Conferences provide a good opportunity for academics –early career researchers in particular – to present their work and develop valuable contacts in their field. Preparing for your first conference can seem daunting as you do not know what to expect, especially if you will be presenting! In today’s Reflections post, Nina, a research assistant at the University of the West of England, shares her experience of attending an international scientific conference for the first time.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to present my first poster at the Koninklijke Nederlands Vereniging voor Microbiologie (KNVM) Microbiology Spring Meeting held in Arnhem, Netherlands. I had never been to a conference before so I hope sharing my experience will help other conference newbies.
So…I’m not a great sleeper but I woke up quite tired, probably because I was so excited about the trip. It was a short journey from Bristol to Amsterdam – only an hour on plane. When I got to Amsterdam, it took a little while to figure out how the public transport system worked to get to Arnhem. I managed to get on the right train, the right bus and even get off at the right stops. In the end, travelling was easy as everyone spoke English and I arrived in one piece although knowing basic Dutch may have been of some benefit but hindsight is a great thing. The double decker trains blew my mind!
The hotel was lovely and I caught up with my industry sponsors and had dinner. This provided a good opportunity to settle in before being swept the official start of the conference. I would highly recommend getting in a day early if you can.
I didn’t sleep terribly well but I think I was just nervous. Breakfast was so good, I forgot about my nerves for a while. I arrived at the conference early to give me enough time to set up my poster. Seeing my poster amongst the others gave me an overwhelming sense of pride and achievement. All the time I spent working on it was so worth it. My sponsors introduced me to a few people after which I attended some plenary sessions. There were about 500 people in the audience and I felt honoured to be among them. I used lunch as an opportunity to mingle with the crowd which was a bit daunting at first as everyone around me was speaking Dutch! I overcame my nerves and introduced myself to people, thankfully, everyone spoke English.
Tuesday (PM) – Poster time
After a few breakout sessions, it was time for the official conference dinner. I was sitting alone at a table and just kept hoping someone would sit with me. Luckily, three lovely Dutch professors sat at my table and we have a very good conversation about our respective countries, academia and loads more. It was so good, I almost forgot that it was time for me to present my poster! In case you were wondering, yes, the poster was presented at night time – after drinks!
I went to stand by my poster and made eye contact with a gentleman whose poster was next to mine. He explained that he was also presenting for the first time and was nervous. It was nice to talk to someone on the same level as I was and this helped me relax. Most attendees just walked by, having had a quick scan, moving on before I could say anything to them. Eventually, one by one, a few people came to ask questions. The questions were not as difficult as I expected e.g. ‘What is your poster about?’, ‘Why is this relevant to us?’ etc. I felt I answered confidently and accurately, overall, it went very well.
Day 3 – Homeward bound
I slept much better as the nerves had finally gone. I attended the morning meetings in the most relaxed state I had been since Monday. Unfortunately, I had to miss the second part of the day’s programme to enable me catch my flight. Overall, it was a great experience and I wondered why I was so nervous in the first place!
I would not call myself an expert on attending conferences but these are a few things I learnt from my experience –
Just be brave and talk to people…it was hard for me at first but I found everyone I spoke to really friendly and engaging.
If presenting a poster, wear something smart but comfortable because you want to be as relaxed as you can be.
Take some work with you, you’ll be amazed how much work you can get done during the commute and with less distractions to boot!
Bring business cards. I didn’t have any but everyone else seemed to. A business card enables people remember you and projects professionalism. If you are going to spend all that time networking, it is important your new contacts can remember your name!
Pace yourself. It can be a long day, especially if you have late night presentations. Try to get settled in a day early to adjust to your new surroundings.
If abroad where English is not the first language, learn basic terminology (Hello, Please, Thank you); it just seems more polite.
Keep your poster, it’s a nice memento of the good work you have done. You can also find somewhere to put it up in your University.
A practical one for the ladies – do not pack new shoes or heels! You’ll be surprised how long you will be on your feet!
As a final thought, just remember that everyone was once in the same boat as you. There is nothing to be afraid of, if anything, this conference proved to me just how fun and relaxed it can be.
Thanks Nina. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. If you would like to share your experience(s) with us, contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org.