Yay! Your abstract got accepted at this conference and you can’t wait until you go! That is the good case scenario. The bad case scenario starts with “Yay! Abstract accepted”, but ends with “oh my! I have never participated in a conference before, or I hate conferences, what do I do?”…
Yay! Your abstract got accepted at this conference and you can’t wait until you go! That is the good case scenario. The bad case scenario starts with “Yay! Abstract accepted”, but ends with “oh my! I have never participated in a conference before, or I hate conferences, what do I do?”… Do not worry, there are things you can do to avoid being overwhelmed! I have been in about 10 conferences of various disciplines, where my work has been relevant, less relevant, or completely irrelevant (no shame, someone still selected my abstract!), and I have developed some tips that could be useful. Let’s see!
Check the program (aka “who else will be there?”)
I assume you wanted to be at this conference for a reason, that being that your supervisor made you (#truestory), the focus of this conference is close to your research, people attending this conference are potential collaborators, you always wanted to visit this place (Hey! We could be friends!), you name it. The point is that you are going. So you might as well make the most of it in terms of looking after your business. What is your business? Want to explore further research options, learn more about specific topics, meet with “important” people in your field, set up future collaborations, get cheeky opportunities for pre-interviews? If the answer is yes to any of these, then you need to know who will be there and what they do! Check the program, review the organized sessions (keynote, oral, and poster presentations) find the people of “interest” and google them (or LinkedIn them, I vote to make that a term!). Being prepared is key in order to get the most out of a conference in terms of “easy to make contacts”. Of course you will meet loads of people, but having a mental list of people you definitely need to go and introduce yourself helps!
Pack smart and lightly (aka “what do I wear?”)
Academic conferences can last from 1 to up to 7 days or so. Although usually there is no strictly stated attire, the norm is to follow business-casual rules, generally being put-together. It is up to you if you want to be more business or more casual, but make sure to choose garments that a) you are comfortable in, b) are easy to mix and match, c) can mask stains easily, d) pack easily, and e) can be dressed up/down. You probably do not want to carry a huge suitcase, but you do not want to be left with no clean clothes on day 3 out of 7. Plan around a capsule wardrobe, think about actually planning some outfits rather than take a bunch of garments that “should look cute together”. It will remove the stress of waking up and being stressed on what to wear, especially on those long conference days with early start and late finish and no options for “outfit refreshment” break. Hand-in-hand goes accessories selection and/or makeup. Keep it reasonable and comfortable (whatever that means to you!). Also, depending on where the conference is, you need to think about your travel attire. Purse-wise, majority of attendees I have seen in conferences carry a professional-looking backpack or a roomy laptop case. Most probably you will need a pen/notepad (or a laptop), you might have handouts or business cards, you might even want to carry a couple of key publications on a specific topic. On top of that, handy items are a water bottle, tissues, painkillers, deodorant or perfume, mini toothbrush or floss, makeup refreshing kit, and maybe a change of accessories or a top in case of impromptu “getaway plans”.
Take a “bit of home” with you (aka “will I need all of my X steps of skincare”?)
Similarly to going on vacation, going to conferences means that you will be away from home for a while. For most women (and some men) this means parting with their “full-on” skincare routine, which is expected, especially if you are following a 10-step regimen, or use different products every day (no shame, love your skin!). What I personally do when I know I will be away in a conference (or short vacation), is to find all those sample-sized products I have stashed and select the most relevant to my needs. Or, depot some of my most-needed products in smaller containers. In this way I avoid clutter and overweight luggage, and I stay within cabin bag allowance for liquids, without making my skin starve.
Have an action plan (aka “what do I do?”)
You might think that going to a conference is straightforward, go there, present, listen to other presentations, get drunk at the conference dinner (everyone knows that!), maybe chat to a few people, go home. Well, you are not far off what I am about to say. However, this “flow” does not come naturally to everyone. Some people (myself included), might need some help to get through conference experiences. First and foremost, as I said earlier, is to try and figure out who else will be there. Make a list of people you want to talk to and try to see it through. If colleagues of yours are joining, you will already have a “cluster” of people to be around. In any case, it is always advisable to meet new people, network and try to enjoy the conference experience. The easiest way, based on my experience, is during the poster session, or over lunch/coffee. Approach people, smile, introduce yourself and ask about their research, ask if it’s their first time in this conference, ask when/where the X session is (even of you know), pay them a compliment, talk about the food. There are countless conversation starters, and more often than not, the other person will respond in a way that would continue the conversation. From there, it’s so much easier to approach people over dinner, maybe continue with drinks, maybe go for a sightseeing walk (if conditions allow) and build a connection. Don’t worry too much, many people will be feeling the same, especially if this is their first/second conference. Think about what you would expect from someone to do in order to make you feel less scared or intimidated in such a situation.
There you have it! A fault-proof guide of how to survive in conferences, by making the most out of them as an attendee, being comfortable, and having nothing to worry about, other than whether catering will be better than expected!
Written by Eleni Routoula