Let’s go to a conference!


You’re in for a whirlwind tour of coffee breaks, hotel conference rates, and sitting, sitting, sitting! (Hopefully the science will be legitimately exciting and you’ll have valuable opportunities to learn and network, too—but we’ll get to the conference itself in next month’s column.) But before the conference even begins, you have to prepare.

First and foremost, figure out what conference your boss was even talking about. Just like high-ranking scientists speak in technical jargon to showcase their intellectual supremacy, they also enjoy throwing around acronyms and nicknames for conferences. “I think you should attend Ag-Blag this year,” they’ll say, “unless you’d rather go to BRSQQ, but that’s part of LWX now—so, you know.” No, you don’t know, but you can’t say so because that would demonstrate unfamiliarity with a conference that’s apparently crucial to your field. It’s a little game that mid- and late-career scientists like to play, called “See how much I can confuse the newbie before he or she admits confusion.”

After you’ve Googled every possible meaning of “Ag-Blag” and found the event that looks somewhat related to your research, the next task is to gauge how serious your higher-up’s suggestion was that you attend at all. Often those in charge will say something like “This is a great conference” without outright directing you to attend it. They say things like this offhand, not realizing that you are hanging on their every word, desperate for straightforward guidance. Or they might have actually meant that you should go, assuming that you can read their mind. The only way to know is by asking for clarification—even though doing so will lead to either a frustrated, confused “Of course, I’m telling you to go!” or a frustrated, confused “Of course, I’m not telling you to go!” Aren’t games fun?

Oh, right, and at this point you should also determine whether the conference actually sounds beneficial to your work. Not that the lack of relevance would necessarily stop you from going—a free trip is a free trip—but don’t tell anyone that. 

If you’re in the clear to attend, it’s time to check where the conference will be held. We all know that conferences are paid trips to somewhere (hopefully) interesting. But we’re all supposed to pretend that’s not the case, that we’re not going to spend even 5 minutes outside the hotel and convention center—that if so much as a tree limb is visible outside the seminar room window, we will stand up, frown, cluck our tongues at our distractible colleagues, and shut the shade.

So, this is when you start pretending that you’re purely scientifically interested in the conference’s contents, not its locale. Practice saying, “Oh, is that so? I hadn’t realized it was in Honolulu.” If a conference is in a less appealing location, identify a credible reason for your unavailability. “Well, nuts,” you’ll tell your supervisor, “I wish I could go, but my gerbil has this thing. Pity—I’d love to spend 5 days in Delaware.”

Once you’ve decided that you want to go, it’s time to think about who might pay for your jolly little jaunt. Not only are there expenses like flights and hotel rooms (or, depending on your budget, buses and sleeping bags snuck into others’ hotel rooms), but conferences often charge hundreds of dollars for the magic badge that admits you into the talks—which, yes, you need to get, even though you’re planning to skip any talks that conflict with tourism, sleep, or blood alcohol level.

Your funding might come from an individual fellowship, your supervisor’s grant, or even a travel grant from the conference itself (how generous of the conference to support the travel that enables you to pay the registration fee!). If you’re not sure what the best option is, you have another fun opportunity to play your favorite game of asking your supervisor and cringing at their frustrated, confused response that you don’t already know the answer.

Regardless of how you fund your conference visit, all of these methods have one thing in common: Even though they cover the cost of your trip eventually, for the moment, someone has to pay in advance for things like registration and transportation. You may expect your adviser, department, or institution to help with this. And maybe they can, so it doesn’t hurt to ask (yes, another opportunity to play ask-and-cringe). But surprise! It’s pretty common for you to have to use a personal credit card, with the sincerest of promises that you’ll be reimbursed later. So, don’t forget to save those receipts! Based on the speed with which universities typically process reimbursements, you should have your money back in about two to four lifespans.

There’s one more consideration before you leave: Should you apply to present a poster? On one hand, presenting a poster means spending days perfecting the largest PowerPoint file you’ve ever managed, printing it on paper the size of a tablecloth, wrinkling it a little every time you roll and unroll it, carrying it in a tube that makes other passengers think you’re sneaking a bazooka on board, destroying its unblemished glossy surface with pushpins, and standing next to it while passing conference attendees avoid your gaze as though you were one of those mall kiosk clerks who aggressively sell hand lotion. On the other hand, you’d do none of this. So yeah, tough choice.

With this planning behind you, you’re well on your way to the exotic, jet-setting lifestyle of sampling Aramark food service bagels in a different city. Next month: What to do at the conference itself—or, how to maximize your scientific growth while still sneaking out of the conference to take in all three of Delaware’s sights.

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