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Conquering Your Conference

Here's a repost of a LinkedIn article I wrote.

Earlier this month, I was asked to present a career development talk at CYTO2015, the International Society for the Advancement of Cytometry's (ISAC's) annual conference. Specifically, I was asked to speak to our young investigators (my colleagues in the prestigious ISAC Scholar's program) about how to maximize our experience at the meeting. The presentation was well-received, with some people asking me to distribute or publish it. I thought the advice I have might be relevant to any young scientists attending a conference, and so here's a longer write-up on the topic. Your comments are welcome!

To create a better, more engaging conference experience, I do a little planning and "soul searching" ahead of the meeting, or on the long plane flight over. I start with a list of personal goals for the conference.

Setting Goals for Your Conference Experience

First and foremost, of course, is my #1 goal: to present my latest research in a professional, compelling, and flawless way. This is my main reason to come to the conference, and so it's is an obvious goal. A successful presentation of my work makes my other goals much easier to achieve, and it's the best way to promote myself and my work.

This brings us to my second goal, to "brand" myself. I don't want my conference experience to be totally passive - simply learning new things by osmosis - I want to make some active effort to present myself to other people. This is critical nowadays, when networking is a key skill to career success (and maybe survival). It's hard to present yourself, though, if you haven't thought about who you are; what are your strongest attributes? For example, my brand is about polychromatic flow cytometry, immune monitoring, cutting-edge work, being systematic and logical, having strong leadership skills, and being an excellent communicator. When people see me, interact with me, or hear my name, I want them to think of at least one of these things (if not more), and so everything I do at the conference, I do to support this brand. I make sure it's communicated somehow (in a positive, natural, and non-pushy way) through my informal meetings and my formal talks.

My third goal is to network. I break down my networking efforts into three activities, because I'm hoping for different outcomes from each. The first activity is to meet people whose skills can further my own work, with the hope that I one day develop these into new avenues for collaboration. The second activity is simply to meet people with mutual interests; this is an opportunity to build on their ideas and learn from their mistakes. The third is to impress people who may one day have something I want or need. These people include leaders in the field, vendors, or my fellow ISAC Scholars.

The fourth goal is another obvious one - it's the other reason we all go to conferences, in order to learn new information. This comprises specific knowledge, like the latest tools, techniques, or biological findings. Importantly, it also comprises "softer" knowledge, which isn't so obvious, like how to better live my scientific life. I glean this from the speakers of major, invited talks, who are usually late career individuals who have been highly innovative and successful. If you listen to their talks carefully, between the data slides, there is always a story from which I can glean how to be a more creative, effective, and impactful scientist.

My next goal is to push work forward in person. I try to meet with collaborators to plan our longer-term work, fill in gaps in our projects, and develop relationships that make people feel glad to be working with me (and thereby personally accountable to me). The conference represents a really great opportunity to kick-start work, away from the daily grind in the lab, where conference calls are usually harried and distracted. I also look for meetings that allow me to push forward projects that I'm passionate about, but have been on the backburner.

And, finally, my sixth goal is to serve the society. ISAC is probably not unique in its emphasis on teaching; many conferences have at least a few opportunities to run tutorials, workshops, and courses. These are really great... they - quite literally - put me on a stage that allows me to control and promote my brand. This results in better opportunities to network and gets people excited about pushing my ideas and research forward. Of course, we can't forget that teaching is the ultimate service to the society and scientific community... So, this goal is a winning proposition for those I serve and for me personally.

Opportunities to Achieve Your Goals

Once goals are set, it's important to consider how to achieve those goals. There are really three parts to this effort: 1) lining up goals with existing opportunities, 2) "working" the system, and 3) thinking outside the box to create opportunities (a key way to prove leadership chops).

Again, the first opportunities are rather obvious - poster and oral presentations. These are logged on our CVs, and play a central role in career advancement. I want the oral presentations, of course, for their visibility. So I think throughout the year about how to position my work in a way that differentiates it from a poster slot... But I don't ignore poster presentations, either. When I have these I promote them, in order to increase their visibility and maximize the advantages I can glean from the poster session. At our CYTO meetings, we have a great smartphone app with an activity feed where attendees can post anything they want. I use this to promote sessions I'm chairing, talks I'm giving, or posters I've put up. LinkedIn groups might also be useful for this purpose.

The second class of opportunities involves teaching. At CYTO, we offer tutorials and workshops on various topics, and when these are well-produced they are never forgotten. We've even memorialized these further by using them to generate new content for our online education system (CYTO U, which I am heavily involved with). These workshops can generate turnout that helps you network, a buzz about your brand, and - most importantly - the event gets you on the "list of experts" that lives in society leaders' minds as they plan future meetings.

A key question, though, is how to get these opportunities. Well, first you have to have a niche in the field, be an expert in that area, and teach it like an expert. If your society doesn't do these, or your topic of interest is not covered, it might be worth proposing workshops and tutorials to the scientific leadership of the society. Another option is to piggy-back on existing opportunities. Often, the senior scientific experts tapped to run these tutorials are too busy and are looking for help running their session.

I had some additional, unique experiences that were extremely valuable to me, and could be to you too if you're able to replicate them. I ran two full-day, pre-meeting courses (on polychromatic flow cytometry and on data analysis), in which I designed an entire one day curriculum and invited compelling, expert speakers to teach with me. Teaching with people, and chairing a course, are wonderful ways to network, and it was a really incredible experience to put together something new and valuable. This is a big endeavor though, and probably one that's difficult to sell to most meeting planners, so don't take it on lightly.

Finally, a way to achieve your personal goals is to make them relevant and worthy to the society in general. In other words, you can propose new society initiatives and hope that they can be incorporated into future meetings. This is a great way to feel totally involved, and to think outside the box about what you and the society need.

So, there you have it... some tools to make your conference experience something more than a few tidbits of new knowledge or a mini-vacation to an exotic place. The best way to feel alive and engaged in your career is to take charge of your learning opportunities and your career development. A well-planned conference trip is a great step toward that goal. Cheers!

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