I am a demographer, and as such, I am interested not only in how individuals survive, but also in what allows them to thrive, to complete their lifecycle, to reproduce. In a closed natural population, there is only one way for the population growth rate to be positive: reproduction. Thus, rather than following a pessimistic take on how to “survive” a conference, let me share some thoughts on how I have managed to go from survival into flourishing mode at conferences.
1- The online programmes of most conferences are made available on the organizer’s website weeks in advance. Spend time highlighting the events that you are most interested in, but also make sure that you have time for reflection and to meet with people
2- So now that you know that influential ecologist Prof. X is attending the conference, why not send him or her a brief email introducing yourself and asking for a slot during the conference? Failure to do so means you will have to “fight” with a layer of attendees who want to speak with that person. Keep the email nice and brief, and include suggestions of when and where, and also why you want to meet.
3- Attend events that are core to your research, but I’d also suggest taking some random walks to rooms in areas that are new to you – my best ideas have come through interdisciplinary research.
4- Shy can stay away (if you’d like): let’s face it, approaching a professor can be intimidating. However, interacting with people at a conference is, just like giving a talk, a bit of a performing act. If you are not sure of how best to approach a person you want to talk to, just join the circle of people talking, ask if they mind you joining them. Capitalize on the need for networking if it’s your first time attending the conference by saying “it’s my first time here, could I introduce myself to you and get to know what you guys do?”
5- Join groups and sections of societies that match your interests: the BES has special interest groups and ESA has sections whose mission is to represent the interests of ecologists in different academic statuses and working in different areas. Get in touch with the chair/officer of that section/group and have him/her talk you under their wing. They are a great resource for networking.
6- Don’t miss the social events and opportunities to go with other researchers to restaurants and pubs: collaborative research, ever so important in ecology, develops faster in more relaxed social environments.
7- Take notes: I find meetings longer than 3 days to be really taxing to my mental abilities. At the end of the meeting I may not remember all of the cool findings and thoughts that I have been exposed to. Keeping a diary of notes is a really good way to stay engaged (sometimes awake…) through a marathon of ecological research.
8- Take time off: make sure that you get out! Explore the city (with colleagues or alone). Find the botanical garden or enjoy the facilities at your accommodation.
9- Reflect every day: I usually ask my students to tell me what is the single coolest thing that they have learned that day. This is a rather challenging exercise, since there are so many potential talks one can attend, but it helps focus the mind on a tangible finding that will stick with you. Having to communicate it to other members in your research group means you digest it further before you explain it.
10- Reflect on your way back home: while it’s fresh, perhaps in the train/flight, take a few minutes to think about what aspect of the conference, interactions with individuals, sections have been most appealing to your research and why. Have you perhaps learnt of the existence of a new technique that could revolutionise your research? Had a chance to speak with a potential phd/post-doc advisor? Take the time to reach back to those individuals to thank them their for their time and continue (if appropriate) the dialogue over email. This technique has brought me countless research opportunities, including invitations to seminars, 3 post-doctoral offers, and countless collaborative projects.
Rob Salguero-Gómez, University of Oxford, UK, and Associate Editor for Journal of Ecology