When Wanderlust Meets Wonderlust

Are you ready to plan your first trip to a scientific conference? Here are five tips to get you started.

AsianScientist (Jun. 28, 2018) – You’ve worked hard these past few years, churning out data like the lean mean experiment machine that you are. A part of you knows this is the tipping point of your research project—your findings and the number of figures in your manuscript draft have hit a certain critical mass.

You’re also more confident now, having spent most of your waking hours learning about concepts and techniques that have taken you to the cusp of a first-author publication. You’ve fielded enough questions in thesis advisory meetings or student seminars that Q&A sessions no longer faze you. In other words, graduate student, you’re ready to attend a science conference.

But going to a conference is not as simple as buying a ticket at the fare gate. There are several things to consider beforehand, ranging from selecting a relevant meeting to tying down flight and accommodation details. To help you out, here’s a checklist of things to think about as you plan your adventure.

  1. Make up your mind

    Picking a conference is like going to a buffet and choosing the dish that’s most worth the limited space in your stomach. Websites like Nature’s events directory and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) events page are good for getting a broad overview of upcoming science conferences, and there’s sure to be something for everyone.

    When deciding which conference suits you, consider how relevant it is to your work. If you’re a cancer biologist, there really isn’t much incentive to attend a summit for particle physicists. You could learn a thing or two about a new particle that may be useful for bioimaging, but more likely than not you’ll stick out like a sore thumb and end up feeling rather lost.

    Sometimes, the size of a conference also matters. Larger conferences cover a wide variety of topics and may attract the bigwigs of your research domain. But that doesn’t mean you should give smaller conferences a miss. Prominent scientists do attend small- and medium-sized symposiums and workshops, and in those contexts, you may actually get a better chance to network with them than at a mega annual meeting, where you’ll just be a face in the crowd.

  2. Note the abstract deadline

    Once you’ve singled out a conference, you’ll have to decide if you’d rather present a poster or be a speaker at a session. However, do note that speaking opportunities are harder to come by than poster presentations. This is reasonable because sharing your research in front of a room of experts gives you much more exposure than simply standing by a poster in the exhibition hall.

    In any case, make sure you remember the deadline for submission of abstracts! For some conferences, the call for abstracts begins 4-6 months before the actual conference date and closes a month or two before the first day of the conference.

    Miss the deadline and you may still have a shot at attending the event under the ‘late-breaking abstracts’ category, but be aware that this is usually a more competitive category reserved for work that is deemed really interesting or important by the conference organizers.

  3. Apply for travel grants and get discounts on registration fees

    If you’re a scientist in Asia and would like to attend a conference in the US, the cost of travel may be prohibitive. Unless you’re on a generous scholarship that can cover your flight, accommodation and subsistence expenses throughout the entire duration of a conference half a world away, you should really look out for travel grants that are typically advertised on the conference website.

    Expectedly, competition for these travel grants can be intense, but that shouldn’t deter you from applying, especially if you can make the case that your research is worth sharing. Some research associations actually set aside funding to sponsor delegates from the Asia-Pacific and Japan at their annual meetings, so early career researchers from this region should definitely apply.

    Another way to save money when travelling for conferences is to join a research association before registering for their annual meeting. By paying a small amount for a one-year membership with the association (membership rates may vary), you could earn yourself a massive discount on the registration fee. Early-bird and student rates are also usually offered, so keep a lookout for these options during the registration process.

  4. Find a place to stay

    Now that you’ve registered your attendance at the conference of your choice, you can start looking for accommodations. This is where your research skills should come in handy as you browse websites looking for the best deals. If you want to stay at the hotel hosting the conference, or at hotels within walking distance of the conference venue, be prepared to fork out more money and make reservations early.

    There are advantages to staying near the site of the conference. For one, some of the sessions can begin as early as 7.30 am in the morning. Also, depending on which city you’re in, rush hour traffic can be horrible, and public transport may not be the most reliable, which means that you’ll have to buffer in sufficient travel time if you stay further away.

    For the cost-conscious traveler, student hostels are a good option, and if you can find one near the conference venue, the odds are you’ll be in the company of fellow conference delegates. This could actually go a long way in helping you build networks with other early career scientists from all over the world, which brings us to the next point…

  5. Get your name cards printed

    We may live in the digital age, but at conferences where face-to-face meetings are possible, a physical calling card could help you leave a deeper impression on the people you encounter.

    There may also be situations where you want to speak to a poster presenter, but he or she may have stepped away for a while. In this scenario, simply pin your name card to the poster board with a written request to get in touch via email. Conversely, if you’re presenting a poster, displaying your email address somewhere on the poster could allow interested parties to reach out to you.

    Also bear in mind that vendors, journal editors and potential employers frequently attend conferences, so having a name card on hand could really help you maximize the mileage on your conference registration fee. But at the end of the day, remember that you’re at a conference to learn and have fun, so don’t take things too seriously while you’re there!

    This article is from a monthly column called Hacking a PhD. Click here to see the other articles in this series.


    Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Pixabay.
    Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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