A student’s guide to International Conferences – how to survive and thrive!

By Elena Bollati

It feels like it’s months away for ages. Then all of a sudden the big day is upon you, it’s all everyone talks about, you can feel it in the air, and the work you had been meaning to do by then is still sitting on your desk in a nice, neat, untackled pile. Sounds just like regular Christmas excitement? Wrong, as this year the traditional December festivities have been replaced in our calendars by an even bigger celebration: the European Coral Reef Symposium.

It’s no overstatement. When you are a student starting out on what you hope will be a successful science career, there is no better Christmas present than a close encounter with some of the scientists that have inspired our passion for coral reefs.

Being a student at an international conference of this size can be exciting, overwhelming and terrifying at the same time. How do you choose which of the 25 sessions you want to sit in? Or is it best to pick individual talks and session hop until you drop? How should you pitch your presentation or poster, and will you be able to keep your nerves in check? If you are not sure what to expect, questions like these can keep you up at night.

My personal conference demon is networking. As a sufferer of the all too common impostor syndrome, I was always intimidated at the thought of introducing myself to someone whose work I admired. I still am. I hide behind the Great British Politeness of not wanting to disturb, then promise myself I will speak to them later, then regret my cowardice as soon as they disappear.

If this all sounds familiar, it’s no surprise. Most of us have felt this way at some point along our science journey, and it doesn’t say a thing about your future chances of success. Take Professor Madeleine van Oppen (University of Melbourne and Australian Institute of Marine Science), who says that gathering enough courage to approach a famous researcher was a major hurdle at the beginning of her career. She now leads one of the most ground-breaking scientific efforts to save coral reefs, and this year will be delivering the closing plenary at ECRS.

To help myself and my fellow ISRS students facing a daunting first rodeo (or second, or third), I have asked the experts for their best advice. Here are their tips on how to survive (more, to succeed!) ECRS and any other international conference.

DON’T – be afraid to approach people That’s what everybody is there for. But try to have something specific to talk about rather than randomly approaching senior scientists for the sake of networking.

DO – contact people in advance Having meetings already set up will help you keep your schedule organized, and will ensure the researchers you most want to speak to have a time slot saved up for you. Not to mention it’s much harder to chicken out if you have already committed to a meeting!

DO – invite people to your talk A personal tip from Dr Gal Eyal (The Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences, Eilat, and Tel Aviv University), who has established successful collaborations this way. He reckons that personally inviting the experts in your field can make them feel more committed to attend.

DON’T – corner anybody Don’t forget everybody is pretty busy at conferences, and right now might not be the best time for a chat. They might be in the middle of chairing a session, or about to give a talk and going over it in their head. If this is the case, give them a chance to postpone to a time when they can give you their full attention.

DO – use Twitter “It helps me to mentally bookmark things and it’s a good tool to read about experiences of other people at a conference” says Professor Christian Voolstra (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology).

DON’T – get hammered Yes a drink might help you pluck up the courage and start a conversation, but missing half the talks due to a raging hangover will do your networking no good. Neither will falling over in front of someone who could one day give you a job!

DO – bring business cards And maybe a short summary of your work for potential collaborators. Some might get binned straight away, but you only need one to end up in the right place (but make them eco-friendly just in case).

DO – practise your talk It is the number one cure for jelly legs and pounding heart when you step onto the podium. It sounds obvious, yet way too many people miss the trick!

DO – enjoy your time You wouldn’t be at an international coral reef conference if you weren’t passionate and driven. Relax. Be yourself. It will show.

So this year, my conference resolution is to follow Professor Voolstra’s advice, find one good thing to bring home with me and treasure for future research. Maybe ECRS will be a bit like Christmas after all.


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