Wednesday, July 20, 2016

How to attend conferences

I am nearing the end of six conferences/symposia/workshop/seminar trips in six weeks. At one of the meetings (Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution), I learned I was one of only four people (including Doug Morris, Miriam Richards, and Andrew Simons) to have attended each and every one of the previous meetings (11 of them). Now that the four of us realize this, we are in an escalating arms race to one day be the only person to have that distinction. All of this meeting-going has given me plenty of opportunity to reflect on the value of conferences and how to get the most out of them. A perfect topic to add to my ongoing series of “How To” posts for young scientists.

Stop 1. The Genomic Basis of Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics, Monte Verita, Switzerland.
A first major point is that attending conferences is extremely useful, and often fun, and you really should do so whenever opportunity and funds permit. One of the benefits is seeing the latest research, much of it unpublished, by researchers whose work you normally follow. More importantly, you often attend talks by people whose research you do not know, which is a great way to break out of your insular little clique of round-robin citations. Even more importantly, conferences are a great way to get new ideas, see new techniques, and find new research areas.

In reality, however, the above benefits could accrue from simply being very well read. By contrast, conferences provide one dramatic benefit – networking – that simply cannot be achieved by reading more literature. That is, the best thing you can do at a conference is simply to meet and talk to people, including old friends and colleagues, people whose work you follow but haven’t met, new people you didn’t know existed, and so on. Indeed, many of my most exciting and lasting collaborations have started through discussions at conferences.

Stop 2. Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries, Berlin. Then I took a side trip to Sanssouci, where I think I spotted Darwin on this ornate clock.

How best to network?

Go out of your way to talk to people. If it is someone whose work you know, introduce yourself. If it is a person standing in line beside you whose work you don’t know, introduce yourself. I have had many fascinating and influential conversations with people who were simply standing nearby. Of course, if the conversation isn’t interesting or is awkward or flagging, you can excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or get a drink or whatever.

Present a talk or give a poster. Most people at a conference will not know you or your work. By giving a talk or a poster, you can give people a teaser that will lead them to seek you out. Of course, giving a talk has other major benefits that stem from building your public-speaking skills, which is a great aid to career advancement. Give talks early in your career and give them as frequently as possible thereafter.

Attend social events. These informal settings are the best places to strike up relaxed (or intense) conversations with people. A great opening line is always “so, what do you work on?”

In addition to networking, a few other tips can help you get the most out of a conference:

Stop 3. Centre of Excellence in Eco- &Socio-Evolutionary Dynamics, Leuven, Belgium. (Here an earlier visit where I consider the co-evolution of beer and beer glasses.) 

Ask questions in talks! Perhaps paradoxically, the goal of asking questions isn’t to get information. Instead, most questions are intended to (and often do) reveal more about the questioner than they do about the speaker. As a result, asking questions is a great way to have other people be aware of you, which helps with networking. However, the main goal of asking questions is to make you think more critically about each talk. My buddy Mike Kinnison at one point challenged his students to try to ask one question in every talk they attended at a conference. Of course, that goal is probably impossible (and perhaps annoying to others) but a goal like that really changes the way you listen to a talk. Instead of passively recieving information, you begin an active internal dialog and assessment of what the person is saying and why. You pay much closer attention. You scrutinize each graph more carefully. You listen the specific words with more nuance. You seek holes and inconsistencies. All of this has the payoff of aiding and ingraining critical thinking – not just as an ability but as a goal. So, I would suggest writing down a single key question that you would ask for every talk you attend. Then try to ask them when you can.

Don’t attend too many talks. Everyone gets burned out eventually at conferences. The easiest way to avoid burnout is to not try to fill up your schedule with talk after talk after talk. Instead, leave yourself breaks to hang out, talk to people, etc. Also, instead of moving from room to room in an attempt to assemble your own schedule of talks, simply sit all the way through some of the sessions – even if the talk titles don’t seem especially relevant. I have seen many excellent talks simply by coincidence.

Don’t be on your computer or phone. While tempting, being on your computer inevitably disconnects you from the speaker and what they are saying. Of course, having your computer out is sometimes necessary – in fact, I have my computer out at the conference I am currently attending, largely because the 5 previous conferences have gotten me so far behind that I will otherwise miss key deadlines.

Stop 4. Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, New Orleans. Rich Lenski is everywhere it seems, even in the bathroom of a blues bar!

Which conferences should you attend?

Each of us usually has a conference that most closely matches our work, which we should therefore attend as often as possible. Sometimes this core conference can be two – one conceptual and one taxonomic. In addition, I highly recommend pseudo-random attendance at other meetings, which is an especially good way to get new ideas and meet new people. Most obviously, try to attend local meetings by societies that you would not normally be exposed to. And, not surprisingly, one can also pick conferences based on interesting locations.

Stop 5. Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, St. John's, NFLD. With a side trip to Cape Race - seen above.
Writing this, I started to wonder about my own patterns of conference attendance over the last 20 years, which I was able to piece together, focusing only on major core meetings, into the table below. Several points were of interest to me. First, my core conference changed through time with my core research interests. I started out focusing on fishy meetings (AFS, EEF, ASIH). As I became increasing interested in evolution, my go-to meeting became SSE/ASN, along with a new taxon-focused stickleback meeting that happens every three years. Most recently, I have focused on the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution (CSEE), partly because I have become increasingly interested in the INTERACTIONS between ecology and evolution and partly because I live in Canada and want to see ecology and evolution thrive in that context. The more haphazard meetings include an eclectic mix of fish meetings (ICBF), evolution meetings (ESEB), ecology meetings (ESA), genetics meetings (AGA), conservation meetings (SCB, The Wildlife Society), and general science meetings (AAAS). These other meetings were chosen largely for location (either near home or somewhere exotic) and – more recently – because I have been asked to speak in a symposium. Looking back, I think I have gained a ton from these meetings, mostly – as noted at the outset – the network of friends and colleagues that it has facilitated.

Legend (left to right and then down): ASIH (American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists), AFS (American Fisheries Society), SSE (Society for the Study of Evolution), ASN (American Society of Naturalists), CSEE (Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution), EEEF (Ecological and Evolutionary Ethology of Fishes), ICBF (International Congress on the Biology of Fishes), AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), SCB (Society for Conservation Biology), ESA (Ecological Society of America), ESEB (European Society for Evolutionary Biology), AGA (American Genetics Association).


Conferences cost an annoying amount of money. Fortunately, most conferences and departments have funds available for student travel. Also, you can make them lower priced by attending nearby meetings, carpooling, staying in university dorms, and skipping the banquet (which is never worth the price unless it has a great party afterward). Some of these choices can also help to reduce your carbon impact.

Stop 6. Gordon Research Conference on Ocean Global Change Biology, Waterville, NH. With plenty of opportunities for great nearby hikes.


  1. Excellent. I am running the HNS conference in Oxford and this is exactly the sort of advice delegates need.

  2. Interesting post! The bit about the goal of asking questions--that it is more about the questioner than actually wanting an answer to the question--is something I haven't heard anyone directly address before. Just want to add that it can be super obvious when the asker is trying to draw attention to him/herself with a great question. When it's obvious, there's a problem (at least to me): it can have the opposite of the intended effect. P.S. I'm trying to arrange a conflict in your schedule for the 2036 CSEE meeting so that I can win!

  3. I agree that it can be obvious when folks (certainly not you and I) are trying to draw attention to themselves. That is a minor point though in the general argument that it is very much to a student's advantage to ask questions in talks.