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I'm a first-year undergraduate student in physics. Since starting my studies I've tried to get involved in research as much as possible. Recently, the guys I work with encouraged me to submit an abstract about my current project (which is the first serious one that I've taken on) for an upcoming conference. I did and I got accepted with a poster.

Now my question is: how should I approach this to benefit the most? Or maybe there isn't even a point in me going at all?

I'm under the impression that most of the typical advantages of attending a conference such as networking, or keeping up-to-date with recent advances aren't really applicable to me as I simply lack the necessary knowledge. So far I've only taken a basic mechanics course and I have some working knowledge that I've acquired while working at the lab but nothing beyond that.

Additional information: the conference is obviously not a high-tier one. Judging by previous editions, about 150 attendees are expected, around 1/3-1/2 of that international (this is all in Europe by the way). Travel funding is provided by our department [active participation, in form of a poster, was part of the requirements to get that funding].

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Congrats on your poster acceptance! Yes, go. It is never to soon to benefit from conferences. –  J. Zimmerman Feb 7 at 22:38

2 Answers 2

"keeping up-to-date with recent advances aren't really applicable to me..."

Not so; that's a myth. Your poster got accepted, and that means you are now part of the "recent advances" in the field.

So, go. Tell people what you are doing. No, people won't flock to your poster and ask for your autograph; however, chances are, someone there will find your work interesting. You might get to talk with people who have done similar work. You might get a few pointers. You might get some affirmation that you're working on an interesting problem.

I went to a conference once where I was just starting out in the field. One of the world's most renowned experts attended my talk. Imagine my surprise when, a year later, my advisor returned from the same conference, he told me that this same expert approached him, and asked, "Where is that student of yours? I really liked his idea..."

You never know what kind of benefit you might get over the course of a few days when everyone there shares expertise in some common interest. Sometimes it's someone who can help you out, or nudge you in the right direction, or motivate you, or challenge you (hopefully in a constructive way), or merely encourage you by nodding their head as you speak, seemingly interested in what you are doing. Maybe you'll end up with a business card and a contact number of someone who can help you down the road as your research progresses.

Likewise, you stand to learn a lot from them, too. Who knows? Maybe someone will light a spark that will ignite a passion later.

By the way, most people like talking about their own research. So, if you attend a session that interests you, but a lot of it goes over your head, try to sit with that speaker at the lunch table. I'd bet that, more often than not, he wouldn't mind explaining some of the fundamentals to a bright and curious student.

Maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but I'd bet you'll come back a bit more rejuvenated, somewhat more enlightened, and a lot more encouraged.

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Before the conference

  • Usually the organization will release a conference directory. Read that before hand and highlight the sessions you'd like to attend. Have one primary and a secondary in case if the primary is a total bomb you have a second choice.
  • Gather maps, travel apps or travel guide of the city you'll be visiting. Draft a few places for sightseeing. For guidebook, just a little one should be fine.
  • Double check the dimension of the poster boards.
  • Have your poster printed earlier. Don't wait till the last day. I usually opt for fabric posters because they can be folded and stuffed into the luggage.
  • Sometimes you can reuse your posters (e.g. internal research day in your university, etc.) So, don't print any conference name or date on your poster directly. If the organizer requires you to display abstract number, print that on a separate piece of paper, and display that next to your poster.
  • Pre-print some returning labels if you want to do some sightseeing around the city after the conference, you can mail the poster tube and conference materials back to home.
  • Try to talk and see if any of your friends have friends in the city. It's easier to get a closer non-touristy look of the place if you have some local guiding you.
  • Bring some push pins for your poster just in case.
  • If you're planning to give out an A4 version of your poster, it's time to print some as well.
  • Bring some business cards (or print some in case someone would like to contact you.)
  • Work on a 1-2 minutes speech that summarizes your poster.

Once you're there

  • Try going to the conference center the day before and weed out all the transportation problems.
  • Identify the room and board for your poster before hand.
  • When you are free to join presentations and look at posters, follow your previous chosen options. Don't be too greedy, if you aimlessly take in everything you will get overwhelmed and tired very soon.
  • Some conferences organize local tours and dinner parties. Take advantages of those.
  • Have some note-taking device ready for main points, resources or references. Also bring your phone w/ camera or digital camera with you in case you want to take a picture of a poster (with permission of the presenter.) Focus on comprehension, not recording. I have seen some conference attendants just walking around taking picture of every single poster as if they are rare birds. Meanwhile, they didn't even greet or talk to the presenters who were right there; it was sad to look at.
  • It's absolutely okay that you don't know their subject. Just be straightforward: "I study [whatever] so am not too familiar with this, could you tell me what are the implications or applications of your findings to the field/my field?"
  • Try challenge yourself by asking at least one question in each session or on each day.
  • When manning your poster, ask any viewer if they'd like a summary, and give that 1-2 minutes talk that you prepared. Ask them to ask you any questions. Sometimes conversations take off, sometimes not. Don't feel awkward if nothing is said.
  • Befriend the poster presenters around you, as they probably share the same research area as you do.
  • During the off-conference time, do some sightseeing.
  • Save all the receipts, boarding passes, etc. for reimbursement.

After the conference

  • Continue to travel if you have developed a travel plan.
  • Evaluate what you learned, assess what interested you in the process, and what kind of techniques or information you can incorporate into your research.

Generally, don't confine what to learn. Because sometimes we don't know enough to know what should or should not be learned. Just be open, pick a good mix of topics that are about 50% that you are familiar with, 30% somewhat but not sure what they are, and 20% completely over your head.

Also, don't just look at the academic side. Connect with people and learn something about how they craft their research, or how they speak eloquently, etc. It's not all about the contents.

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