JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING
Well, it's been a rather hectic spring/summer/fall and it's time to get back down to the nitty-gritty. I'm hoping for a boost of motivation; we'll see how long that takes. Given all of my travels to conferences of late, I thought I might take the time to give a synopsis of some of the things that I've observed on the conference circuit.
All Conferences Are NOT Created Equal
I was able to attend four different types of conference this year: The small, intimate, topic-specific conference; the large smorgasbord conference, with many subtopics; the brief workshop; and the community-building, supportive fellowship conference. All have their place, and I gained a great deal from each. I actually presented work at three of these conferences (a poster at the small conference and a talk at both the workshop and the fellowship conference), which was well received. There's nothing like having someone outside your circle acknowledge your hard work to get you back in the lab to produce more.
Small, Specialized, and Spectacular
From the small, topic-specific conference, I was able to make and renew a number of contacts in my field with professors on the cutting edge of research. It was here that I found out about the new area that has me itching to switch projects (see chapter 19  and chapter 20  in this series). This was a place to seek out potential mentors and soak up a little of the collective brilliance of my small scientific neighborhood, as well as rub elbows with bigwigs while showing what I (and my advisor) had been able to accomplish. It also gave me a chance to see the tangled nature of professorial relationships: These people went to graduate school together; those did a postdoc at the same time; that person really is a tyrant; Dr. X now works with Professor Y. You also get a chance to check out the competition, because--let's admit it--science is not purely an academic pursuit free from outside pressures. There is money to be won, and most of the people at this conference are competing for a particular set of the research dollars. My, the stories that come out once a few people have downed a few rounds of alcoholic refreshment.
Large and Resource-Full
The larger conference was quite a beast to tame. When you have more than 10,000 scientists in one space there's a great deal to see and do; a little too much actually, especially if you're bouncing from convention hall to hotel to convention hall again. This, though, is an opportunity to see snatches of work outside of your area but still related to your field; and (if you're presenting) you get to present your work to a diverse crowd. The thing that was a little unsettling, though, is the speed at which it is decided whether your talk is worthy or not. If people aren't hooked in the first few slides, they will leave. There are 15 other people they might like to see speaking at the same time.
Often these larger conferences have career counseling centers. If you're on the job market, this should be one of your pit-stops. If nothing else, you can practice your interview techniques and look at prospective companies in your area at the career center. They are your captive audience; take the time to shine.
Tiny and Particular
The workshop I attended was a small, 1-day affair at which I gave my first public talk to people in my area in a less formal setting. It was intimate, more like a practice ground for graduate students to cut their teeth than a full-blown conference. For people trying to make themselves comfortable in front of people, these workshops can be a great way to get started. These are a great way make local contacts for people in your area as well.
Just Students, Like You and Me
I just got back from a fellowship conference. If you happen to obtain a fellowship that does this sort of thing, take advantage of this opportunity. It's golden. The chance to speak with other fellows in science and outside of it without the threat of a lurking advisor was soothing for the soul. Talking to others going through the graduate school process in such an informal environment was great. Presenting my work to a broader audience reminds me that I am part of a large community of scholars. That's reassuring.
1. You get out what you put in. If all you do is go to your talk or poster session and then go out carousing the rest of the time, completely disregarding the conference schedule, you won't get much out of the conference. You kind of owe it to yourself and to your advisor to be in the zone for at least 75% to 80% of the conference--especially if a lab grant paid your way. If you're footing the bill, get your money's worth! This is not to say that you should hit every talk and not make time for fun, but you should remember why you came and take advantage of the professional opportunities the conference offers. Make sure you schedule things that are important to you--a new field you're interested in, a professor that you want to meet, a panel discussion that's relevant to your present or your future, a poster on research that's related to yours--make your time count! You're not in the lab, so spend some time on the rest of your life.
2. Creating community is important. So network! I don't care if you don't like it! Don't be afraid to take the initiative and introduce yourself to someone--a possible future postdoc advisor or mentor or collaborator. The worst thing that could happen is they could ignore you. If someone has an interesting history and you'd like to find out more about it, ask. People love to talk about themselves. Besides, it is still who you know, at least as much as what you know, that will get you to where you want to go.
3. Rest, recoup, regroup, and get ready to roll. Conference-going can be exhausting. I find I need at least half a day to recover after hardcore conferencing. It takes energy to get out and meet people. So take the time to rest; you'll need the energy when you get back to work! I also find that having a game plan helps. Organizing isn't as taxing as reading, so start there, or lab cleaning, anything that is productive but not too much on the brain, so that it (your brain) has time to process and file away your experiences.
For those of you still on the conference warpath, good luck! For those of you still hidden in the lab, I hope you'll get out and see the sun soon. As for me, I'll be hunkered down in the lab; my travels for the year have ended.