What should you expect when you attend an academic conference?

I guess the first thing to say is that to date I have only been to one conference when I have not been presenting either a poster, or giving an oral address, and usually I am doing multiple things. So I have relatively high expectations as to how I like things and what I expect from the others that are attending.

Also conferences are often a very good money making opportunity for the people organising them, so never be afraid to ask them questions, as you will probably be making a fair investment of time and money to attend. So make sure you get out of it what you want/need.

So what do I want to know before going to the conference?

If I have achieved a poster presentation I want to know the orientation (landscape or portrait) of the poster. Next when does my poster need to be put up, as some conferences want it shown for the entire duration and others only for a morning or other specified period. Then when I am expected to ‘man’ my poster, that is to stand beside it and answer questions. This is increasingly important as the concept of the ‘oral poster’ is slowly becoming fashionable.

An oral poster is one where you produce a poster then at a specified time have to give a short (usually 3 minute) over view of it’s content, and answer questions posed by the audience.

If I have been given a oral presentation I need to know the amount of time I have to talk for and how long the questioning period is. Next is when I am expected to talk.

Obviously it is also nice to be given an idea of possible hotels etc and maps and directions for getting there.

When I get there, what do I want to know?

Where do I register? This may seem like an obvious point, but I have been to many a conference where the sign posting is rubbish, and you can spend a considerable amount of time trying to track down someone that might know something about anything.

Hopefully after you have registered you will have a conference handbook which will give you all the other information you need, but don’t put money on it. One of the first things to do is make sure your abstract is in it and that the organisers are expecting you. Then the following questions can be asked:

Where do I hang my poster? – Not always obvious

Where is the room I am presenting in?

Is there any where I can check my presentation and maybe practice it? – this is of course something you should have done before you get there, but it always pays to make sure your presentation works on the conference computers. Also take two copies on two different formats (CD and Flash memory are probably the best). This may seem a little OTT, but it can pay to be paranoid about these things 🙂

Is there a dais? – I find it comforting to have something to hide behind, or at least put my notes on!

Can I have a microphone? – don’t be afraid of using a using a microphone, if it’s there then use it and talk normally. It saves you having to shout or not being heard by people that are interested in your work.

When are the coffee/tea breaks? – you may think this is a strange question, but it is really easy to dehydrate at these things and it is rare to go to a conference when drinks, even water, are free available all the time.

and last but by no means least

Where is the bar?

This last question is not because I am an alcoholic, but because at many conferences (especially medical ones) a lot of networking is done over a beer at the end of the day. Also if you have been presenting you will probably really appreciate the down time that the bar offers even if drinking a grapefruit juice and soda.
So hopefully there a few obvious questions to ask before you attend a conference and maybe even a few pointers as to how to make a conference you are organising more attendant friendly.