Tips for maximizing your learning potential at professional conferences

Introduction

During last summer, I attended the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Statistical Society of Canada (SSC).  I spoke on the career-advice panel at the 2016 Canadian Statistics Student Conference (CSSC), and I met some colleagues and professors to share ideas about our mutual interests in statistics, statistical education, and the use of social media to promote statistics to the general public.

From observing and talking to many students at this conference, I realized that most of them did not use it effectively to maximize their learning potential.  A conference like this is a great opportunity for networking, career development, and – eventually – finding a job, but I suspect that most statistics students do not comprehend the depth of its value, let alone how to extract it.  Thus, I’m writing this advice column to help anyone who attends a professional conference.

Image courtesy of Rufino from Wikimedia Commons.

Objectives

Most statistics students want to succeed academically and find a job after completing their education – that job could be within or outside of academia.  Thus, at any professional conference, they should have the following objectives:

  1. To learn new ideas in your fields of interest
  2. To meet others who share your professional interests
  3. To learn soft skills from veterans in your industry for developing your career
  4. To build valuable relationships in your professional network

Unfortunately, based on my anecdotal observations, many students in statistics, math and science don’t seem to grasp Objectives #3-4.  These students tend to be passive in their attendance and shy in their participation.  When they do try to pursue Objectives #3-4, they are often unprepared and do not take advantage of all of the learning opportunities that are available to them.

The first step in maximizing your learning potential at a professional conference is recognizing that it takes preparation and hard work.  To do it well, you need to take all 4 objectives seriously and practice them frequently.  Attending a professional conference is a skill, and developing this skill requires thought and effort.  It involves much more than just showing up, talking at your turn, and listening at all other times.

Hopefully, the rest of this article will help you to develop this skill in an intelligent way, but you must realize that there is no substitution for hard work.

Before the Conference

Before you attend your conference, there are many things that you can do to prepare for the experience.  This preparation is based on the stark reality that you will have limited time to meet many people and attend many events.  Thus, here are some tips for helping you to spend your time wisely.  The tips for formal presentations and informal networking opportunities are quite different, so I will present them separately.  I will also share some tips for preparing for the logistics of attending conferences.

Formal presentations

  • Choose the presentations that are closest to your professional interests and goals.  Because of constraints on time and space, many presentations will often be delivered simultaneously in different rooms.  Thus, view the abstracts on the conference’s Web site in advance and plan which ones to attend.
  • Prepare questions for the presenters ahead of time.  You can often get a rough understanding of the presentation topics by reading their abstracts in advance.  Prioritize your questions carefully, because time will be limited, and other people will ask questions, too.
  • Write follow-up questions, ideas, or thoughts that you may incorporate into your own research or use as new avenues for inquiry.

Networking breaks and events

  • Read the Web sites, Twitter accounts, and LinkedIn profiles of the speakers to learn about their backgrounds, expertise, and professional interests.
  • Identify the people to whom you want to speak.
    • They are likely the ones who relate most to your professional objectives, but they may be just interesting people who offer valuable insights that you want to gain.
    • They are likely the speakers, but they may also be fellow attendees – some conferences will post the list of attendees on their Web sites in advance.
  • Prepare questions to ask about their professional history that cannot be gathered from what is available online.
    • For example, don’t ask them what their job title is or where they studied – these are facts that most LinkedIn users share on their profiles.
  • Prepare questions that ask them to elaborate on a part of their professional history that relate most to your interests.
    • Focus on their strengths – what are they good at, and how did they become good at it?
  • Identify any goals, questions, or concerns that they may have, and prepare possible solutions or answers.
    • Don’t underestimate your own skills and knowledge – you may know something that they want to learn.
  • If you have a technical question, bring any relevant reference materials – perhaps a journal article, a photocopy of a passage in a book, or some plots that illustrate your ideas.
  • Identify any mutual acquaintances in your professional networks – prepare to exchange information and stories about what you learned from your mutual contacts.
  • If you want to hold a long, substantial conversation with someone, email them ahead of time and arrange a meeting.
    • Do this as soon as possible – you will be surprised by how quickly an attendee’s schedule will be fully reserved with meetings, especially if they are accomplished or have many responsibilities associated with the conference.
    • In your email, clearly state your purpose for requesting this meeting and identify the value for both you and them.  If you think that you have some valuable knowledge that pertains to their professional interests, then emphasize this.
  • Prepare an elevator pitch of 30 seconds in length to talk about who you are, where you come from (i.e. what is your organizational affiliation), what your professional interests are, and what you are currently working on.  Practice saying this elevator pitch repeatedly until you can deliver it smoothly, comfortably, and articulately.

Some general ways to prepare for a conference in advance:

  • Visit the relevant rooms for your events in advance to ensure that you know where to go.  If your conference will be held at a university, then there is a good chance that you will get lost in your first navigation.  Don’t do this on the day of your events.  Be punctual.
  • If you are attending a conference away from your hometown and need to stay near the conference for a few days, then get maps for your conference venue and local amenities.
    • Find the restaurants and grocery stores that are close to your conference venue and suitable to your diet.
    • If you will stay in a hotel, then your concierge can provide useful information about local amenities to you.
  • Bring your notebook to take notes, and bring it everywhere you go.
  • Bring water with you or make sure that you know where to get drinking water nearby.
    • You will likely talk a lot and need constant hydration.
  • Identify the locations of the nearest washrooms.
    • Do not waste your time travelling long distances to look for washrooms during important events.

I had the pleasure of talking to a student presenter after judging his seminar on neural networks at the 2016 Canadian Statistics Student Conference.

Image courtesy of Peter Macdonald on Flickr.

During the Conference

  • Focus your energy on meeting new people during registration periods, networking breaks, lunches, dinners, and receptions.
    • Approach strangers with a smile, firmly shake their hands, and tell them your name and your organizational affiliation.
    • Ask them about their work, relevant professional interests, and organizational affiliations.
    • Use your elevator pitch to introduce yourself.
    • Do not be shy or reserved about doing this.  Far too many people waste their time at conferences because they choose to sit by themselves in these situations.  It doesn’t matter if you’re shy or introverted – force yourself to do this.
  • As I wrote for the pre-conference prepration, you should identify people to whom you wanted to speak.  Use your preparation and look for them.
    • As soon as you meet them, tell them how you learned about them and what you enjoy about their work.  This will immediately show your conscientiousness and motivate your conversant to talk with you at length.
    • Use the questions that you prepared in advance.  Ask the most important ones first, because you may not have the chance to ask them all.
  • Write notes on key ideas that you learned from formal presentations.  Remember that some presentations are not meant to dive into deep details, so take just enough notes to remind yourself later of what you want to investigate further.
  • Write notes about every person to whom you spoke substantively and substantially. 
    • Even if your conversations were not interesting at the time, that person may become valuable upon further reflection in the future.
    • It is awful to engage in a great conversation with someone but completely lose track of who they are or how to contact them.
  • Don’t approach someone to converse without having some purpose or objective.  Everyone’s time is precious and valuable, and you need to respect it.
  • Be sincere about why you approach someone to strike a conversation. Don’t fabricate a question just to have an excuse for talking to someone.
  • Don’t ask a question just to show how smart you are.  It wastes everybody’s time.  Furthermore, it highlights your selfish desire to cast a favourable impression of yourself, while others are trying to exchange substantive ideas and wisdom and learn from each other.
  • If other people are waiting to talk to someone, don’t monopolize their time by asking too many questions.
  • Thank each person who shared substantial insights, ideas, or suggestions with you.  Be grateful for their time.
  • Take the time and effort to build some positive interaction with someone before asking for their business card or contact information.
    • Demonstrate your mutual interests, your respect for their time, and your potential for teaching something valuable to them.  Then, ask for their business card.
  • It’s completely reasonable to have a desire to build a professional relationship with someone who shares your professional interests and has something to teach you, but do that after the conference by contacting them online. 
    • You just met them for the first time and held an engaging but brief conversation, so don’t leap toward a professional relationship right away.
    • Connect with them via LinkedIn or – if they permit by sharing a business card – via email.
  • Unless both of you have much to discuss, recognize that you both likely have many other people to talk to and events to attend, so don’t try to hold exhaustively long conversations.
  • Don’t ask a stranger to make any significant commitment to help you with something.
    • Be grateful for their time, and allow them to gracefully transition to their next conversation or event.
    • If you built a good rapport with them, then you can always continue building a professional relationship with them after the conference by email.
    • Only after you have done that work should you even consider asking them for help.
    • Try to identify something that you can do to add value to their work before you submit your request for help.
  • If you really cannot come up with a question, you can simply tell them that you really enjoyed their presentation (or whatever work that impressed you).
    • Ask what motivated them to pursue that work.
    • Listen to their story, and consider learning from their professional path rather than continue to talk about the technical aspects of their work.  You can likely ask good follow-up questions based on their story.
  • If you are at a reception, lunch, or dinner, force yourself to sit away from your existing acquaintances and meet new people.
    • After sitting at one table for a while, thank your conversants for the positive acquaintance and gracefully move to new tables to meet new people.  Unless seating arrangements were organized to be rigid, don’t allow politeness to anchor you onto one spot for the entire event.

 

Poster sessions

  • Take the initiative to approach a poster presenter and give them a chance to talk.
    • Simply shake their hand, tell them your name, and ask them to tell you about their work.
  • If you become interested in their work, then take the time to engage in a conversation – they will surely appreciate your effort and diligence in understanding their work, instead of just passively nodding your head without any comprehension.
    • Rephrase what the presenters say back to them to confirm your understanding.
    • Take notes for your own reference and inspiration.
    • Offer your suggestions on new directions for study or investigation.
  • If you sincerely disagree with them and can justify your thought or opinion, then say so – they will appreciate your honesty and may even learning something from the experience.
    • However passionate you may become in your disagreement, direct your passion toward the idea, not the person.  Don’t make it a personal attack.
  • Thank the poster presenters for their time.  If you really enjoyed talking to each other and think that you have more to learn from each other, then exchange your contact information.

 

 

After the Conference

  • Write a list of all of the people with whom you would like to stay in touch.
  • Look for them on LinkedIn – that is the best way to stay in touch with people as they transition between organizations.
    • Write a personal message in your LinkedIn invitation to remind them of how you met.  Don’t use the generic introduction – take the time to write a personalized message.
    • If you can’t find them on LinkedIn, then email them.
  • Thank each person who took time to speak to you personally and taught something valuable to you.
  • Share any valuable ideas or suggestions regarding your mutual professional interests.
  • Unless you have some good reason to engage in a big discussion, keep your message brief.  Aim for a tone of gratitude and positivity in forging this new connection.
  • If you use Twitter, consider following them and adding them to any of your Twitter lists.
  • Post updates on social media about what you learned and enjoyed about the conference.
  • If you don’t have ongoing discussions or collaborations, then follow up with them once every 1-2 years to ask them about their work and update them about your progress.

Do you have any advice for attending conferences? 

If so, please share it in the comments below!

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