Well I’m up this week to continue with our theme of conference season and the timing couldn’t be better. I just got back from the Experimental Biology (EB) conference held in Boston. EB is a massive conference… like 14,000 attendees massive. The shear size of this conference can make planning the day-to-day itinerary a bit overwhelming, especially if this planning takes place on the day of the conference.
Through my previous conference experiences, I have learned that there is great value in mapping out your conference agenda prior to arrival. Specifically, I find that pre-planning (that is, creating your itinerary) optimizes time management, which facilitates greater learning and networking opportunities at the conference, as well as allowing for more effective use of time for touristy outings. My personal goal when attending conferences is to maximize new experiences and minimize time spent in limbo or frittered on deliberation amongst peers. The latter, unfortunately, is rarely fully minimized; however, I argue that taking the time to pre-plan the major elements of your conference itinerary can effectively maximize new experience and reduce wasted time.
Planning Optimizes Time
Generally speaking, the 2-4 days spent at a conference are split between the academic and networking aspects of the conference itself, and the touristy aspects, provided the host city is worth checking out (sorry Barrie, I’ve yet to explore your touristy gems). In most cases I would love to spend an extra day to explore the city, however, this is typically not financially feasible. Therefore, the optimization of your time is a key to enjoying a full experience.
Planning for the conference
Given that the primary reason for attending a conference is check out the latest research in your field, mapping out the academic aspects of the conference should be your first priority. Scouring through the conference program for presentations of interest allows you to map out your days at the conference, work out any conflicts that may arise, and if you feel so inclined, to brush up on the background literature that will be guiding the upcoming presentations. Additionally, this activity also helps to identify when you have free time to check out the city. EB had a downloadable app, which was phenomenal for building a daily schedule and for referencing information about each talk / poster presentation (times, location, presenter names, etc.).
A harsh reality of conferences is that some early bird on the organizing committee decided 8:00 am would be the perfect time to schedule the talk that you came to see. If you are eager to explore the nightlife of your host city, get ready to wake up early with the taste of local craft beer still lingering in your mouth (and brain). If you find that learning under these conditions is difficult, you may want to pre-plan your evening activities such that the local brewery tour does not precede an early morning talk. Sometimes (most times) this is unavoidable, so plan to pack some painkillers with your notepad and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!
In addition to hearing new and exciting presentations, conferences provide an unparalleled opportunity for grad students to network with prominent researchers in their field. However, chances are if you are seeking out the company of a particularly influential researcher, many other individuals are as well. Identifying an individual of interest in advance provides you with the opportunity to send off a brief introductory email requesting a casual meeting at the conference. For anyone considering doing a post-doc or applying for a faculty position, this is a ‘cannot miss’ networking opportunity. Even if you are in the first year of your PhD, making these connections early (and hopefully often) will help establish a rapport with prominent researchers in your field.
Pre-planning reduces group decision-making struggles
Where should we eat? Where do we want to visit? What should we do next?
These are among the most frequent and time-consuming questions that arise at a conference, regardless of group size (albeit, smaller groups tend to be less cumbersome). While noble in principle, attempting to settle on an activity or attraction that agrees with the group as a whole is a frustrating endeavour, usually met by resistance during the planning period. However frustrating, these conversations are important for compiling knowledge and generating ideas of what the host city has to offer. Have these conversations and disagreements in advance in order to maximize time spent enjoying your experience and to avoid wasting time and energy deliberating as a group at the conference. From these conversations break-away groups with different interests may be formed. If this approach is decided on before hand, coordinating at the conference is considerably easier and the potential of feelings being hurt due to differing opinions should be eliminated.
Work out the logistical obstacles ahead of time
Becoming familiar with your host city prior to arrival allows you to identify activities of interest, but more importantly, it commences the process of logistical Tetris associated with attending a talk and visiting an attraction on the other side of the city within the same day. Through this process, you’re bound to learn about local public transport (prices, routes, etc.), whether conference shuttles are being offered, and any interruptions to service that may be taking place while you are visiting.
Traveling to the US can pose a particular issue for staying connected. If you opt not to purchase a US phone plan or have a limited data plan, the Stay.com City Guides and Offline Maps app is loaded with all of the features that you would expect in a travel app BUT with offline capabilities. With this app, you can build your itinerary in advance (on a Wi-Fi/data connection) and are capable of accessing your full itinerary and city maps when offline. This feature helps to overcome the sudden need to find Wi-Fi if you find yourself lost or looking for a Plan B option while exploring the city. Trip Advisor has a comparable app; however, I have yet to try it.
A messenger app (like BBM, Facebook messenger, or WhatsApp) with calling capabilities is invaluable when you are soley reliant on Wi-Fi. Most conferences centers offer free Wi-Fi and calling your peers to coordinate a meeting place/discuss your next move can save you a ton of time and save you the hassle of playing text-tag. As mentioned above, the Experimental Biology app was exceptionally useful for navigating my way around the conference. I highly recommend downloading a conference app if one is available for the conference that you will be attending.
As I am coming fresh off of a major international conference, my insight may not fully reflect your personal experiences. Nonetheless, pre-planning both the academic and tourist aspects of your trip prior to arrival can save you substantial time and stress associated with on the spot planning, regardless of the conference’s size. Please comment below to share your tips, tricks, perspectives, and/or experiences associated with navigating a conference.