Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Planning your SfN14 itinerary and some tips

There's less than a week left before SfN. It's crunch time for people like me who haven't put the finishing touches on their poster yet and people rushing to finish (start?) putting their talks together. People who aren't presenting are lucky because they have a little extra time to browse through the program and build their itinerary. There are two mistakes I've made in past years when planning my conference schedule and I'd like to help you avoid them.

Planning to attend EVERYTHING is especially common among first-time SfN attendees, undergraduate, and first year graduate students. Why UGs and early grad students? Because they haven't quite developed tunnel vision for a specific sub-sub-field yet. Everything sounds interesting! You may feel compelled to cram it all in, leaving yourself very little time for anything else. Like eating. And by evening all you want to do is snuggle up in your hotel room and let your brain rest but then you miss out on one of the best parts of SfN: socializing! My advice is to be a little conservative with your schedule. Plan at least one hour-long break during the day to eat lunch, have a snack, talk with colleagues, or just sit and veg. One of my favorite SfN brain-break past-times is wandering the exhibit hall. If you're an introvert like me, you'll want another hour between the science part of your day before evening socializing begins. 

But you have to balance this because mistake #2 is not having a back-up plan. After leaving my first SfN meeting, with my brain feeling like a wrung-out sponge, I started thinking about how I could optimize my next meeting. I wanted to balance seeing great science during the day with actually having enough energy to network and socialize in the evening. To do this, I planned to attend only one session per time slot with no back-ups. All was going fine until I got to a session and realized it wasn't quite what I expected. I left and flipped through the daily schedule book, finally found another interesting session, walked all the way there and found that I had missed one of the most interesting talks. 

I like to find 2-3 sessions for each time slot to choose from and also have a short list of posters to see. And I don't feel guilty if I don't make it to everything. There have been a couple of times when I got too busy and didn't make to a poster so I emailed the author after the meeting and asked about their research. In both instances the person replied and I got to ask the questions I had about their work. 

Here are some other tips: 
  • It's ok to leave a session early or to walk in late. Just do it quietly and respectfully. 
  • Take a morning or an afternoon off to sightsee. Your PI won't kick you out of the lab, it's ok. 
  • Don't get wasted at the socials and make an ass out of yourself. 
  • If you're an undergraduate applying to grad school and you have a few labs in mind that you'd like to work in, go see their student's and postdoc's posters. Not only do you get to see the type of science you might get to do in their lab but you can get an idea of the lab culture (IE would you want to work with those trainees or for the PI). 
Do you have any tips for attendees? Have you written a blog post about your experiences going to big meetings? Leave them in the comments! 


  1. Great tips! I still fall into the wanting to see ALL the things trap though :)
    I also like to see at least one session about stuff that is completely out of my field. At most other meetings I go to, you wouldn't find people who study sleeping owls or lobster vision or something else entirely. I find it fun to step out of my rodent centered world for a bit.

  2. Thanks for the great tips. I especially appreciate that you mention an extra hour of down-time for introverts. As an extreme introvert, I find conferences really exhausting. I learned early on in my career to carefully budget my energy so that I wouldn't end up missing out on important conference events - particularly evening social events - due to social fatigue.

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