Networking, Presenting, and Exploring at Scientific Conferences
I write this post watching the November snowfall through an airport window in Madison en route to San Diego for the Society for Neuroscience conference. I’m looking forward to the science, sunshine, tacos, and friends that await me. I want to share why going to conferences is such an excellent way to network, build community, and develop as a scientist for undergraduate and graduate students alike.
There’s a few key experiences that helped me in MD/PhD admissions and allowed me to get a foot in the door at several top-tier programs. My recommendations require vulnerability and discomfort — you have to put yourself out there if you want to find opportunity. You will be rewarded for doing the things that other students are afraid to do. Rejection and awkward conversations can induce anxiety, and public speaking is nerve-wracking. I want to convince you that it is worth it and that the potential for growth through these experiences is a compelling reason to go for it.
Networking opens doors that you didn’t know existed
My first research conference as an undergraduate was the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). I had been to research symposia at local events, but nothing of international scale. I presented my summer research project with underrepresented neuroscientists from the WashU St. Louis ENDURE program. At this time, I was awaiting interview invitations for MD/PhD programs and was eager to form relationships with people at programs of interest. In some cases, I failed awkwardly; others, led to fruitful connections. I’ll tell you about both.
The failure happened after a successful cold email to a Stanford professor who was a match for my research interests in synaptic development. They were colleagues with my summer research PI, and perhaps due to this connection, agreed to meet with me. It was an informal meet, just a simple “meet me by the posters near the organoid display”. In preparation, I read a couple papers from the lab and practiced my research pitch. The conversation seemed hurried; evidently, the professor had things to do. After our brief introduction, I explained that I was applying to Stanford’s MSTP and that I found their research to be a great match for my interests. I explained my background and why I would be a great fit for their lab. Things were going smoothly, then, lacking something more to say, I asked the PI to tell me about the ongoing projects in their lab. He looked at me and said, “you can find all that information on my website,” cold stop. I froze, realizing I should have already known this information. I perceived disinterest on their face and thanked them for the chance to meet, reiterating that I’d like to talk again if invited to interview at Stanford. The conversation was over, and I walked away feeling self-critical that I had not been more prepared. While in retrospect I realize that the professor could have been nicer and more open to talk about the work that excited them, I took away the lesson that good preparation for such encounters cannot be emphasized enough. I might have missed my shot with this professor, but my desire to connect with the Stanford MSTP remained strong.
My second opportunity happened at a networking event one evening. I attended with my friend, Julia, who was also considering an MD/PhD. Grateful to have her support as we walked into a room of strangers, we grabbed a beverage and surveyed the room for an opening into a conversation. I saw a person with a badge that said “Stanford” and started a conversation, this one more jovial. They encouraged me to meet MSTP students who were huddled around a table, somewhat closed off. Intimidated, Julia and I walked to the group and waited for an opportunity to make introductions. One thing I’ve learned is that people are often judgmental, but that this shouldn’t stop you from overcoming expectations. My badge read “University of Oklahoma”, which to many reads “flyover state and conservative person”. People are quick to place expectations on you based on preconceived notions about where you’re from and what you look like without actually knowing anything about you. As long as you don’t let this limit you, it doesn’t matter. Julia and I found a way to strike a great conversation with the group. I noticed an evident shift in the group’s demeanor the moment I mentioned “first-generation Moroccan-American applying MD-PhD”. This is part of the social game that you must learn to play. It’s an unfortunate reality, but a reality it is, nonetheless. Julia and I were able to exchange contact info with a couple students, and these connections were helpful as I was trying to find potential research mentors at Stanford. Ideally, ones who were excited to share their research.
After leaving the social, Julia said something to me that I’ll never forget. She said, “Jake, how do you have the confidence to just walk up to a group like that and start talking? I wouldn’t have been able to do that alone.” It struck me because earlier that day I had been shot down, and I was nervous the entire time. I had become keenly aware of the “Oklahoma” judgements, and I knew Stanford’s MSTP was a major reach. For me, it was obvious that the only way I had a chance of actually reaching the dream of a program like Stanford was to use my personality and form genuine relationships. While I’ve since grown away from the idea of “fake it ’til you make it”, this was how I approached these situations. I acted like I belonged in that room, and most importantly, I wanted to reveal who I am beyond the badge label.
These lessons were critical growth experiences, and the skills you gain from these encounters compound. I realized this effect at my next conference, not long after SfN, at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory meeting on Axon Guidance, Synapse Formation, and Regeneration, which I attended solo. This meeting was much smaller with a more niche topic of focus. I enamored the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory campus at Long Island; the rich history of scientific discovery and beautiful harbor offered an amazing experience.
Building community reminds you that your experiences are not isolated
As a solo traveler at the conference, I had to take initiative to find a seat among strangers. People notice if you’re trying and will open up to you if you give it a chance. I found community in a group from the University of Pennsylvania, who adopted me during the conference. There are typically “meet the expert” sessions at conferences, and I encourage you to attend and ask questions. People want to know your personal story as much as they want to know about your science. After a nice conversation with a UPenn professor in which he expressed regret for not choosing MD/PhD, they introduced me to their lab. The grad students were relaxed and teased me warmly about choosing MD/PhD instead of PhD alone. That’s how I knew I was part of the group. With my new peers, networking became easier. There were other lab groups from UPenn who I was introduced to and my circle grew. They taught me how to eat a lobster, shared experiences about grad school, and encouraged me to pick their lab if I was invited to interview at UPenn.
Moreover, have you ever seen a tenured professor dance at an evening social? It’s hilarious and humanizing. The perceived barriers I set in my mind about the prestige of an Ivy like UPenn washed away watching the middle-aged white professors cupid shuffle. Why was I nervous to talk with them? The evening social is a time for the brilliant and shy professors to loosen up, and I’ve had wonderfully deep and revealing conversations at these socials. I remember sitting with a professor from Yale who pioneered stem cell technology for studying neurogenesis. I bought us drinks, and we talked about life and science for hours. When I received an invitation to interview for Yale MSTP, I chose to meet with them. It was surreal to arrive in their lab at Yale months later, and the rapport we had established allowed us to connect on another level. They even remembered to buy me a drink in return — this time a coffee.
The best opportunities are found in the hard things that most people are afraid to do
I’m not a social butterfly. My friends would say I’m great with people, but also that I’m the quiet and thoughtful type. I get triggered when people tell me to talk more at social gatherings. I deal with anxiety, and the fear of sounding stupid. While it happens less and less as I’ve grown, I still must make an effort to manage these insecurities. I now recognize that the hard things to do are the best opportunities for my personal growth. By engaging in this discomfort, I’ve learned strategies that help me get out of my head. For example, at conferences you will have numerous opportunities to hear interesting scientific talks. How frequently do you ask a question? Especially in front of large audiences, generating the courage to ask a question with the microphone can be challenging. The moment you have a question and consider asking it, your heart will likely start to pound, and your palms might get sweaty. You might experience heightened awareness, and your mind might be overthinking so much that you worry you’ll forget the question if you dare stand up. Lean into this feeling. It’s normal. Here some strategies that might help you do what many students will not at conferences:
- Write down the question. It’s ok to read it from your notes when you’re asking the question.
- Use concise and simple language. Don’t start with multi-part and complicated questions.
- Use your breath to steady your heart rate. Long exhales reduce heart rate.
- Do it even if you think the answer is obvious. No one in the audience cares that much and few will remember the question, but you and the presenter will remember the experience. You’ll also be the student who actually asked a question.
- Seriously, ask the question. During the talk, listen intently to the speaker if only for the sole purpose of finding a single question to ask at the end.
Preparation and practice are the antidotes to anxiety. Embracing the opportunities where anxiety is induced is key for learning to channel it effectively.
The joy of conferences is traveling and exploring
You should make the most of scientific conferences to learn about the research being done both in and outside your field. It’s where you gain insight into the state-of-the-art and how to communicate effectively. Asking questions at podium and poster sessions, practicing the delivery of your talk, and networking with people are essential experiences. However, I’ve experienced tremendous joy from leaving the conference center to explore the place I’m visiting. At first, I felt guilty for leaving, but in truth, I get bored listening to talks all day — especially if cities like New York and San Diego are waiting to be explored. I encourage you to make time for exploration and play.
At the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, I decided one day to get an Uber from Long Island to NYC. It was probably one of the best decisions I made at the conference. On this day trip, I walked through Times Square, laid in Central Park, and sat on the steps of the Columbia University Library pondering the gratitude of my opportunity. I ate delicious food and talked with strangers who knew nothing about a neuron. For me, this is all part of the conference experience. Likewise, in San Diego, I took a day trip to Coronado beach, ate Taco’s El Gordo, and watched the sunset with friends at Torrey Pine’s Cliffs (see cover photo). Although we were probably missing a keynote lecture, the memory of that sunset conversation will stay with me forever.
Going through MD/PhD preparation and scientific conferences can feel serious at times. Failing to get accepted and missing a shot to pursue your dreams are the last things that students want to go through. Nonetheless, enjoying the process is crucial for long-term sustainability. I work hard to take myself less seriously, and in truth, I struggle with this one. But it’s the moments when I’m fully present and finding joy in the moment when all the work and hustle is most worthwhile. Do the hard things, embrace discomfort for learning, and enjoy the process.