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Attending a conference as a PhD researcher? Simple tips to make the most out of the experience

Karishma Kaushik

In this PhD café article, Karishma S Kaushik, IndiaBioscience, recounts her transformative experience at an American Society for Microbiology (ASM) conference during her PhD, highlighting mentorship, networking, and professional growth. She emphasises the conference’s value beyond scientific input, offering tips for maximising benefits, including attending diverse sessions, and following up post the event.

Ph D Cafe article KSK
Attending a conference as a PhD researcher? Simple tips to make the most out of the experience

My first conference as a PhD researcher was the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) Annual General Meeting in San Francisco, USA. I had just returned to bench work after having a baby, and my research on the effect of amphipathic molecules on biofilm formation was yet to get direction. I was also seriously considering whether I wanted to continue in the PhD program. As I designed my poster for the meeting, with very preliminary results, I found myself pondering, for more than one reason, what I would be doing at the meeting. Over a decade later, I look back at the conference as a turning point in my career. 

Karishma Kaushik's poster at The ASM Microbe 2017. Picture Credit: Karishma Kaushik.
Karishma Kaushik’s poster at ASM Microbe. Picture Credit: Karishma Kaushik.

At a breakfast mentoring session of the meeting, structured like a speed dating’ circuit, PhD students had the opportunity to interact with early-career researchers and senior scientists across various fields of Microbiology. After a few conversations, I summoned the courage to discuss the possibility of mastering out’ of the PhD program with a senior colleague on the same table. The scientist (a complete stranger) very honestly shared their views about career opportunities with a Master’s versus a PhD, concluding with a memorable line that stayed with me.

Now that you’re in the PhD, if you can, stay the course. You’ll see the other side.”

Later in the day, I attended a discussion related to doing Microbiology in hard places, including the Global South, with women scientists from across the world showcasing their professional stories. The stories spanned attempting to build a Molecular Biology laboratory in Yemen, returning to Kenya as a faculty, and running a group that supports women researchers in Pakistan. I do not remember much of the science at that meeting, but I returned inspired and energised to continue my PhD. 

While these were sessions I happened to attend’ at the meeting, the experience taught me the value of a conference, not only for the scientific input (which it will very likely bring forth) but also for networking, mentorship, and professional advancement. So, what are some simple tips to make the most of a conference as a PhD researcher?

1. Interactive elements to your poster or slides: Your poster or talk serves to share your research and present you as a professional. Simple enhancements like including a QR code linking to your publications, resume, lab website, or personal webpage can increase engagement, generate interest, and facilitate follow-up conversations.

2. Preparing or practicing your elevator pitch: If you already have an elevator pitch, it’s beneficial to practice it a few times to ensure you’re comfortable delivering it. If not, crafting concise and direct lines about yourself and your work for meetings with colleagues is essential.

3. Business cards and Smart resumes: Despite the shift toward digital communication, a physical business card or smart resume (a small card with basic details and a QR code to your full resume) remains a valuable tool to initiate conversations and serve as a parting exchange while concluding an interaction. Another approach is an e‑business card that can be air-dropped or emailed.

4. Sending an email to someone you want to meet before the conference: Conference schedules and abstract books published in advance provide an opportunity to craft your individual plan for the meeting. Alongside scheduling scientific sessions to attend, proactively reaching out via email to colleagues you wish to meet can facilitate setting up a mutual time (if they respond) or serve as a convenient icebreaker when meeting them at the conference (‘I sent you an email; I’m XYZ’).

5. Attending a wide range of sessions: While scientific sessions typically take precedence during a meeting, other sessions like mentorship pods, networking lounges, and talks on visas and immigration for scientists, can offer valuable insights. They are often scheduled at the end of the day or towards the end of the meeting, but making time to attend these sessions can open up broader insights and opportunities.

6. Joining conversations with colleagues you may not know: Engaging with colleagues you haven’t met or only know through their work might seem daunting, especially as a young researcher. From my experience, joining a group discussion, and contributing when comfortable, can serve as an effective icebreaker. It’s also crucial not to confine interactions solely to your lab group (if traveling together) or colleagues from a particular region, for example, your home country. Doing so could mean missing out on valuable opportunities to meet new peers and expand your scientific network.

7. Staying the course of the conference: In multiple-day meetings, dropping off the conference schedule after a few days is tempting (sightseeing, anyone?). Based on my experience, spontaneous coffee conversations and invitations for dinners often happen towards the end of the meeting, with attendees becoming more familiar with each other. While these sideline’ meetups can lead to collaborations and opportunities for professional development, they are also an excellent way to reflect on the conference proceedings and discuss plans for future meetings.

8. Following up with emails after the meeting: Finally, it is always a good idea to follow up with emails to colleagues and organisers after the meeting, even if there are no concrete plans to work together. These can be Thank you for a great meeting’, Good to meet you’ or Look forward to being in touch’ emails, which will ensure an exchange of email addresses, and provide a means to maintain conversation till the next meeting or reinitiate correspondence when a collaborative opportunity arises.

A rookie to large meetings, I had forgotten to exchange email addresses with the scientist I met at the breakfast table. I was fortunate that, a few years later at a subsequent ASM meeting, I encountered her again. Approaching her, I recounted the earlier incident, expressing my gratitude, I did see the other side of the PhD, thank you for your inputs.’ Her response was a simple, Well, that’s what conferences are for.’