Things to do at a meeting

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.

viewing131Do 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.

7 Responses to “Things to do at a meeting”

  1. 1 Zach Miller 21/02/2009 at 11:30 am

    I felt too “newbie” at SVP last year to go up and introduce myself to several of my idols, including Phil Currie, Pete Larson, and Christopher Bennett. I did, however, fess up the courage to say hello to Greg Paul, which was awesome.

    I now feel bad that I didn’t talk to Phil Currie, because I totally had an in, there. He sent me a whole bunch of deinonychosaur papers when I was in college to help me with a paper I was doing. And I’ve actually met Pete Larson before, when he gave a talk in Anchorage a few years ago. As for Christopher Bennett, it just seems awkward to go up to somebody and say “I’m a big fan of your work!”

    There’s always SVP 2010…

  2. 2 David Hone 21/02/2009 at 12:05 pm

    I think it’s very common, and of course completely understandable, but not of much help. Of course if you are a PHD student in Europe, you only have three years to get your work done (or only one or two for Masters courses) and may only go to two or three meetings in your whole time, if you don’t speak to someone it can be a massive opportunity completely wasted. And let’s face it, few people are going to be insulted that you think their work is great!

  3. 3 mythusmage 21/02/2009 at 2:06 pm

    Here we have a topic of study for anthropologists, Tribalism in Science.

    But mostly it’s a primate trait in action. A bunch of late adolescent/young adult primates in awe of some impressive mature primates. It’s like summoning up the courage to talk to God, only without God’s approachability. 🙂

    Introduce yourselves by all means. Show your appreciation for his work, and how he’s influenced yours. Even at the greatly advanced age of 40 a fellow still has an ego after all. And don’t be so sure you can always see him next year. People have a distressing habit of dying at most any moment, and by next year your hero could be deceased. As could you.

  4. 4 David Hone 21/02/2009 at 2:19 pm

    Well, that cheered me up, thanks! 😉

  5. 5 Andy 21/02/2009 at 2:51 pm

    If you’re searching for grad schools (or post doctoral positions, or jobs). . .you absolutely should be attending those meetings and getting to know potential advisors or fellow grad students or future employers (beyond just letting them know that *you* exist)! More than a few schools landed in the “not going to apply there” list due to odd or unfriendly interactions, and more than a few bumped up a notch or two due to good interactions with faculty and students. Trust your gut on this kind of stuff – it’s usually right!

    And to follow up on mythusmage’s comment, I second the suggestion to make sure to meet to one’s “heroes.” I am forever thankful that I got the chance to meet John Ostrom (after a long correspondence starting when I was 11 or 12 years old, extending into my college years), and thank him for the impact he had on me.

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