Conferences can be strange and mysterious things. Especially if you are new to the whole conference game. The key is to be prepared but also to relax and enjoy yourself. Conferences are a great opportunity to network, however, they are also a great chance to have an outrageously good time! Here’s some real advice on how to own your first conference. Not one of those lame guides that tell you to bring business cards and wear a suit. This is the real inside scoop.

Don’t kill yourself going to everything

If it’s your first big conference it’s easy to think that you must go to absolutely everything. Every talk, every workshop, every poster session. Don’t feel obliged to do this. No one will mind if you miss a session or two to take a breather. Conferences aren’t meant to be hard work. They are meant to give you a chance to speak to other people, learn new things, and ultimately come away with new ideas. You can’t do this if you’re exhausted spending 8 am to 11 pm in a lecture hall listening to talks you will never need to care about. Choose your sessions. Pay close attention. Make some free time for relaxing. Hit the bar. Go to the beach. Bin off the last session to play crazy golf! I guarantee you won’t regret it. Live a little.

Extend your trip

If you’re going to a conference somewhere warm and exotic, stay a while afterward. Or get there early. Everyone does it. It would be rude not to. Take a couple of extra days to see the sights. Got a conference in Mexico? Go see some Mayan temples. Going to Cold Spring Harbor? Spend a few days in New York. It would be completely insane to go all that way and not make the most of those free flights. Just make sure you are organized. Don’t leave your poster tube on a train. Get to the conference on time. Don’t get stuck on a bike in the Alps somewhere with one day to get there. Plan your trip properly.

Be prepared

This advice is a little boring but worth reading; you don’t want to rock up on day one and look like a total noob. Be ready for everything. If you are presenting a poster, know the time you’ll be presenting, what size your poster needs to be printed and whether you need to take something to stick it up with. If you are presenting a talk, save your talk on your laptop, a memory stick, and email it to yourself. Sounds insane but just do it. Also, save a copy as a pdf, just in case. I’ve seen some Linux to Windows PowerPoint conversions that were a downright disaster. For more advice on conference talks, you can check out our other articles on giving scientific presentations and presenting at conferences. 

Go to the drinks sessions

The drinks sessions are an excellent time to mingle and chat with people. There’s nothing like a glass of free wine or cup of eye-wateringly strong coffee to ease an awkward atmosphere. You might even meet people who will turn out to be your friends for life! Next year when you go to the conference again you can meet up and hang out. Complain about how that experiment you were struggling to do last year turned out to be a waste of time. Or maybe one day you will collaborate and make super uber amazing science. That’s what I call friendship.

The take-home message from this is to enjoy yourself. You will need to take some parts of the conference seriously and if you are presenting it is important to act professionally. But don’t be afraid to have a good time. Conferences are supposed to be a fun way to get scientific communities together. So, get out there. Don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor if you can go. If you don’t ask you don’t get.