in which the conference can improve
    • It is unlikely that you will remember all of the positive or negative parts of the conference after you return home. Take notes of these, these will be important after the conference (see below).

If you have Twitter… tweet!

  • Tweet during the conference so people know that you are attending!
  • Use conference #hashtags!
  • You can tweet…
    • When you arrive in the region of the conference
    • The day you present, with details on what the presentation is about and where it is. Include information for watching online if this is an option.
    • About other presentations and plenary talks that you see
    • About the poster sessions, etc.

After the conference:

Use your notes

  • Take actions on the notes you took during the conference 
  • You can…
    • Email people doing similar work as you
    • Email people for a collaboration or access to data/manuscripts
    • Read new papers that were introduced at the conference
    • Follow people you met at the conference on social media (e.g. Twitter, Research Gate, Google Scholar, LinkedIn, etc.)
  • Additional tip: I have a notebook section for each project I am working on, where I include new papers or resources that I can use for said project. After each conference, I add to these. I then look back to these notes as I work on said project!

If you have Twitter… tweet!

  • Tweet after the conference!
  • Use conference #hashtags
  • You can tweet…
    • A thank you to the conference organizers
    • A thank you to the conference for allowing you to present. You can include a photo of you presenting your poster or oral presentation.
    • A summary about the parts that you enjoyed or what your learned
    • Photos from the conference or region where the conference took place

Fill out the conference survey

  • Fill out the conference survey when you receive the email in your inbox
    • Use the notes you made throughout the conference to ensure you include everything
    • Include aspects you liked and disliked
    • Use constructive criticism (be kind!)
  • You can make suggestions for improvements on:
    • Accessibility issues
    • Conference organization
    • Technology issues or improvements
    • …and more!
  • This is important. The conference organizers will take these into consideration in the future.

And that’s a wrap! Overall, a conference is more than sharing your own research. It is a combination of sharing, learning and connecting. So make the most of it! 

I hope that these tips are able to help you make the most out of your next academic conference. If I forgot to include an important tip, or you would like to get in touch, feel free to contact me at: julia.baak@mail.mcgill.ca or scan the QR code below:

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About the author: Julia Baak completed her MSc in Biology at Acadia University studying plastic pollution in Arctic seabirds. Prior to this, she completed a BSc Honours in Environmental Sciences at Dalhousie University examining the non-breeding movements of seabirds in Atlantic Canada. Now working her PhD at McGill University, she is combining her knowledge on plastic pollution and seabird movements to assess the occurrence and fate of plastics and plastic-related contaminants in Arctic seabirds, while also examining how diet and breeding biology is influenced by weather in a rapidly changing Arctic. For more information, you can visit her website at www.juliaellenbaak.com or follow her on Twitter: @juliaellenbaak.

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Post date: October 30, 2023


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