Ten steps to optimizing learning at large conferences

Active conference attendance can make all the difference in how much you learn at a large meeting with a blizzard of overlapping sessions, posters, and eating venues. A few steps before, during and after can help you get the most out of a large in-person meeting. These comments are all about attending the meeting and not about giving your own best poster or talk.

Great to see Erika Noll again and is that Bruce Lyon behind her?
  1. Have a goal for the meeting. This goal will help guide you as you choose what talks to go to and which posters to study. It is simply not possible to hear everything so having an aim for the meeting will help you choose for learning rather than simply going to talks by friends or randomly choosing interesting sounding sessions. Once my goal was to understand phylogenetic methods. Another time it was genomics. Another time it was bird tracking devices. A goal will help you learn something you did not know before more effectively. My goals are usually somewhat distant from my closest interests so I might also go to talks closest to my own.
  2. Don’t change session rooms too often. It is tempting to plan out a schedule that gets you to all the talks that most fit your goal wherever they are, but switching rooms is very disrupting. I try to hear at least two talks in a room before switching, though this is a rule I often break. Just remember that switching is disruptive for your train of thought..
  3. Take notes on paper. I find that my mind wanders less if I take notes. I do it in a bound Leuchtturm notebook, 21 x 15 cm size, usually in pencil. From the four-day American Ornithological Society – Birds Caribbean meeting I just attended I have 91 pages of notes. I take care to write down the name of the speaker and the subject and general notes. I also copy down references that represent further reading opportunities on the topic. I also take notes at posters.
  4. Go to the posters. I love poster sessions because they can be brief advertisements for really interesting topics, faster to look through than talks are to sit through. Many of the posters I go to do not have their presenters there, so I’m free to browse and move on. At a poster, look at the presenter while she is talking, not at the poster. A poster is a chance to tell a story, so it seems obvious to me to look at the speaker and only at the poster when she points my gaze to something specific. Listening to the story is often more clear than the poster. I also like to ask questions and to find out something about the presenter. That is not only interesting but it also helps me remember the work.
  5. Find someone new for dinner or lunch. It is easy to have meals with whomever you came with, but that is not the way to learn the most. Having a meal with someone else should not be left to the time milling about after the last talk as people head off for meals. Email or text someone or ask them earlier if they are free today or another day for a meal. Suggest a specific reason you are interested in them. It is easy to feel everyone else knows someone and you are only intruding, but what do you have to lose? You might feel shy to ask a professor to have dinner with you, so ask a grad student or postdoc in their lab. After a couple meals alone I got up my courage to ask someone I did not know well to dinner and had a delightful time with her and another couple of friends, making me wish I had done this from the start. Some people even plan this before the meeting. It is easier if there is a common venue for meals and you can just sit with new people.
  6. Go to the plenaries. There a talks at every meeting that everyone attends. If you are giving one, you will work extra hard on it because it is important. So I always try to get up in time to hear the plenaries even if they do not fit your goals for the meeting.
  7. Participate in a field trip, 5K run, outreach table or other activity. If your meeting has adjacent activities of any kind, sign up for something according to your interests. It is another way to meet people. When I am on a field trip I try to get to know people one at a time, asking what their research is, where they are, what their challenges are. I always learn something and often make a friend.
  8. Each person knows at least three things that will change your life, so discover them. I like to get past the pleasantries and discover what motivates people, what they know and what we have in common. I do this at the breaks, at meals with people, on field trips. It is easiest talking one on one. It might take some probing questions and some openness to discover where the connections are. They could be in research, in parts of the country, in hobbies, anything really. These more personal ties enrich meetings greatly for me.
  9. Do not go to talks all the time. Talks are essential for meetings but so are conversations outside of them. If the talks are far from my own expertise, I learn more from talking to people outside of them. There isn’t enough time for this at breaks, so skip a talk or five if you are in an important conversation, or even just need a break.
  10. After the meeting do your follow up. After a meeting you might email the people with whom you had the best connection, or have questions you would like answered. You might email someone to whom you gave a reference to solidify the connection. Look back over your notes and see what you learned. If there are articles you would like to read, look them up now. Think about what you learned. Read what you need to as a way of bringing together loose threads. This takes time but is important.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Scientific community, Scientific meetings, Scientific societies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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