5 Tips for Early Career ESA Attendees

August 20, 2018

When I first went to the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), I was overwhelmed. The conference is huge by the standards of most ecological conferences, boasting around 3000 ecologists in attendance each year. It stretches on for five and a half days with dozens of concurrent sessions, hundreds of posters, and mixers most evenings.

As a newcomer, especially if you are not traveling with someone who is both social and conference savvy, this can make for a lonely experience which is only amplified by the swirling masses of people around you. It is tempting to disengage, to either pack your schedule with talks or to give up and just spend some time seeing the city in which the conference is hosted that particular yearNot that you shouldn’t make some time for that too!.

A big part of the reason I am writing this post is to encourage an alternative approach and to let you know that it does get better with time. This year was my third visit to ESA, and the first time that I actually enjoyed the experience. On previous occasions I had tagged along with my adviser or postdocs in the lab, being briefly introduced to their friends and colleagues, but, not being very social myself, not getting much beyond that cursory introduction. In reflecting over my experience this year, I have come up with a list of tips that might help others who feel similarly as they begin a career in academia where conference attendance is an essential component of both sharing research and career progression.

1. Plan ahead, but be flexible

Most conferences, ESA included will put out a schedule ahead of time with the titles of talks and sessions. Look through this before getting to the conference and you will save yourself a bunch of stress and missed opportunities. I’ve found it useful to have some sense of ranking in the things you want to attend, such that you know where to cut when you inevitably end up double-booking some timeslot. I’ve seen people highlight or mark on the physical program you get at registration, add events to their calendar application-of-choice, or use the official meeting app. However you end up doing it, remember that this schedule is more of a suggestion and safety blanket than a set of expectations. You want to be able to drop everything and grab a coffee with that expert on a technique you have been looking to implement or the speaker from the brilliant talk you just saw. Speaking of which…

2. Don’t be afraid to skip talks

At first glance, conferences appear to be about scientists presenting their work to one another and, in some ways, this is true, but a far greater purpose is to provide opportunities for networking“Networking” has a mixed reputation among most academics I have spoken to, but much of this has to do with a too-narrow interpretation of what networking means. If you think of networking as simply cultivating relationships that are mutually beneficial, few people could object. It is important to stress that purely transactional relationships are neither the goal nor sustainable over the long haul. What you are looking for is a relationship in which you feel comfortable offering and/or receiving advice; if that person also happens to think of you when there is an opening at their institution, that’s great!, but should not be the goal upon meeting them. with fellow conference-goers. Moreover, there is way too many possible talks/posters/events to possibly attend them all, or even all of those that are relevant to your own work. Manage your expectations, as well as your time and take care to avoid burnout (at least too early in the week!).

3. Give a talk (or poster)

If conferences aren’t really about giving talks, why am I now suggesting that you give one? Well, even if they are not the focus, there are two huge advantages to giving a talk or poster. First, contributing to the conference is a great way to get funding to help offset the cost of attendance. This funding can be available even if you are not presenting, but the application is much stronger if you are presenting a poster and yet more if you are giving a talk. Second, and more importantly, when you are making the aforementioned all-important connections with other scientists in your field, they will inevitably ask whether or not you are presenting. If you are, it is a great way to further showcase your research and to make valuable second contacts/impressions. Even if you don’t get to talk to them at your poster or after your talk, it will provide a conversation piece next time you run into themTo say nothing of valuable feedback on your research itself through questions/comments.

4. Go out on a limb

This is the part where I say “do what I say, not what I do,” as this is the hardest piece of advice for me to follow myself. Conferences are made for you to meet new people (are you sick of me saying this yet?), so when you see a nametag walking by that you recognize from that awesome, paradigm-shifting paper you are basing your whole research program on: don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. While I struggle with this myself, I have seen many people do it around me at conferences with good results. Everyone knows they are there to network, so they are generally receptive to others reaching out to do so with them. If they are a big name, they are probably not only receptive, but used to the occurrence. Even if you just say “Hi” and introduce yourself before having “to rush off to a talk,” this is a worthwhile foot-in-the-door for future conversations.

5. Crash mixers

At ESA, the days are filled with talks and posters, but around dinner time everyone breaks off into smaller groups to attend what are called “mixers”. Many of these are described as meetings for the various sections of the Ecological Society (e.g. students, theoretical ecologists, disease ecologists, students/alumni of a particular institution, etc.). This description makes them sound far more formal than most of them actually are: a laid-back social event with drinks and possibly food for friends (new and old) to mingle.

These mixers are the best place to get to know new people and re-connect with those you haven’t seen since the last mutual conference. Some of them ostensibly require tickets or RSVP’s, but I have never attended one which kept track in any way. Therefore, I would recommend trying to attend as many of these as is reasonable. Definitely attend the corresponding mixer to your sub-discipline, but also check out mixers for fields you are interested in and tag along with friends to their mixers of choice. You never know who you are going to meet.

5 Tips for Early Career ESA Attendees - August 20, 2018 - Matthew J Michalska-Smith