International conferences are exciting, interesting and educational platforms for sharing the latest scientific developments in your field. The chances are, every specialism of healthcare science will have a European society representing the field and ergo, an annual conference occurring in (hopefully) some far-flung corner of the continent. I was lucky enough to be able to attend the European Society of Human Genetics annual conference this year in Gothenburg, Sweden. As my first international conference, I went in with very few expectations and learnt a lot- both in science and about the logistics and experience of attending a conference abroad. So, for this weeks’ post, I thought I could share some of the things I learned and things I might do differently next time.
- Get the opportunity to attend: Every STP trainee has a training budget, and fortunately, my department is happy to put any leftover budget (after university travel and accommodation) towards educational experiences, such as conferences. The ESHG annual conference is one of the biggest conferences in human genetics so the opportunity to attend was really exciting. This year I was able to attend without submitting an abstract for a talk or a poster, but I know that many departments look favourably on this, so if your department is on the fence about letting you attend, if you have an abstract accepted for the conference this is sure to sway things in your favour. Also being a member of the society hosting the conference and ensuring you’re asking for the early bird price are two additional things that may play in your favour. Every department works differently and I know some regions are unfortunately less inclined to let trainees attend conferences- but at the end of the day, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.
- Get everything organised: So you’ve got permission to attend the conference. Make sure you pay for the conference before the early bird price runs over! I very nearly missed the deadline due to an invoicing mistake I’d missed and it was a highly stressful Friday afternoon for me, and I’m sure a very frustrating one for the poor guy in the procurement department who had to rapidly sort it out for me! On top of that, you’ve got to think about transport and accommodation. I’m the kind of person who either does things way in advance or at the last minute- there is no middle ground. In general, with flights, the earlier you book them the cheaper they are, so just do that as soon as you get the chance. For accommodation, it’s always nice to see if there’s anyone you know going – someone from your department? Fellow trainees? – and you can either stay in the same hotel or get an Airbnb together (which will also bring costs down). Give yourself plenty of time for travel, the last thing you want is to explain to your department why you missed your flight!
- Find out where you’re going: I mean this both in the sense of physically where you’re going when you arrive; where is your accommodation? Where is the conference venue? Etc. etc. but also, what is the country like? This is for practical reasons like what kind of weather and environment to pack for. Also worth considering if you’d like to take some extra days annual leave and stick around for a while after the conference is over.
- Figure out your goal: I’m willing to bet that if you’re getting on a plane for a conference, it’s probably a pretty big one. That means that there are probably going to be lots of concurrent talks and you’re going to have to choose which ones to attend. It’s worth just considering from the off if there is a specific topic you want to learn about or maybe there’s a problem your department is having that you might be able to solve by attending a particular session or talking to someone at the conference. If you’re there with friends or colleagues, it’s tempting to just go wherever they are going, but don’t be afraid to go off on your own to the talks that you want to hear about.
- Download the app: These days most conferences will have an app you can download to your mobile which contains live updates on what’s going on and where. This is so much easier to use than a booklet, and since you’ll probably always have your phone on you, saves you having to carry around a program with you for the duration.
- Get free lunches: Now, I can’t guarantee this is the same at all conferences- I can’t even guarantee this is the case every year at ESHG. BUT, this year there were “satellite sessions” which were hosted by commercial partners essentially to promote their products and afterwards there were free packed lunches for delegates who attended the session. As a bonus the talks can also be really interesting – one of my favourite talks was actually part of an Oxford Nanopore satellite as the talks are often applications of the technology, not just about the technology itself.
- Let your hair down, enjoy yourself and the city: Conferences are jam-packed and conference fatigue is a thing. If you attend every workshop, talk and poster session going I can guarantee you’re going to burn out and definitely won’t learn as much as you could if you were more selective in attending talks. Of course you’re there for the science, but it’s ok to take an hour or so break to explore the host city- after all, it would be a shame not to. Conferences also sometimes have networking/social events in the evening and you should definitely go along, relax and have a free drink. I’m not saying go wild (or do- absolutely zero judgement here) but you don’t need to be 100% professional 100% of the time, it’s ok to chill out. This year ESHG had a “networking” party in a nightclub from which I may have got home from at 3am. Still made the 9am talks the next day though!
So there’s my take on my first international conference experience. Overall, I had a really good time and if you have the opportunity to attend one I would 100% recommend it. Remember part of the STP training is to experience conferences, network and engage with the scientific community and you’ve really got to make the most of the time as a trainee while you’re supernumerary and more likely to be allowed the time off.
Thanks so much for reading, and If anyone has any advice or experiences they’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.