So you have sent your abstract in and prepared your poster or your talk, but what else should you do at a meeting? This might sound like a facetious question, and the answer might appear to be so blindingly obvious as to almost be insulting, but I think many people waste opportunities at their first few meetings because they are afraid of making a mistake in public, or are even overwhelmed by what is going on. I often see groups of students hanging around together and discover they are all from the same university or research group – you might only get one chance in the next two years to speak to a researcher five feet from you but you spend the time with guys you see every day. This then should provide a few ideas, or at least act as a reminder as to how to get the most from a meeting:
Do present at a meeting if you can. Don’t just turn up, but give a presentation or take a poster. Don’t worry if it’s not great or the most interesting thing ever, you will gain a lot of experience from it, even if your abstract is rejected or your poster is terrible. Most people’s early efforts aren’t great, so don’t be afraid to make a mistake.
Listen to talks and read posters. Again, this is obvious, but it’s easy to get distracted and miss whole sessions of talks, or just glance over a few posters and not read them in depth. If it’s a big meeting, plan ahead so that you make sure you get to see everything you want to. Make sure you take notes too, you won’t remember everything the next day, let alone six months later when you want to refer to a talk, or contact someone about their work.
Do talk to people. It can be really intimidating to go and speak to a senior researcher (or personal idol) you have never met but make the most of the opportunity. If you have a question or request, then ask. The vast majority of people are happy to take time to talk to you and are friendly and welcoming. They will answer your questions and offer help and advice. Even if they are not too nice, the worst they can say is no, which leaves you in the same place as not asking. I spent years thinking I was lucky as everyone in academia I spoke to was really helpful till I realised that actually pretty much everyone is like that. Don’t just target specific people, but make sure you socialise in general – meet people and find out who they are and what they are doing. There will be other students or researchers out there who aren’t speaking, but who are working in fields that overlap with yours. If you only hunt down speakers, or target only the flight guys or whatever you will miss them.
Don’t just meet and talk to people, but get their contact details. Make sure you send them an e-mail after the meeting thanking them for their time and if necessary giving them a gentle nudge to send you PDFs, datasets or whatever was discussed. People are helpful, but not everyone remembers to send that pile of papers to the frightened looking postgrad in the corner a week and one conference drinking session later. This also really helps them to remember you and makes a great impression. If you are looking for a job / grant / sponsor / research collaborator etc. later down the line it will help enormously if people a) can remember who you are, and b) think you are a nice polite person.
If you have the time and money to go to a meeting, make the effort to do so. But don’t just turn up – it can be an excellent opportunity to meet people, make friends and contacts, and gain valuable information about your work and that of others. If you just listen to a few talks and chat to your friends you will get out only 10% of what you might otherwise, even if it appears to be more fun than listening to a talk on fish taxonomy or less risky than talking to a senior professor and asking a stupid question. Do go, and do make the most of it.