Department of Physics and Astronomy, George Mason University

The Importance of Going to Conferences: Tips for making the most of the experience

Before I actually became a scientist, I somehow imagined that great scientific ideas happen in quiet solitude -that somehow ideas just arrive into one’s mind and flow onto the page. While this may happen, I have come to realize that effective communication between people is vital in scientific careers.  I now know that the synergy you gain from interaction with people actually stimulates creativity. So it’s a good idea to develop skills in interacting with your fellow scientists and communicating about your work.  

Attend Conferences

Giving talks at conferences is one of the most effective ways to inform and advertise your work to an audience of active researchers in your field. Apart from gaining visibility in the field, attending conferences is crucial for stimulating creativity, becoming aware of relevant research investigations by other scientists in your field, forging new collaborations, learning about new tools and techniques that could benefit your research, and receiving feedback on your work prior to publication. I also find that the very act of preparing for a presentation helps me put my research in a larger context, motivates me to read relevant papers, and actually makes me gain a better understanding about my own work.

If you are just starting out as a graduate student in astrophysics, I encourage you to look for any opportunity to present your work. This could be simply presenting to a group of researchers at your institution, or nearby institutions, or attending a national or international conference. Begin early. There is no need to wait until you are ready to defend. I recommend attending more focused meetings in your research area. You can find a list of meetings here  . Below are a few tips I have found useful in preparing for and presenting your work at a meeting.

Before the meeting:

  1. Know your audience. This is crucial as you prepare your talk. Look up who will be attending the conference and determine if they are specialists in your field. If the conference is more general, make sure you include sufficient introductory material.
  2. Determine the “big picture”. Spending some time to sit back and understand how your work fits into a larger context is one of the most vital skills to learn. Begin by understanding what are the big scientific questions your work addresses. Then think of the top 3 points you would like to convey to your audience before you get bogged down with the details.
  3. Know the material VERY well. I generally recommend taking this opportunity to read as many relevant papers in your field as possible as you prepare for the conference. I would even organize the material into subtopics and generate a set of slides with key points. If you have any questions about your work, discuss it extensively with your advisor and peers prior to attending the meeting. Talk about your ideas informally whenever you get the chance. Encourage your peers to ask you questions. This often helps you store much of the information you have gained by reading all the relevant background literature. This is good training to become an expert in your field.
  4. Read the recent work of scientists attending the meeting. Remember that one of the main goals in attending the meeting is to network with other scientists. One of the best ways to prepare is to be aware of their work and even prepare some questions you may have ahead of time. You will also be able to follow the talks much more easily if you are familiar with some of the work ahead of time. It is often a good practice to include citations and plots of relevant work of the people attending the meeting. People pay attention more when they see that their work is being recognized and is part of the story you are telling.
  5. Make sure you are designing a talk for the time slot allotted. Most scientists include too much material in a given talk. Always be mindful of the main points you want to convey and cut out the superfluous material brutally. Most people will tell you to have half as many slides as you have minutes for your presentation.
  6. Think simplicity when designing your slides. There is a lot of information online on how to design power point slides. The key is simplicity and telling a story that engages an audience. Remember that your audience will likely be saturated with information from all of the talks that preceded yours. Make their job as effortless as possible. I personally found the book Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery   by Garr Reynolds very helpful in learning how to design simple slides that effectively convey your key points
  7. Give practice talks, especially if you tend to get stage fright. Invite people who will give you constructive but useful feedback. I often recommend that you memorize your opening and closing remarks. Ask your advisor to give you a list of questions that might be anticipated at the meeting regarding your work. Make sure you can answer them before the meeting.
  8. Look for travel grants. Not only will this help your advisor in funding trips, it’s good for your resume, and good for developing the crucial skill of proposal writing. The AAS international travel grants are a good one to consider. I recommend putting these deadlines in your calendar and being proactive in applying instead of waiting for your advisor’s reminders. Although advisor’s would like to be able to send reminders, they are generally overwhelmed.

During the meeting

There are a lot of resources on how to give a good talk. I summarize here just a few points I find the most helpful.

  1. It’s not about you, it’s about the science. Leave your ego behind and realize that the ultimate goal is to make scientific progress. One of the gifts of being an astrophysicist is that you really learn to appreciate how small you are compared to the vastness of the universe. Of how one human lifetime is only .000000000054% of the lifetime of the universe. I find that this actually helps reduce anxiety about your presentation when you see yourself as the messenger of your science. Being able to actively engage in a conference with the top researchers in your field is a gift. Enjoy it, and remember the goal is to make scientific progress.
  2. If you are nervous, here are my top tips
  • learn how to meditate
  • exercise during the conference
  • take deep breaths
  • memorize opening sentences
  • wear clothes that make you feel more confident
  • imagine yourself as a strong person
  • realize it’s okay not to be perfect
  • see yourself as a role model for others
  1. Endings and beginnings are important. Tell a story Make sure that your top 3 points really come through in your ending slide.
  2. Talk slowly. It’s okay to pause. Most people talk faster when they get nervous. Actively fight this urge. It’s okay to talk slowly and precisely. Pausing between sentences is effective in keeping an audience’s attention. I often find that analogies to musical performances are helpful. To quote cellist Yo-Yo Ma

“Music happens between the notes.”

  1. Enjoy the questions. Resist the tendency to feel intimidated by questions. Questions are the fuel to promote good science and should be welcomed. If you don’t know the answer, admit it with honesty and integrity. Ask the audience for their input if you are unsure about a question asked. Don’t allow anyone to bully you at a conference. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

  1. Thank your audience and the organizers. Being gracious to the hosts and for the audience’s attention is always a good way to end your presentation.

After the meeting:

Remember that the goal of the meeting was to further your science. The steps after the meeting are critical. Here are my top suggestions:

  1. Do a de-brief of the conference at your home institution. Prepare power point slides while you are at the meeting and then when you return, give a presentation in your research group. 
  2. Identify your areas for growth and begin to make a plan on reading various papers or learning new skills that you realize after the conference are vital.
  3. Follow-up with participants by emailing them with any questions, or ideas for possible collaborations.

Most of all, enjoy the experience. Conferences make lifelong memories that add to the story of your life.