5 Tips for Acing the Society for Neuroscience Conference
This year’s hottest neuroscience event is quickly approaching. The Annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) Conference is the largest meeting of brain scientists, enthusiasts, and vendors. Attracting over 30,000 people a year and spanning 5 days, it's easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the sea of posters, seminars, and satellite events. Here are my tips for not only surviving, but thriving at large conferences.
1. Plan and prep like a pro.
Conferences like SfN have hundreds of presentations happening every day. If you show up without a plan, you risk missing important opportunities and wasting time wandering around aimlessly. A couple weeks before the meeting, prepare a comprehensive itinerary. Use the program and abstract database to build a list of seminars and posters you wish to visit by searching for keywords or people relevant to your field of research. Once you’ve made a master list, highlight 3-5 posters and 1-2 seminars that are your priority for each day. In my experience, your retention of subsequent presentations will begin to fade as you fatigue, so ensure you attend the most important ones first. Next do some sleuthing and determine what evening social activities you’d like to attend (e.g., satellite events, vendor socials, subfield happy hours, dinners etc.) and add these to your itinerary with the date, time, and location. Most importantly, print out your itinerary to bring with you. While SfN has a scheduling app, it often malfunctions or the access to WiFi is spotty. You’ll be grateful to have a backup.
You will meet dozens of new people a day so create and rehearse a 15-second introduction and a 2-minute “elevator pitch" about yourself and your work. Your 15-second pitch should include: who you are, where you are, what you study, and perhaps a unique fact to make yourself more memorable. For example, “Hi, I’m Caitlin Vander Weele and I’m a PhD student in Dr. Kay Tye’s lab at MIT. I study the role of mesocortical dopamine in emotional decision-making and I also curate a science and art initiative called ‘Interstellate'.” Your 2-minute elevator pitch should include a more in-depth charaterization of you and your work. For example, what is your research hypothesis, why is it important, how are you investigating this question, what are your results, and how your work fits into the field, or why should we care?. If you’re on the job market, tailor your pitch to include outside experiences, expertise, and values that are important to you. Your pitch should be tailored to your career needs at the time and highlight what makes you unique. Having something prepared will ensure you maximize networking interactions and minimize anxiety.
SfN is an amazing opportunity to meet neuroscientists from all over the world so set up 2-3 meetings. Several weeks (if not months) ahead to time, email colleagues that work in your area of expertise that you think are cool, interesting, smart, or someone you might want to work with in the future. Whatever the reason, shoot them an email and ask if they’d be willing to meet for coffee and set a day / time / location. Use a descriptive title (i.e., “Brief meeting request at SfN - Potential graduate student”) and tell them who you are and why you would like to connect. While you may anticipate meeting colleagues and various events, 15 minutes of guaranteed one-on-one face time can lead to valuable professional relationships.
2. Work the conference floor.
During your first trip to the conference center, time your commute so you can factor it into accurate future planning. As soon as you arrive, take a quick lap (or two) to build a mental map of the landscape. Find the poster hall, large lecture rooms, small lecture rooms, art booths, bathrooms, and any other locations that you might require. Connect to the WiFi and test its reliability and speed. Once you're comfortable, check your itinerary and make a plan for the next several hours. While attending presentations, don’t forget to take notes about the science and the people! Jot down names of presenters and key scientific takeaways. Large conference are overwhelming and you will remember far less than you think you will. Having a record of who you saw, where they work, and what they found will come in handy - trust me!
NETWORK. While you might feel most comfortable socializing with your labmates and friends, building a professional network can be the most valuable aspect of conferences. Conferences are full of interesting people, future colleagues, and important connections, so push yourself out of your comfort zone and meet new people. Networking is a skill that requires practice, so use your prepared pitches, practice on friends, and ask people in your network to introduce you to others. There are many useful networking tips and tricks. One strategy that I employ is the art of the mutual introduction. When I meet people, I try to remember their first and last name, and a fact or two. Then I use whatever information I’ve remembered to make memorable introductions between colleagues. For example, “This is Bob Gray from Harvard and he studies social behavior. Please met, Sarah Mills, she’s a PhD student at the University of Michigan.” This simple act is valuable to all parties involved and will help establish you as a “person to know” within your growing network.
3. Location, location, & snacks.
An often overlooked part of conference prep is your housing accommodations. Your lodging will set the tone for your entire week so optimize for comfort and accessibility. What this means to different individuals may vary, but I prioritize two things: proximity to the conference center and food availability. My optimal housing situation is a hotel within walking distance to the conference center (<20 minutes) that offers continental breakfast. Being able to walk to and from the conference gives you a lot of flexibility and can take away some of the stress of planning your transportation. For me, having the option of taking a quick afternoon nap or some extra “me time” before late-night activities is worth the extra cost.
If you can’t get a close hotel within your budget, SfN partners with various hotels in the surrounding area to provide free shuttle transportation. While it takes a bit more planning, a 10-20 min shuttle ride could be an excellent opportunity for you to review your schedule for the day and hit the conference floor running. In both cases, don’t overlook the perk of continental breakfast. Scientists love their coffee and lines at the conference center can be absurd — not to mention the the insane price-to-quality ratio. Grab your coffee, a muffin, and some fruit at the hotel and save yourself both time and money.
If you waited too long to book and all the hotels are sold out, have no fear, you can always rent. Find the closest one to the meeting or convenient public transportation and snatch it up. Regardless of where you stay, make sure you have some food stocked. Once you’re checked in, head to the grocery store and pick up some essentials. Some good things to have are coffee, fresh fruit, granola bars, some easy meals, etc. I always grab Lunchables and Clif Bars to bring with me in case I don’t have time for a proper lunch. If you’re renting, pack a travel mug to bring your coffee with you!