Things I didn't know were really beneficial at conferences

Society for Neuroscience is perhaps the largest neuroscience conference in the world. I haven't heard of any conferences with an attendee list of >30,000 people, but then again... I really only talk to neuros.

My conference habits up to this point were:

  • Go to talks that are relevant to my research or my professional interests
  • Go to posters that are relevant to my research
  • Go to socials and talk shop with other cognitive neuroscientists
  • Wash, rinse, repeat.

If anything else occurred, like getting free stuff from vendors, or going to a talk because someone I had just met is giving it, then that was just an unplanned event in my relatively lightly scheduled planned program.

I didn't go to journal editor booths. Or hardware booths. Or program officers. Or schedule time to network. And now I know what all that empty space between the talks and posters I've scheduled should be used for.

Here are some things I tried this conference that ended up being extremely valuable for me -- and all of this stuff I never was really told to try and do. Especially as a grad student.

Talk to journal editors

This essentially is one of my top things at conferences now. Being able to spitfire about your study and whether or not it has potential to land in your target journal helps clean up so many things. I was told about what it would take for me to get my study for a journal, what journals I could possibly land in its current state, who to talk to about getting it prepared so my review process is a bit more smooth, etc. It was a really good experience. Helped me realize how far along I am for this particular study since it is my first study (which reminds me, I should probably write a new FSTF).

Someone next to me said some weird stuff about how talking to editors can lead to "having them bend backwards for you," and I just don't see that. At least in my one experience, it was less of a "what can you do for me?" interaction and more of a "what 'range' does this study have?" interaction. And in terms of networking, I think keeping open lines with journal editors that aren't so ultimatum-y can help me down the road. I don't know exactly how, but I felt really good talking with editors.

Visit hardware booths

Now these people may actually bend backwards for you. Their MO is to have more people use their equipment and have people publishing with it so they can increase their market presence. The bottom line is money for many hardware manufacturers. And if you're in a small, unfunded lab like me, making contacts with hardware people is extremely beneficial.

We can't afford big ticket equipment. Even a $20k EEG is a dream away. But talking to hardware people helps open up lines of equipment under the guise of "demo" time. Being able to have a system for 6 months at little cost (generally, just shipping costs) can help catalyze research.

Also, depending on the hardware and the company, cost is somewhat more flexible when discussing with people in person. We can talk more about what we need in our lab and what that could cost if we chose to work with a company -- then just mosey on over to another booth and discuss similar things then slyly bring up "well, X said they could do all of this for $$$" and see what happens.

My future is hopefully starting my own lab. Making contacts now isn't hard, since manufacturer pitches are going to be the same for any person at any level -- we are all walking dollar signs. But understanding what instrument manufacturers are out there currently and starting to establish working relationships with companies seems to be a good idea if you are thinking of starting up a lab in the future.

Talk to program officers

My program officer story is a bit meh. I do believe you should visit with your program officer for similar reasons as to why you should visit prospective journal editors -- they can tell you things you didn't know that are really helpful!

My PI went to the NSF booth looking for the brain and behavior program officer (or brain and cognition officer? I can't be too sure) and they weren't attending the conference. That's... the end of the story.

But from what I've heard from others, a program officer discussion helps at all four phases: pre-submission, post-submission, pre-award, post-award. Since I wasn't able to actually have this conversation, I'm planning on it at the next large conference I attend.

Make time to network

This was hard because I "know" how to network, but I don't really know how to force myself into a networking mindset. Generally, networking blooms for me after talking with people at posters. We engage about certain aspects and if we have similar views or directions of research, we try to continue the conversation after the conference.

In my mind, networking is about keeping open lines of communication with interesting people (interesting being 100% subjective, not necessarily research related). In a weird, completely unfounded sense, the more I feel like I'm engaging with interesting people, the more I feel that I too can start to adopt more interesting things into my own work or life.

Making time to meet interesting people is important. Set up coffee dates, or schedule poster meet ups, or impromptu gatherings and trade ideas and stories just to trade ideas and stories. I tried that this year and I believe it was extremely fruitful -- in terms of making new relationships, and nothing to do with outcomes.

Make time to consolidate your day!

Holy crap!

This used to be what I did on the flight home -- with random pieces of paper and draft-emails all in dismay. Notes like "ERN group" were not helpful. I'm sure there was some sort of logic as to why I put some notes in one notebook and others into a different notebook, but I don't remember now.

Giving myself a 15 minute period to clearly type out all sorts of notes helped set me up for my follow up emails to people I'd like to stay in touch with.

Also, putting aside some time in the day to outline blog posts made the mad writing rush a little easier -- not necessarily for this conference, but in previous jobs.


If you haven't tried any of these particular things, look into them! Especially the editor stuff and the networking stuff. Those are experiences I cannot recommend more for grad students.

One thought on “Things I didn't know were really beneficial at conferences”

  1. Helena says:

    Good post - I agree with all your points. Just FYI, there are other sci conferences of the same size, like the annual cardio conf organized by the AHA that I used to attend. Just as busy, but not near as much fun.

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