Business and Pleasure - International Science Conference

The 'Holy Grail' for most research graduate students is to publish their paper in a high impact-factor journal. Pursuing this goal,  students work long hours at the bench, conducting experiments, repeating them and extending their research step-by-step. The option of going to a professional international conference on their subject in many cases is postponed till the paper is out, which might be a mistake. Here I will discuss why the concept should be changed and how a student can get the most out of an international conference.

Funding to Attend Conferences

This could be the limiting step in the process of getting to a conference. International conferences are an expensive business, from the organization aspect (registration) and from the aspect of travel and lodging. You should check your funding options as soon as you've decided you want to participate in a certain conference. Funding can come from several avenues:

  • Your PI
  • Your faculty
  • Travel fellowship
  • Your own wallet (don't think about it unless you're DESPERATE to get to that conference).

Ask fellow grad students and your PI where you can get funding and which agencies should be negotiated.  Many international conferences have allocated a number of travel fellowships and also sometime an option to get free registration.

Conferences: Does Size Matter?

This is a very important question and has a direct correlation to the effectiveness of the conference. From a "business" perspective, a conference is the place to get updated on the latest in the field (sort of, see below) and the place to connect for collaborations, post-docs and meet with your colleagues (especially true for PIs). A small conference will be more intimate and will enable most of the participants to get to know each other and have a fruitful discussion, but small conferences are usually more expensive. A large conference, on the other hand, can accommodate more participants, presentations and a much wider scope while supplying more funding possibilities. Gordon and Cold Spring Harbor research conferences are renowned for their intimate meetings while notoriously known for their expensive bill.

What Research Should I Present?

Going to a conference you can choose to act as a visitor or as a participant. Presenting your research has several advantages such as promoting your research, seeking collaborations, and getting recognition for your hard work at the bench. The other side of the coin is the fact that you're exposing novel work which has not yet been published. This is one of the reasons why research presented in conferences is usually a reflection of a year old data, which in most cases was already published in a journal or is about to be published (accepted status). You should sit with your PI and discuss what of your unpublished work you can present and what you should keep for the next conference.

Oral or poster presentation?

I recommend that if you’ve decided to go to a conference you should try and present your work in the form of an oral presentation. This is simply because this is a good opportunity to practice your presentation skills. Indeed, this is quite an intimidating experience and many will be so nervous and excited behind the podium that the lecture might not be the stellar performance of your life but such opportunity can serve to build your confidence when presenting in front a large and diverse crowd (not to mention its contribution to your CV). After several such instances you will quickly find yourself comfortable behind the podium and get rewarded for the difficulties of your first steps in the presentation business.

If you haven’t been chosen to give a lecture, you can be comforted by presenting a poster. Check that you're preparing your poster according to the organizer's requirements and that you don't postpone its preparation to the last minute.

Plan your days

With all those lectures, multi-sessions and workshops, you might find yourself perplexed as to how to find the time to enjoy the hosting city. It is recommended to download the scientific and cultural program to decide  what events and lectures you will want to attend. In large conferences you will have to choose among several lectures that will inevitably take place at the same time while in small conferences you will have the luxury of participating in all lectures. If you anticipate a slow day in terms of interesting lectures you might take the opportunity to explore the city. Mark for yourself some major attractions in the city that can be fitted into your anticipated schedule.


When on the conference grounds, walk around, visit posters and talk with people. Don't be shy about approaching a lecturer if you have a question or an interesting idea. This is an excellent opportunity to forge collaborations or to find your potential post-doc mentor. It is also a great opportunity to meet with colleague grad students and explore the city together or exchange scientific ideas (see my post @benchwise about the YSF 2011 meeting).

Souvenirs & chocolates

Had fun? Great! Don’t forget your friends and labmates - do some shopping for a nice souvenir and chocolates!