How to: Nail conferences as a trainee


Conferences can be interesting, exciting, informative and even inspiring. But they can also be a little bit daunting and definitely exhausting. I’m feeling very slightly conferenced-out at the moment, having attended 2 back-to-back last week and knowing I’m attending another meeting next week. It’s safe to say there is only so much information my brain can hold so I’m lucky none of my shoes were lace-ups last week.

So, I thought since I’m now basically a pro at navigating the conference scene, I could share with other trainees some of my experiences for getting the most out of conferences. (N.B. I’m definitely not a pro at navigating the conference scene, so I’m taking the stance of “do as I say, not as I do”. But these are things I try to do to not totally waste my time at a conference. I hope these pointers are still useful to you).

Don’t be afraid to network: It is scary- I’m always worried I will say something stupid and embarrass myself. However, the chances are- what you say probably isn’t as bad as you think it is and the person you’re talking to will be pleased you’re taking an interest in their work. At conferences, you will often meet incredibly intelligent people- but they might not have a clue about your specialist area. That doesn’t make them stupid, so it doesn’t make you stupid either. As a trainee, it is important to build up a network of connections to find opportunities for electives, collaborations for your masters’ project or even post-STP jobs *Gasp!* Leaving the NHS?! Not necessarily as there often are NHS staff at these events but even still- it doesn’t hurt to keep your options open.

So what if I’ve told you all this but you’re still worried about networking? Here are some techniques I’ve found have helped me get the guts to talk to someone at a conference.

  • If you’re lucky enough to have a friend/colleague with you who really is a networking pro, ask if you can tag along with them for a little bit to see how they start a conversation. Make sure you get involved in the conversation though- there’s nothing worse than just looking like you’re just eavesdropping!
  • Tweet about the conference, and tweet @people! If you’re worried about taking the first step in person to someone who just gave a great talk, why not tweet them, tell them you thought their talk was great and you would like to have a conversation with them after. Worst case scenario: they ignore your tweet and you never have to see them again. You can even delete your tweet if you’re feeling that scorned. Best case scenario: They thank you, you have a great chat and they end up offering you an amazing job with great pay meaning you can retire early to the Caribbean. Worth the risk?
  • Posters are a great way to start a conversation. Poster sessions give people a chance to go and talk to people about their work and often they’re there because they want to do just that. If you really don’t want to initiate a conversation, just walk up to a poster and start reading it. The super-easy way of starting a conversation is “so would you mind walking me through your poster?” Hopefully, their explanation will give you some more questions to continue the conversation.
  • Don’t forget to be ready with an explanation of what you do! Yes, you’re there to meet and talk to lots of interesting people but you’re interesting too. You might be surprised by how many people are interested in the training we receive as STP’s- particularly international scientists.

Twitter: Like I said, twitter can be a great tool for networking, but it is also great for conferences for so many reasons. These days a lot of conferences will have a designated hashtag that you can follow and tweet. If you follow along while you’re at the conference, you can tweet things that are happening for interested colleagues who weren’t able to attend. Other people do the same thing too, even “live-tweeting” the entire event. This is essentially making your conference notes for you: 280 character chunks of the most important parts of people’s talks. You can use this to help with your own notes if you’re choosing to make them or to look back on the week after when you’ve remembered how to tie your shoe laces and therefore forgotten everything you learned at the conference.

Conferences can be exhausting- allow yourself to have a break. Full-on lectures all day, poster sessions and networking in any and all coffee breaks will take its toll on you. And by day 3 people will think they’re networking with a zombie. As great as it is to network and absorb as much information as possible- be kind to yourself- don’t feel guilty for taking that coffee break to just sit away from the crowds or zoning out on that one talk (that wasn’t even relevant to you anyway). You’ll learn and enjoy a lot more if you’re alert and don’t feel like you’re forcing yourself to listen or talk to people.

Finally, before you attend, look at the agenda and decide exactly what it is you’re hoping to gain from the conference. Is it to learn about a new cutting-edge technique? Is it to make 2 new contacts at a particular company? Is it to simply eat and drink as much free* food and drink as possible? (*not free- you paid for it in your conference fee!). Having a set goal for what you want to get out of the conference can make you more likely to achieve it. Also, some conferences will have multiple rooms with talks happening concurrently. It’s good to plan ahead so you don’t end up missing a talk you really wanted to see.

So in summary: Talk, tweet, rest, repeat. Oh and set some goals.

I hope this was useful to our readers. Networking at conferences is still something I struggle with and my trainee network (SWHCSTN) are hoping to put a networking workshop into their next professional practice event. If you’re a South West trainee and are interested make sure you look out for details. If you’re not a South West trainee, why not talk to your network about having a workshop like this? Remember, you can only get good at something by being bad at it first.

Thanks for reading!

Author: Jes

I am a trainee clinical bioinformatician working at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. I am passionate about increasing awareness and discussion about healthcare science and particularly the routes into the field.

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