7 Ways to Make to Most Out of Your First National Conference

A few weeks ago, I attended my first national conference, Botanical Society of America’s Botany 2013 Celebrating Diversity! (BSA) in New Orleans, LA. Here are 7 lessons I learned along the way:

1 )      Go to the big conferences, even if you don’t have a lot of data yet
I just finished up my first year of my PhD program, and I didn't have a lot of “real” data to speak of. So I did what I could, and presented a poster outlining my doctoral thesis proposal. Unexpectedly, I got so much valuable, constructive feedback from experts in my field.  I really valued this experience, because at this stage in my program, that feedback provided me with new perspectives on my project before I execute it. Plus, I got to know PI’s, post-docs, and graduate students from other universities that expressed interest in collaborating with me in the future.

2 )      Attend the student professional development luncheons, mixers, etc.
At BSA, there were ample opportunities provided to us as students, to get involved with the society, network with colleagues, and mentor undergraduates. One event that really stood out was the Student Involvement Luncheon, at which they set up a speed-dating style session with professionals that work in various aspects of Botany. Students rotated through tables of natural history museum curators, small liberal arts university faculty, and full-time researchers from Monsanto, large research universities and various governmental agencies. Talk about an opportunity to network—asking questions regarding everyday work environments and get advice on how to succeed in graduate school from successful professionals.
PLANTS Mentors and Mentees at BSA 2013, photo courtesy of Ann Sakai

3 )      Do your homework
Even though it seems daunting, read through all the titles (abstracts, if you are really good!) of presentations and names of presenting authors before you get to the conference. I recommend this for a few reasons: first so that you can create a personal conference schedule for yourself, second to maximize the talks you attend, and so you are aware of which researchers will be at the conference who work in your field. If you are brave, which you should be because everyone at the conferences loves talking to graduate students, plan which researchers you may want to approach to discuss your research throughout the conference.

4 )      Session-hop, but pace yourself
It seems that there are a couple approaches to conferences. You can sit in a session and stay for most of the presentations or you can hop between rooms all day dipping in and out of different sessions all day. Since this was my first time at BSA, I opted for session-hopping on day one and two-- that way I could get a better understanding of the breadth of the conference. I attended talks on paleobotany, taxonomy, tropical botany, ecology, science education, plant-animal interactions, to name a few. Especially since there are other national conferences that I am interested in attending annually, this method helped me better understand what types of research BSA represents. However, by the end of day two, I had racked up 3-4 talks every hour for 8 hours each day. You do the math--I was exhausted! The third day I opted to sit in on entire sessions. This approach worked really well for me because that was the day that the sessions particularly related to my thesis work. Also, I saw presentations that hadn’t piqued my interest in the agenda—some of which ending up being my favorite of the conference.

5  )      Come prepared with an “elevator speech”
Luckily I had a professor who made a point of getting us all to practice describing our research in an interesting and informative way in thirty seconds or less. Make sure that before you go to the conference, you can do this. Practice with you lab-mates, fellow graduate students, your non-science friends, family, or whoever you can get to listen. Make sure it is fast and doesn’t make eyes glaze over or create temporary memory loss. Also by practicing it, you will be less likely to stumble over your words and more likely to sound clever and confident while you are talking to that researcher whom you have been “stalking” all conference long.

6 )      Find ways to fund your trip or at least make it affordable
Most of the larger societies hosting national conferences have student grants available. These grant cycles are usually early, so make sure to check the website well before the conference. Also, some societies allow students to volunteer at the conference in exchange for reimbursing their registration fees. Your department or university graduate school may also have small grants available for travel or professional development. I got a grant from FCE (THANK YOU!) and a couple other smaller grants that helped offset the cost of my trip. Finally, two of my lab mates and I shared a hotel room, which made a huge difference! An alternative to that is staying in a nearby hostel instead of the conference hotel, but try to find one that is within walking distance to the conference.

7 )      Make time to enjoy the location of the conference
Lastly, there is nothing worse than going somewhere for four days and never leaving a hotel conference room. Make time during lunch or the evening to get out and experience where you are. Especially since I am a plant-geek and a field ecologist, I really can’t be inside all day without going a little stir crazy. But beyond getting some fresh air, it is important, because conferences may be some of the only times throughout graduate school that you get to go to visit new places (for free, if you’ve followed tip 6!). BSA was in NOLA, so my lab-mates and I made it a point to go out to eat lots of gumbo, crawfish etouffee, po’boys, muffalettas, and jambalaya. We also made the required trip to Café du Monde and even got to hear a jazz and a brass band! Also, we went with our advisor to the Audubon Insectarium--all without missing a single presentation.

I hope these tips help you in planning your next conference experience.


  1. These are great tips! I agree with all of them. And even if things don't go perfectly during your first conference, don't despair. Keep attending these conferences consistently and you will begin to form a community/family consisting of people with similar/complementary/completely different interests that will really become valuable as your research develops and later when you are almost finished and figuring out your next step. Attending presentations and speaking to people at conferences will really help you see where your research fits into the bigger picture, how you can contribute in the field, and what are the really hot emerging topics.

  2. All are very good points Julia! I found tip #3 and #5 the most difficult when I attended my fist large conference.


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