The LCGC Blog: So You’re Attending Your First Meeting. What Can You Expect?

ColumnJanuary 2024
Volume 20
Issue 1
Pages: 23–26

André Striegel offers some sage advice to newcomers to the separation science community who are attending their first scientific conference.

Let’s say you are a graduate student attending your first conference, or one of your first. Congratulations! This might be a large conference with many thousands of attendees, such as Pittcon or a national American Chemical Society (ACS) meeting, or a smaller, more-focused conference with just a few hundred attendees. Perhaps your advisor or other members of your group are also attending, or perhaps not. Regardless, this is something exciting for you: You get a chance to finally showcase your hard work! You get a chance to meet some of those people (Big Names in Your Field) whose papers you’ve been reading! You (finally) get a chance to travel on somebody else’s dime! What can you expect from the conference? What should you do there? How easy will it be to meet people? In trying to answer these and other questions in this blog, we will do so with an eye to getting the most out of your conference experience, rather than simply describing conference details, especially as many of the latter tend to be meeting-specific. With that as preamble, and in no particular order, let’s start examining some of the rumors you may have heard about conferences from, for example, fellow students.

“An oral slot is much better than a poster, and getting a poster slot is like being told your work is second-rate.” Is this true?

Much to my surprise, I found out during my time in academia that this tends to be true in many of the liberal arts fields. It is, however, far from the truth in scientific and engineering meetings. Certainly, many well-known senior scientists are likely to be given oral slots, either because they provide name recognition for a particular session or because of their engaging speaking style. As for students, who gets a poster and who gets an oral slot will likely be based more on conference logistics than on any value assessment of someone’s work. Indeed, I would make the case that, in many ways, presenting a poster is much better than giving a talk. Let me explain: Your talk will likely be a 15- to 20-minute slot. If people can’t make it to your talk, they’ve missed it. A poster, on the other hand, is there for hours, if not an entire day, and you will be expected to be present for an hour or more. Also, for a talk, there are maybe 5 minutes available for questions and answers at its conclusion. With a poster, you have the opportunity for meaningful, lengthy exchanges with visitors and time to network with them (networking will be a recurring theme of this blog).

Can you really enjoy the conference before your presentation is in the rear-view mirror?

While this shouldn’t be true, it probably will be at your first meeting, and for at least a few thereafter. At this point, and from your point of view, the “meeting” is really “your presentation.” You are nervous and anxious, but as long as these feelings don’t become overwhelming, this is okay. As far as I’m concerned, being a bit nervous is an indication that you care about your presentation. I’ve witnessed the flip side of this during my time in industry—one PhD candidate interviewing for a position spoke in such a monotone, and showed such little feeling or excitement during his interview talk, that we all left thinking the same thing: “Does this person even care about his own research?” Trust me on this: If you don’t seem to care about your own research, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to make your audience care.

However, if you are scheduled to present on the last day of a conference or thereabouts, do try and enjoy the rest of the meeting and make the most of it. Perhaps look at it this way: You now have a chance to talk up your presentation for a few days to everyone you meet in the lead-up to your “performance.”

What about when everyone seems to know everybody else—but you know nobody, and nobody knows you?

If this is a small conference, there will likely be a welcome reception. This is less likely at large conferences, and the same is true for conference banquets. At this point, it will likely seem to you that everyone there knows everyone, except that (as stated above) you know nobody, and nobody knows you. All those Big Names you were hoping to speak to, and everyone else whose papers you’ve read and had hoped to meet? They are speaking with each other in seemingly tight-knit groups and laughing up a storm. You, on the other hand, are standing around by yourself with a plate of cheese, crackers, and some small nondescript comestible wrapped in puff pastry in one hand and a drink in the other, while playing with your swizzle stick (in your third hand?). This is not the way you had hoped things would go.

What to do? Well, go meet people! I know that doing this is easier for some of us than for others, a task which can become even more difficult if English (the “official” language of most conferences) is not your native language. However, just because it is difficult, intimidating even, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do it. Perhaps find another group of students and engage them in conversation. You are sure to have much in common; if nothing else, you probably all have similar complaints about your graduate advisors! Or, if you see one of the people with whom you hoped to speak standing by herself or himself, or at the end of the line for refreshments (but not, for heaven’s sake, when that person is on their way to the restroom), go and introduce yourself. You can tell them about some of their papers you’ve read and how much you enjoyed them and learned from them (trust me, everybody loves flattery). Mention who you work for and what kind of research you are doing, though the other person will hopefully ask you about these first. If you have a question, ask it. Most important, listen to the other person. Truly listen. Don’t just stand there waiting for the other person to stop speaking so that you can start speaking again, trying to continue to impress. Remember (now and always) the old dictum: Nobody ever learned anything by speaking. If you are nearing the end of your graduate studies and seeking, for example, a postdoc or an industrial position, and your interlocutor is a professor or an industrial scientist, ask them politely about opportunities in their lab or company. If there are none, so be it. Otherwise, ask if it would be okay for you to send them your CV/resume. Oh, and make sure to mention your presentation on the last day of the conference.

Meeting people requires some courage; lots of it, for some of us. Mastering the art of small talk requires practice. The good news is, as you become a more seasoned conference attendee, there will be more and more people you know. Indeed, you will be glad to see these people and vice versa. I have many colleagues around the world whom I would also consider good friends. Some I’ve known for decades, and though we may only see each other sporadically, we enjoy each other’s company at conferences, know about each other’s families, try to schedule activities together when at meetings, and know we can e-mail or call each other freely. Let me thus fast-forward you to that day, with one piece of accompanying advice: When the day comes that you are at a meeting with your longtime friends and colleagues, standing around in a tight-knit group and laughing up a storm, see if there is a lonely graduate student standing around and invite her or him to join you.

Is it a good idea to stick by your advisor or people from your research group as much as possible, if not all the time, so that at least this way, you’ll be with people you know?

This is tempting, but remember: You see these people every day in the lab! Now is the time to go out and meet new people (which, as stated above, will likely require some degree of courage, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it). If you have a good advisor (and let’s assume you do) who is also at the conference, that person will try and make sure to introduce you to senior people with interest in your work or with whom you may be interested in working post-graduation. When I was in academia, I would tell the students I would bring to a conference that, outside of introductions and getting together one evening for a dinner with current and former group members, I didn’t want to see them around me; rather, I wanted them to be out meeting people.

Some say, “You only need to attend on the day of your presentation. Beyond that, it’s sightseeing time.”

I realize this is not a particularly widespread attitude among students, but I have seen it enough times that I thought it merited mention here. Bottom line: Don’t do this. Certainly, if you can, take a day or so of your own time (and on your own dime) to enjoy whatever city you are in. Otherwise, make the most of your conference time by networking (!), attending talks, visiting posters, speaking with vendors, etc.

That famous person looks A LOT different than their photo on the internet!

For better or for worse, many of us (and I most certainly include myself in this cohort) are not particularly great about updating our photos on our professional websites, either due to vanity or laziness (let’s assume the latter). That means that a lot of those Big Names you were hoping to meet may be barely recognizable if you are using their professional photo as a reference. Some may currently bear virtually no resemblance to said photo. For example, you can assume that, if their professional photo looks like this, they have not updated it in a while!

Do you need to attend other presentations in your session, especially if they aren’t of interest to you?

Here, we encounter a bit of a gray area. Generally, the people whom I see most often engaging in this type of behavior are vendors (though certainly not all vendors), who often are only in a session to “plug” their product and who want or need to get back to their booth. I admit, I generally find it offensive when a person presents and then just leaves, but maybe that’s just me. When I have had to do this myself, it’s usually been because I had a plane to catch, and I made a point of apologizing from the podium to future session presenters. Sometimes this may happen to you, or there may be a presentation in a different session that you feel you really must attend. In such cases, so be it. Leave. Otherwise, I would suggest you have the courtesy to stay for the other presentations in your session, as you would have wanted others to do for your talk.

As long as you gave your presentation, does your advisor care what you did at the conference?

Trust me, if your advisor sent you to the conference, that person wants to know what you did there, what you learned, who you met, etc. At some point during the week after you return from the conference, or during the first week both you and your advisor are on campus, stop by your advisor’s office and update her or him on your experience.

While we’re on the topic of your advisor…

You are not your advisor; that is, her/his fame is not yours. Is that true?

It feels nice to name-drop when you are working for someone famous, and having a well-known advisor (for the right reasons) may indeed attract more people to your poster or talk. However, do not confuse your advisor’s fame for your own. You need to earn yours! Be proud of the research you have done and of the person for whom you work, but don’t be cocky—you still haven’t earned that right. Hopefully, though, once you become famous, you will remember that humility will get you farther than will cockiness.

And lastly…

Is giving your presentation the only real reason you are at the conference?

Why are you attending this conference? Duh! To present a poster or give a talk, obviously: No!

While, as mentioned earlier, it may seem to you that the entire conference revolves around your presentation and you can’t truly enjoy the conference until said presentation has concluded, the real reasons your advisor has sent you to this meeting are 1) to get some experience presenting and attending conferences, and 2) most importantly, to network. I cannot overemphasize this last point: You absolutely need to get out there during a conference and meet people! Again, I realize this is a bigger challenge for some than for others, but it is a challenge which can and must be overcome.

At this point, and perhaps earlier in this blog, you have probably asked yourself the following question: What’s with all the harping on networking and the importance thereof? The answer to this fundamental query is based both on extensive personal experience and countless conversations with a veritable plethora of colleagues across disciplines over the years. Put quite simply (a more in-depth answer could easily be the subject of an entirely different blog), establishing a network of known associates is going to be the best way to get your name out there, to advertise yourself and your work, to gain a support group of people who can truly relate to what you do and what you may be going through at any particular stage in your career, to hear about job openings, and much more. So, take advantage of the wonderful networking opportunities that attending a conference presents, including divisional and subdivisional socials, vendor suites, poster mixers, and plain conversing with people at your or their poster or during session breaks. It will be among the best time investments of your career!

Now, enjoy the conference!

André M. Striegel obtained his bachelor’s and PhD in chemistry from the University of New Orleans. He performed postdoctoral research at the USDA’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research and then worked for a number of years in the chemical industry for Solutia Inc. (now Eastman Chemical). From industry he went on to Florida State University, where he was assistant professor of both analytical and materials chemistry. Since 2011, he has been at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where he is currently Scientific Advisor in the Chemical Sciences Division. André is the author of over 90 peer-reviewed scientific publications, lead author of the second edition of Modern Size-Exclusion Liquid Chromatography, editor of the book Multiple Detection in Size-Exclusion Chromatography, past associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Analytical Chemistry and, since 2015, editor of Chromatographia. He has received a number of awards, including the inaugural ACS-DAC Award for Young Investigators in Separation Science, and was also inaugural Professor in Residence for Preservation Research and Testing at the US Library of Congress. His interests lie principally in the area of macromolecular separations, both fundamental and applied.