As a scientist, you will probably be expected to present your research at academic conferences. These are meetings of professional societies where you can present posters, give research talks, participate in roundtables and workshops, and network with scientists from other institutions. Well-known marine/natural science conferences include the annual meetings of the American Fisheries Society, Ecological Society of America, American Elasmobranch Society, Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation, etc.
As an Aspie, these intensely social experiences can be overwhelming. When surrounded by unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar city it can be tempting to hide in your hotel room as soon as you’ve finished presenting your research. This was how I felt at my first conference, and I imagine I’m not alone. It’s also possible to have the opposite problem; many students push themselves to attend as many talks as possible, ending up exhausted!
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, I have a few pieces of advice that you might find helpful when attending your first conferences.
Listen to Other Research Talks
Look over the list of talks and pick out a few that interest you. It’s always good to support your lab-mates or advisor if they will also be presenting, but you likely already know a lot about their work! Depending on how long the conference is/how many talks there are, I recommend listening to 3-5 presentations not counting the ones from your lab. As you attend more conferences you’ll get a feel for how many talks you can handle before getting overloaded and forgetting all of it. DO NOT try to hear a talk during every single time slot, you’ll get exhausted and stop paying attention anyway. Find your balance!
Set Specific Networking Goals
I am a huge proponent of breaking larger tasks down into smaller ones. Even if your project is broken into tiny baby steps it will get done if you take a step every day. Networking at a large conference can feel like a nebulous goal, but if you set a specific benchmark for yourself it becomes much more manageable. For example, if you are attending your first conference as an undergraduate, you might be scoping out potential grad school advisors. In this case your specific goals might be 1) Pick the three most interesting research talks, 2) Take notes during the talks and write down any questions 3) Find a time to introduce yourself to the speakers, either during a social event or after their talks if they don’t appear to be too busy, and 4) Inquire about openings in their lab and, if possible, swap email addresses. You can follow up with them after the conference. These are measurable, realistic goals for networking that make the process seem more approachable.
Don’t Feel Obligated to Attend Every Social Event
Many conferences have cocktail-style socials or full formal dinners. While these are often included with your conference tickets they are not required! If you’re feeling socially drained from a full day of presentations you absolutely don’t have to attend. It’s also ok to leave early if you need to. These events are common places for networking, but there is no rule against getting your networking done during the actual conference and taking some alone time during social hour. Remember, these things were designed by neurotypicals so you shouldn’t feel bad if they aren’t easy for you to get through. You certainly wouldn’t be the only person that struggles with them and needs to take some time for themselves.
Try Something Outside of the Conference
If you’re in a new place you should try some new experiences! Just because you are in town for the conference doesn’t mean you have to stay there the whole time. Try some local food, see some sights, or even participate in a day of service if the conference facilitates one. My first conference was the Southern Division American Fisheries Society meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico. My advisor recommended that I go kayaking on a bioluminescent bay, and it was a fantastic experience! I realize most conference locations aren’t quite that exotic, but any city will likely have something worth doing or seeing outside of your work. Do something to help you unwind after a long day of talking and socializing.
Consider Getting More Involved with the Conference
If you are an undergraduate student presenting at your first conference or two, you don’t really need to worry about this part yet. Once you are a grad student, post-doc, staff researcher, or professor, you should think about becoming a full member of the research society/organization that puts on the conference. Depending on how frequently you attend and what exactly you research, you may even want to run for a leadership position within the organization. Every group has different rules for how this works, but these additional responsibilities may help you to network and improve your professional standing.
Academic conferences are a whole ecosystem unto themselves, and they can be very intimidating for Neurotypicals and Aspies alike. They are also excellent opportunities to meet others in your field and hear updates about other areas of research. I highly recommend you start attending as soon as you can and take full advantage of all they have to offer. Your research advisor will have the best idea of which conference(s) are most appropriate for your interests and will likely help you apply for funding. Best of luck!
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