Conferences and Meetings

Professional meetings are often organized around research problems or methodologies. As such they provide participants the opportunity to learn and grow as researchers and presenters and to gain visibility in their discipline. Participants come from all levels of academe, industry, and government. Conferences may be small - attended by ten or fewer individuals or they may be large - attended by more than 10,000 people. They may be local, regional, national or international. Meetings vary widely in length. They may be short in duration lasting only a few hours or they may be as long as a week.

Students are welcome at many professional conferences. Some national meetings such as the American Chemical Society National Meetings even have special programming, social events, and presentation opportunities specifically for undergraduate research students. There are also dedicated meetings and conferences specifically for undergraduate student researchers. The most well known and established national conference for undergraduates is the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research (NCUR).

In this section, we will discuss why you should go to conferences, how to select a conference, how to fund your trip, make your travel arrangement, and we will take a look at some of the various activities that conferences offer and their benefits to you.

Articles on Conferences and Meetings

Activities at Conferences

Opportunities at professional conferences can be broadly categorized as:

Technical Sessions

Technical sessions featuring three or more oral presentations, individual or panel discussions, at professional conferences can be generally broken down in to symposia and contributed sessions. Symposia are technical sessions featuring invited talks. Contributed sessions are technical sessions featuring contributed talks. All technical sessions whether symposia or contributed are usually organized topically around themes related to the overall conference theme.

Invited Symposia

Symposia can be further categorized as award symposia or topical symposia. Award symposia are sessions intended to recognize an individual for either a specific research accomplishment or sometimes a lifetime of professional service. Speakers in award symposia are generally longtime friends and colleagues of the award recipient. Consequently, award symposia are wonderful opportunities to learn about not only the technical contributions but also the personality of respected researchers in a discipline. Topical symposia are generally focused on research problems or methodologies. Sessions may be organized to present a historical perspective or the talks may highlight the most recent developments. Sometimes talks will present a longitudinal perspective on a researcher's career or on a specific subject. These talks focus less on the technical aspects of the work and more on the "big picture."

Other Technical Offerings

Many other opportunities exist for learning and professional development at technical conferences. These include workshops and short courses, poster sessions, expositions, and the employment bureau.

Workshops/Short Courses

Often conferences will provide workshops and/or short courses to meeting registrants. Workshops are sessions often free offered by companies to introduce potential users to their products. Short courses are literally that half-day or full-day long courses taught by experts from academe as well as the private sector intended to provide registrants with specific technical knowledge that will allow them to learn new technologies/methodologies and/or while participating in the technical conference. Private industry loves this approach to professional development as it minimizes the time and cost of employee training and improves productivity and job satisfaction.

Poster Sessions

Refer to the Poster Presentations section.

Exposition

Many conferences hold exposition that showcase the latest products and services available to educational and technical professionals in the fields represented at the conference. Exhibitors include book and journal publishers, instrumentation manufacturers, companies selling reagents, consumables, software, services, and representatives from professional societies, granting agencies, recruiting firms, etc.

The benefits of attending an exposition are many. The experience can be educational, valuable in terms of networking, and simply just plain fun! Many vendors offer all kinds of freebies including candy, pens, raffles for laptops, software, equipment, gift cards, etc. in order to attract potential customers to visit their booths. If you are a student in the science, technology, or engineering disciplines many companies will bring working models of their latest instrumentation or software to the exposition. You can learn about new instruments/software, compare features and capabilities. If you are considering a career in the private sector you can learn a lot about the different participating companies and make valuable contacts. Be sure to bring plenty of business cards with you!

Employment Bureau/Career Center

Some larger professional conferences may offer an employment bureau or career center during the week of the conference. Access to the meeting career center may be limited to registered conferees and may require payment of an additional fee. Conferees interested seeking employment may be asked to complete a general application form and to submit one or more copies of their current resume. In general some of the career services that you may find at meetings include workshops on career-related issues, opportunities to hone your resume writing and/or interviewing skills, and opportunities to participate in private screening interviews with interested employers on-site.

Social Events

There are many social events at professional conferences. These include breakfasts, luncheons, dinners, receptions, and local tours. Depending on the size of the conference, meeting organizers may provide tours of local attractions for attendees. Some social events are free and others are paid. Depending on the occasion, such as at an award dinner, formal or semi-formal attire may be required. Participation in these events is perhaps as important if not more important than participation in technical sessions as it is in these informal sessions that researchers freely exchange ideas and information and it is in these interactions that friendships, collaborations, etc. are forged. Go! Participate! Don't worry if you don't know anyone when you first go. Just be yourself, be friendly and you will have a great time! Last word of advice: Be sure to bring plenty of business cards to exchange with everyone that you meet!

Common Formats for Conference Presentations

The two most common formats for the presentation of research findings at conferences are:


Oral Presentations


Depending on to whom you speak some individuals will tell you that oral presentations are preferable compared to poster presentations. Some people feel that oral presentations are more prestigious and offer more cache than do poster presentations.

Oral presentations are generally short talks or panel discussions delivered by one or more individuals to a room of interested meeting attendees. Depending on the meeting, the speaker(s) may read a prepared speech or the speaker may more informally discuss his/her work using visual aids such as a PowerPoint presentation using a laptop computer. A very brief time is allotted for individual oral presentations. An oral presentation is typically between 15 and 30-minutes in duration. Consequently, the presentation must be clearly and succinctly presented and there will be little if any time for questions from the audience.

There are two types of oral presentations:

At some meetings oral presentations may be taped and available for purchase by meeting attendees. At many meetings, taping and/or photographs at oral presentations may be forbidden.

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Individual Oral Presentations


Contributed Anyone who submits a proposal or meeting abstract is potentially eligible to deliver a contributed talk. "Contributed" simply means that you as a conferee submitted your paper for consideration of presentation as versus "invited" which means the meeting organizers or symposium organizer invited you to speak. At some conferences, contributed talks are of shorter duration than invited talks but generally there are no substantive differences otherwise.

Invited In some sessions often referred to as symposia, organizers invite experts in a specific area to share their recent work. These presentations are called invited talks. Invited talks may be given slightly longer time periods than contributed talks. Invited speakers must also submit proposals or meeting abstracts.

Depending on the specific meeting, the organizers may or may not offer invited speakers benefits that contributed speakers may not receive. At some conferences, invited speakers may be offered free or reduced registration, lodging, travel, and even a small honorarium. However, an invited to be an invited speaker may come with none of these perks. If you are "invited" don't make assumptions - ask the organizer what, if any, services the conference is providing to invited speakers. At some conferences simply being invited is considered to be a significant honor.

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Panel Discussion


Presentations may be made by individuals or by panels. In panel discussions, two or speakers presenting different perspectives or different aspects of the presentation topic will sequentially summarize their work and relate it to that of the other panelists. Once all of the speakers have made their presentations there is generally an open discussion of the papers.

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Poster Presentations


Poster sessions offer meeting organizers the opportunity to offer large numbers of meeting attendees the opportunity to present their work. Poster presenters are usually provided a significant amount of space (3' x 4' or more) on which to display a visually attractive poster summarizing their research project. Generally, poster presenters have the opportunity to share their work over an extended period of time often an hour or more. At some meetings, the poster may be displayed for an entire day! This allows the poster presenter to describe and discuss their research in greater detail than would be possible in an oral presentation to significantly more people. In my opinion, posters are in no way inferior to oral presentations and may in fact be far more useful.

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Funding Your Conference Participation

There are many places you can go to solicit support for your travel to/from a professional conference. Possibilities include:

Your Research Advisor

The first place to go is your research advisor. Your advisor is going to be more interested in supporting your participation if you are presenting your research findings for research supported by an external grant as your advisor may have solicited funds specifically for this purpose as part of his/her grant application. Why? Research presentations are part of the "currency" in academe and count toward tenure and promotion. External presentations facilitate the transition of research findings into published findings which are also part of the "currency" in academe and valued by the private sector as well.

Your Academic Department or College/university

The second place to go if your advisor cannot support your travel is your academic department or college/university. The department may be able to partially or even fully support your travel to a conference. If you are presenting your research finding and/or are an upperclassman/woman and are planning on going on to advanced study in your discipline these facts may bolster your case.

Professional Societies

Many professional societies such as the American Chemical Society and Psi Chi, provide support to college students who want to attend their professional conferences. Support is often available from these groups at the local, regional, and national levels. A normal requirement imposed by these groups is that applicants be student members of the professional organization. Preference is likely to be given to students who have never attended a professional conference and are planning to go on to advanced study in their discipline. You will find a number of these travel grants listed on WebGURU.

Fund-raising Activities

Another approach to consider is fund raising! If you know of several other students who are interested in attending the same meeting, consider partnering with them and organizing bake sales, selling laboratory notebooks, lab goggles, lab coats, or other supplies that your peers might need, etc. Hold a garage sale.

General Advice

The following are suggestions for making the most out of your meeting experience:

  • What to Wear: The dress at the majority of professional conferences is fairly formal. If you are seeking a job or looking to impress a prospective graduate advisor, you would be wise to dress appropriately. That said, depending on the location, the time of year, and the specific conference you will see all types of dress.
  • Meet people! Don't be intimidated by professional reputation. Don't worry about feeling awkward - everyone feels the same way! Just be yourself. Take the initiative. Introduce yourself and really listen to the other person with whom you are speaking. Make it a point to exchange business cards. If you don't have any this is a good time to print some cards which you can do these days quite inexpensively.
  • Connect with other conferees electronically using social media. These days most conferences have a hashtag that conferees can use before and during the conference. Following the hashtag is a terrific way of getting to know what the conference is all about, who is attending, and to find sessions and people with whom you might like to connect when you arrive.
  • Eat with other people you meet at the meeting! People always feel good about themselves and other people when they are sharing a good meal. Think about it!
  • Don't go to too many technical talks. Be selective. Inquire from your advisors and others concerning who is known to be a good speaker. If you are interested in going to graduate school you should start thinking about whom you would like to work with as a graduate research advisor. Look to see if any of these individuals is speaking and make it a point to attend one # of their talks.
  • Make it a point to learn something new. Select one technical session that is focused on a topic or technique that is new to you. This will provide you an invaluable opportunity for learning and networking.
  • Take notes on what you learn and who you meet. I like to use the notepad on my cell phone or OneNote on my ipad.
  • Be safe. Don't wear your badge outside of the convention center or hotel as you will advertising to everyone you meet that you are a visitor. Unsavory individuals may regard you as a viable target for theft or worse so don't advertise that you are a visitor!
  • Finally, and perhaps most important: Have fun!

Housing and Transportation

Travel and housing can be quite expensive. So it is important that you do advance research on the costs associated with your travel to/from the conference before you commit to presenting and attending the conference.

Airfare

If you are flying to a conference, you will likely need to arrange for transportation between the airport and the meeting site. Some larger conferences make arrangements for vans/shuttle service between the airport and the conference site for registered conferees. Since costs can vary widely, it is important that you research the transportation costs associated with travel to/from your hotel well in advance of the conference. If the conference is at a college or university, you may find useful travel information on the college or university's website.

Hotel/accommodations

Often conference organizers will hold a conference at a hotel. Attendees are not generally required to register and stay at the conference hotel though there may be benefits to staying in the conference hotel including complimentary shuttle service to/from the conference center, if the meeting is not being held at the hotel. If the meeting is held at the hotel then staying at the conference hotel can be quite convenient - you can run upstairs to your room, change, pick up or drop off stuff at a moment's notice. Depending on the size of the conference, the rates negotiated for meeting attendees at the official hotels affiliated with the conference may or may not fit your budget. Likely there are other hotels located in the immediate vicinity. Consequently it is wise to do some research as you are likely to find accommodations at a lower rate at a good hotel nearby. If you do however, choose to stay at a hotel unaffiliated with the conference make sure that the hotel is located within walking distance of the conference venue and that the immediate area is safe for walking. If you are traveling by air to the conference, you may be able to obtain a package deal for your transportation and housing by purchasing both through the same travel agency or internet travel site.

Reimbursement of Expenses

If you do secure support for your participation in a technical conference you are most likely to be asked to incur the expenses for meeting registration, travel, lodging, and subsistence up front and to request reimbursement for your expenses following your successful participation at the conference.

It will speed up the processing of your reimbursement if you follow a few general rules in making your plans. First, find out what, if any, specific rules your organization has regarding reimbursement. In general most organizations will only reimburse travelers for "reasonable" expenses. Reasonable means you are expected to make every effort to make the most economical use of the available funds by considering cost, time spent traveling, and convenience when making your travel arrangements. Some institutions will not reimburse you if you do not arrange your travel plans through their approved travel agency as they have been guaranteed to obtain the lowest available rate if their employees book through the approved travel agency. Second obtain receipts for any purchase for which you anticipate requesting reimbursement. Original receipts will likely be required to secure reimbursement for any purchase. Third, be aware that there may be limits imposed on the amount that you are allowed to spend for a specific purpose. This is often true for subsistence where there may be a per diem ("per day") or even "per meal" cap. Finally, be sure to keep a copy of all of your receipts and any forms you submit for reimbursement in case anything gets lost or something goes wrong in the process.

The following are typical guidelines for travel reimbursement:

  • Lodging: Lodging should be secured in a standard room not a suite in a mid-range hotel/motel. Lodging is generally reimbursed only for the days you are actually participating at the conference.
  • Travel: If you are traveling by airplane or train and expect to be reimbursed for your expenses, you should book your travel at the coach rate - seeking the lowest possible fare.
  • Subsistence: Your subsistence including any gratuity is generally reimbursable provided you secure a receipt. If you are of age, be aware that alcoholic beverages are generally not reimbursable. If you plan to dine with spouses, friends or guests, their meals are also not reimbursable. You should segregate and pay separately for any alcoholic purchases or food purchases for relatives, guests and friends.
  • Incidentals: Incidentals such as entertainment (e.g., candy, soda, "On Demand" TV movies), personal telephone calls, gifts, and other personal purchases are generally not reimbursable.

Reasons to Attend Conferences

As an undergraduate researcher, you should attend technical conferences and meetings because your participation will provide you an opportunity to:

  • share your research findings with others in your field
  • learn what others in the field are doing can lead to new ideas
  • meet others in your field- can lead to new opportunities for collaborative efforts
  • have fun! Meetings are not all business. There are usually opportunities to socialize with your peers and if you arrange your travel plans appropriately you may be able to sightsee before or following the conference.

In presenting your work you will

  • Grow as a researcher and presenter
  • Obtain feedback on your research
  • Meet and get to know your peers
  • Gain visibility in your field

Requirements for Conference Participation

If you want to present your research at a meeting, you will want to do a bit of research on the conference and find out:

  • what your advisor thinks about your presenting your research
  • what opportunities exist for research presentations by student researchers
  • what the constraints are regarding meeting participation and presentation
  • what the cost of participation at the meeting will be (including travel costs)
  • what resources (locally or externally) are available to support your participation at the conference.

First Things First: Speak with Your Advisor

The first and most important thing to do is to speak with your undergraduate research advisor to determine whether or not your advisor believes you are ready and able to present your research at a conference and to determine whether or not your advisor can provide the needed financial support (which may be considerable if you wish to present at a national or international conference) in order to underwrite your trip. Before you speak with your advisor, it would be a wise idea to do some background work: Make sure that you are working on a project the results of which can be publicly communicated. If you are working on a project that is potentially patentable or which is supported by industrial funding, you may not be able to present some or all of your work publicly; Summarize your research accomplishments in an abstract (approximately 250 words or less) that shows the quality and quantity of the results you have at this point; and determine how much it will cost to attend the research conference including travel (airfare, housing), registration, and subsistence and what must be submitted (abstract, extended abstract, and/or proposal) in order to make a presentation.


Common Constraints On Meeting Participation


Many meetings are organized by professional associations. In many conferences participation and presentation may be limited to those made by the membership or by individuals sponsored by members. If you are not a member of the professional society, you may still be eligible to present if your faculty advisor or a collaborator is a member of the organization sponsoring the conference. If no one is a member, consider inquiring about student membership in the professional association. Student memberships are often relatively inexpensive and may provide additional perks such as a complimentary subscription to the society's publication or eligibility for student scholarships, travel grants. Presentations are usually limited to work that has not been previously published and/or presented at any other technical conference. At some conferences conferees may not be presenters on more than one presentation.

Conference participation usually requires the conferee to:

  • register; and
  • submit an abstract

We will discuss both of these topics below.

Registration

In general everyone who wants to attend a technical conference, whether or not they are presenting research, must register for the meeting. If you intend to present registration is usually a requirement. If the meeting is sponsored by a professional society, membership in the society may affect the registration fee structure. The lowest registration rates are usually accorded to those attendees who are members of the professional society. In addition, many meetings offer a discount to attendees who register in advance of the meeting as this allows the organizing committee more flexibility in planning and negotiating the conference arrangements with conference center, hotels and/or airlines. There may be full meeting or day rates. Free registration may be provided for spouses.

Registrants are given a badge that they must wear at all times during the conference in order to be admitted to the technical sessions and any official social events. The registration materials may be mailed to you or they may be provided on site.

Even if you are not presenting at a technical conference and/or are not traveling from a distance in order to participate, it is highly advantageous to register in advance. Conferees registering on site often must wait in long lines in order to complete the registration process. "In advance" usually means several months in advance of the meeting.

At some meetings organizers will offer college students a discounted meeting registration rate, complimentary meals, and/or a small stipend if the students are willing to work behind the scenes at the conference. Working behind the scenes can provide you with an invaluable opportunity to meet key professionals in your field and to network with them. This type of meeting opportunity is somewhat rare and generally is not publicly advertised. Interested students are strongly encouraged to contact the meeting organizers well in advance of the meeting - six months out or more.


Abstract


A meeting abstract is basically the same thing as an abstract for a technical paper. It is a succinct (typically 200 words or less) summary of the research that you plan to present in your conference presentation. As such it should outline the research problem, its significance, the methods used, the results obtained and the significance of the results. The work outlined should be novel and should not have been previously presented at any other conference or published anywhere. The abstract can describe work which is in progress at the time the abstract is submitted if the work will be completed at the time at which it will be presented.

If available review the list of key words that will be used in indexing conference abstracts and incorporate as many of these as possible in your meeting abstract. Research methodologies and applications are examples of frequently used key words.

In general speakers are supposed to present the work that they have outlined in their proposal or meeting abstract. Since abstracts and meeting proposals are often approved six months in advance of a conference, meeting organizers understand that presenters will have likely done additional work that they would like to present. This is acceptable at most conferences. However, if you plan to present work that differs significantly from that described in the approved meeting abstract it is important to discuss this in advance with the session and/or meeting organizers.

Meeting Abstract Example

Symposium Title: Sustainability across the Chemistry Curriculum: Green Chemistry and Beyond

Poster Title: Synthesizing conducting polymers employing green chemistry principles

Conducting polymers, important in materials science, are traditionally synthesized using electrochemical methods in concentrated acid or harmful organic solvents. Use and disposal of these reagents is typically dangerous and expensive. In this project designed for use in the freshmen chemistry teaching laboratory, either polypyrrole or polyaniline are synthesized electrochemically by cyclic voltammetry using Green methods, a simple potentiostat, and an electrochemical cell containing monomer, electrolyte, and optically transparent indium-doped tin oxide on glass electrodes. In approximately 1.5 hours, freshmen working individually or in groups synthesize conducting polymers and observe their important optical and electrical properties. After synthesizing the polymer, students design their own electric circuit using the conducting polymer, a battery, and a light-emitting diode to demonstrate the polymer film's conductivity. This method of synthesizing conducting polymers can also be extended to the creation of nanowires and represents a second laboratory experiment we seek to implement in the near future.


Extended Abstract


Sometimes you may be required to submit an abstract and at a later time an extended abstract. An extended abstract resembles a communication. Extended abstracts are short papers outlining the problem investigated, methods used, and the key findings that the speaker will present. Extended abstracts are usually peer reviewed. They are viewed by many researchers as publications. Since prior publication of research normally precludes publication of the work at a later time in the peer-reviewed archival technical literature, you may find that your advisor reluctant to allow you to present your research at venues where extended abstracts are required for conference presentations.


Proposal


At many conferences interested speakers must submit a proposal. Proposals are usually submitted in response to a published "call for proposals". The proposal is generally a three-to-four page long paper outlining the proposed presentation. A good proposal will:

  • Outline your project clearly and clearly outline its relevancy to the themes of the conference
  • Describe results of your project or innovation if available. If outcomes are not yet available, indicate when they will be.
  • Include properly formatted references to any relevant background information
  • Explain how the presentation will be made, including what, if any technology, will be required for the presentation, and the role of the participants in the presentation. Technology frequently used includes laptop hook-up, projection equipment, TV/DVD, overhead projector, flip charts and markers, microphone, etc. Note it is important to find out in advance what types of technology the conference organizers will provide. Don't assume that any of these resources is "standard" and will be supplied - ask!

Peer Review

Meeting abstracts, extended abstracts, and proposals are generally peer reviewed prior to acceptance for presentation. In general, peer review is usually performed by the conference planning committee, a session organizer, and/or one or more individuals who have agreed to perform this purpose. In general, review criteria usually include relevance of the presentation to the overall conference and session themes and the technical quality of the work described. The proposal may also be evaluated based on how well written it is as this provides an indication of how likely the speaker is to be an effective communicator. Since criteria vary widely it is vital that prospective presenters obtain, review, and follow the guidelines for submission of abstracts, extended abstracts and/or proposals carefully prior to submission. The work outlined in your proposal should be novel and should not have been previously presented at any other conference or published anywhere. The proposal can describe work in progress if the work will be completed at the time at which it will be presented.

Selecting a Conference

Considerations when selecting a conference are generally practical and include:

  • The quantity and nature of your research findings - how significant are they? How many people will they impact - researchers in your area of specialization? Or is it a more global impact?
  • Your prior experience as a presenter - If you have never presented at a conference before it might be a good idea to get your feet wet by presenting at a local or regional conference where you can practice your presentation, hone your presentation skills, etc. and
  • Financial - generally participants must pay a registration fee to attend and if the conference you want to attend is not local you will need to pay for your travel, lodging, and subsistence. Local conferences tend to be less expensive however they may not provide you the same opportunities as national conferences.

There is no right "time" or "age" at which you should consider participating in a conference. IYou will derive more from the experience of attending a conference if you have work to present, if you are confident in your understanding of your work and are able to effectively orally communicate your work to others. If you are interested in presenting at a conference, your first step should be to discuss your interest in presenting your work with your research advisor. If both of you decide that you do have something vital to contribute then you need to consider some practical issues including which meeting you will attend, what the cost of attending the meeting will be, and whether or not there are any funds available to support your travel to the meeting. In general local or regional conferences are less expensive than national conferences and their location may eliminate travel and lodging.

You don't have to present at a local meeting before you consider presenting at a national conference though the experience of presenting at a local or regional meeting may help you hone your presentation skills and improve your self-confidence.