It's 7 a.m. and I'm in a strange bedroom. I know I have to get up to face a very large free breakfast and a long first day at my conference. My colleagues from the lab are in rooms down the hall. When I left them in the bar last night they were getting in the next round of drinks, so I don't expect to see them this side of lunch. Still, I have a busy day of networking ahead of me, and I have a plan to help me extract the maximum value from my conference. After I left the bar last night, I took a highlighter pen to my newly acquired book of abstracts. At least I now know which talks I want to see this morning. I'll go through this afternoon's sessions during this morning's break, and then this evening I'll try to make my selections for the remainder of the week.
At 9 a.m. I'm sitting wide-eyed in a vast conference room waiting for the first speaker. I've noticed that some people seem to sit through whole sessions while others seem to flit from talk to talk. I've always found too many different interesting things in the programme to take the former approach. You can never predict what you will hear about in advance--in the past, some of my best ideas have come from sitting in on talks on seemingly unrelated topics. But this approach means I'll have to 'leg it' at top speed in an hour's time down some very long corridors to get to my next talk. And I'll doubtless be repeating this feat often during the week. All very exciting, but equally stressful. The only consolation is that it gives me something to aim for. The prospect of spending my whole day, in the same seat, listening to people from the same field fill's me with a sense of dread. It's nice to know I'll have a chance to stretch my legs soon. During this first talk I've jotted down a few keywords below the relevant abstract. This way I don't have to write down all the names and titles. I'm not a meticulous note keeper and I need time to absorb the visual impact of a presentation.
Hold on! What did they just say? At 3.30 p.m. my ears prick up during a talk that I almost didn't bother with. The speaker has just cast a ray of light into the very heart of my research. I have to speak to this person to find out more. At the next break, I grab a quick coffee and spot my speaker in a small crowd of people. There's a short queue of people waiting to get in before me, but I hover persistently. At last my chance arrives and I move in for a chat. With the briefest of introductions we're up and running. We only have time for the barest of detail but I've made contact. Perhaps I saw a glimmer of excitement in their eyes when I told them about my work. This person is now at the top of my list of new contacts to e-mail when I get home. On this occasion I decide not to suggest a social meeting like lunch. They said they'd track me down at the poster session and I don't want to be seen as too pushy.
The following evening I'm at the poster session. This is the best way to get around lots of different people quickly. I've already used a couple of breaks to scout around the poster hall in advance. This way I've been able to have a good look without crowds of people hanging around. I made a list of all the poster numbers that I wanted a longer look at and any that I specifically wanted to speak to the author about. I remember to keep an eye out for the inevitable late arrivals--someone always puts their poster up late. Early in the conference I tried to cross-reference my selected talk abstracts with my poster abstract 'targets'. I find I get much more out of a poster if I've heard any talk as well, and vice versa. During lulls in the evening, I stop 'camping out' at my own poster  and make a beeline to the people I want to see. I have to repeat my little tour several times to make contact with as many people on my list as possible. It's a shame that some of the authors don't even bother to turn up for the session. They're probably in the bar! At least I've managed to keep the time I have to spend away from my own poster to a minimum. I don't want to miss any potential 'customers', least of all my several new contacts! If I miss them I miss their feedback and their fresh ideas.
The next day I'm wandering around the trade exhibition when I spot a very unlikely looking character sitting behind one of the stands. Many people seem to have a subconscious rule to never talk to people sitting behind a desk at conferences. They must be trying to sell you something, right? Well that may often be true, but even trade exhibitors may still have information that could help you, so I dive in for a quick chat. I walk away 10 minutes later with a few ideas to ponder and a nice selection of freebies!
It's 10.30 p.m. on the third day. All this networking is tiring me out. My colleagues from the lab have decided to burn the midnight oil in the bar as well as attempting 'full-on' days of listening to talks. They'll be guaranteed to return home absolutely wrecked and in no state to do any work. Worse still, they'll probably doze off during one of the talks they especially wanted to hear. I make a rule to go easy on myself and I set aside some time not only for sleep, but also for relaxation. I decide to hop on a bus tomorrow to get away from it all for some good old retail therapy. Right now I'm off to read a novel and watch some junk TV. This time off will pay rich dividends, as I know I'll be rested and alert in the morning. This conference isn't over yet!
One final word, on conference food. It may be good or it may be bad, but it's usually free. So don't overindulge in cooked meals--there's nothing more sleep-inducing than a big lunch followed by a traditional pudding with custard. I speak from experience. Go for the salad!