A Grad Student’s Guide to Conferences Part I. Planning for conferences

by Matthew Nielsen Dec. 2016

Don’t know where to start? Please check out our list of upcoming major conferences.

When should I start thinking about conferences?


“But conference season isn’t until Summer,” you might protest. It’s true, the majority of conferences are in summer, but abstract and registration deadlines are earlier, sometimes much earlier. As an extreme example, the deadline to submit a presentation to the European Society for Evolutionary Biology’s conference is January 10, when the conference itself isn’t until August. Thus, the time to start thinking about conference is now. You don’t need to sort everything out, but you should at least make a list of conferences you would want to go to, and make sure you know the relevant deadlines. Thinking about conferences sooner rather than later can also help keep costs down (see below).

Should I attend a conference?


Of course there are always caveats and cases where attending conferences may not be possible (e.g. summer field seasons), but in general attending conferences is valuable at any stage of your career. Late in your graduate career, conferences are obviously important for networking, sharing your research, and finding postdoc opportunities, but even early in graduate school you can get a lot from conferences. For a new graduate student, conferences can give you feedback on your research ideas from your field outside your department, as well as new ideas from what others in your field are doing. By attending conferences early, you’ll get these ideas and feedback in time to actually address them in your own graduate research. Attending conferences early can also give you a head start on the networking you’ll eventually need, so while it may be more intimidating, it can really pay off in the long run.

Which conference should I attend?

Unsurprisingly, this is a much harder question. There are so many conferences you could attend, and each is unique. That said, one of the clearest distinctions among conferences is their size. The smallest conferences, either regional meetings or on very specific topics, may have fewer than 100 attendees, while the biggest may have over 4,000. Both sizes have their pros and cons. Small conferences are usually less overwhelming, and it can be easier to meet specific people at them; however, that same smaller size means you can’t reach as broad an audience and you may miss good connections outside of your subdiscipline. Large conferences, on the other hand, give you the opportunity to expose yourself to a wide range of ideas and approaches. Although their size can make them intimidating and make finding specific people hard, with some planning they can be quite manageable. If you’re considering several large conferences, look to see what symposiums they have that year and if any fit your own research interests. These symposia can give you some of the benefits of a smaller conference within the context of a large one.

I’ve listed some of the major North American conferences that would be relevant to ASN members at the end of this post, but there’s no way I could list all of the smaller conferences available. Ask your advisor members of the lab about conferences they’ve attended. They can provide some of the best advice, but if you find a different conference that seems relevant to your interests, don’t be afraid to give it a try.

What if no-one else from my lab is going?

 Go anyway.

While having your advisor present at a conference can make networking a lot easier, it’s not impossible on your own (I’ll give more advice for this in a future post). Smaller conferences may be easier to attend on your own, but even large conferences can be worthwhile. An advantage of going to conferences independently from your advisor is that it helps distinguish you and your research from theirs, which will ultimately be important for finding a job. My first time attending evolution, there not only was no-one else from my lab, but only a couple others from my university. It was certainly intimidating, but it forced me to introduce myself to people (including other graduate students) that I may never have met if I could have just hung out with people I already knew. In the years since, I’ve not only built a broader professional network because of this first experience, but I’ve become good friends with many of these people.

Should I present?


If you truly have nothing, you can still get some networking benefits and ideas from a conference that you only attend, but you will get much more out of your conference if you have something to present, even if it’s uncertain or small. Early in a research project, I find presenting a poster quite valuable because it facilitates deeper discussions of your current research and future plans. I’ve gotten some great ideas for how to improve my projects from poster presentations, and had the time to pick the brain of the folks suggesting the ideas. I wouldn’t have had that time with an oral presentation. Once you’re more confident in your results, you can start giving talks, which are good for telling a specific story to a larger audience.

But what if I don’t have my data yet?

Not a problem.

Most titles and details of the abstract change between submission and presentation, often substantially, and conferences understand that. If you already knew the answer, the results wouldn’t be very exciting, would they? So long as you’re reasonably confident that you’ll have some data by the conference, go ahead and register to present on it. It can be a great incentive to keep yourself on task and actually get the research done. That said, since many people will be choosing to attend your talk or poster based on its title, do try to keep to the same overall subject. If you’re highly uncertain, keep the title and abstract a little more ambiguous, but otherwise specific details are important for convincing people to attend your presentation.

How can I afford to attend a conference?

Sometimes, you’ll be fortunate, and your advisor will be able to cover your attendance at a conference, but this won’t always be the case. Travel isn’t cheap, especially on a graduate student budget, but with proper planning you can go a long way on a little. First, you can look for places to apply for travel funding. Often departments or universities will have travel grants from $500-$1000 you can apply for specifically to attend conferences. Also look to the conferences and societies themselves, which will often provide some form of funding. In some cases this will be awarded by lottery among eligible students. Funding from conferences can also come in the form of reduced registration for volunteering for part of the conference.

Often, you’ll still need to chip in some of your own money, but this is where careful planning and budgeting comes in. Make sure to register early to get the discounted rate (where the planning ahead mentioned above comes in). Also, make sure you’re a member of the relevant society. The cost of membership is usually much less than the savings when registering for the conference. Another easy way to save money is on housing. Sharing a room is the first step, but not the only. Official conference housing is rarely the cheapest (with the exception of dorms, which sometimes still aren’t the cheapest). If you’re willing to walk 10-20 minutes to get to the conference venue, you can often save $50 or more a night on a room. Hostels and airbnb can provide especially cheap lodging if you’re travelling solo and don’t need as much privacy. Airfare is the last major cost of attending most conferences. It’s more difficult to save on, but buying your ticket in advance can help a lot. Also, sometimes you can find a much cheaper tickets one to two days before or after the conference. If you’ve found cheaper housing (such as a dorm or hostel), this can still be a net savings while giving you a little time for sight-seeing. Applying for additional funding and careful budgeting tips can make the difference between being able to attend two to three conferences a year and none.

How long should I plan to attend?

The whole conference.

Plus a couple more days if possible. Conferences usually start with an opening reception the evening of the first day. It may be tempting to skip it and show up late that evening or early the next day, but these are often some of the best networking opportunities of the conference. Closing receptions can be a bit more hit-or-miss, but if they are free or inexpensive (not always the case) they usually worth giving a try, and you usually want to stay for the last afternoon of talks regardless. If you can at all find the time and budget, I would strongly recommend either arriving a day or two before or leaving a day or two after the conference to do some sightseeing. Conferences are usually in really cool places easily worth visiting on their own. The cost of an extra day or two is usually small relative to the cost of getting there, so this provides an easy way to fit some personal travel into your schedule which can otherwise be hard as a grad student. I’ve personally found that the extra time helps to either energize me for the conference or going back to work afterwards.


Once we get closer to the summer, I’ll post another guide about making the most of your conferences, but for now, I hope this helps you better prepare for the coming year of conferences.


Upcoming Major North American Conferences

by Matthew Nielsen Dec. 2016

Evolution—June 23-27 2017, Portland, Oregon:

Early registration deadline—April 15, 2017; Presentation submission deadline—May 20, 2017. The big evolution conference, but it’s a pretty broad interpretation of the topic, and thanks to ASN’s involvement, it includes some ecology as well. It’s jointly sponsored by ASN, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Society for Systematic Biology, and typically has ~1600 attendees. Personally, it’s my favorite of the major conferences.


American Society of Naturalists—Jan 5-9, 2018, Asilomar, California:

This isn’t one of the big conferences (attendance is capped at 200), but given that it’s ours, I figured it should be mentioned. It’s biennial and not until next winter, and each year is focused around three specific symosia.


Animal Behavior Society—June 12-16 2017, Toronto, Canada:

The major meeting for animal behavior, including plenty of behavioral ecology. It typically has ~600 attendees, so it’s on the smaller end for national/international society meetings.


Ecological Society of America—August 6-11 2017, Portland, Oregon:

Presentation submission deadline—February 23, 2017. This is the really big one, with attendance usually on the scale of ~4,000. I’ve never been personally, but it covers pretty much all aspects of ecology and is big enough that there should be something for everyone (if you can find it).


Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology—January 3-7 2018, San Francisco, California:

Formerly known as the American Zoological Society, SICB covers all levels of biological organization, but has an especially strong organismal focus. It usually has ~2,000 attendees. The Division of Ecology and Evolution has a strong presence, and the society’s integrative goals align pretty well with those of ASN overall, so if you study animals and are looking for an off-season meeting, this is a good choice. There is a 2017 meeting in New Orleans, but it’s a bit late to register, so I listed the 2018 meeting instead.


Is there a big meeting of likely interest to graduate student members of ASN that I missed? (I’ll admit, I know the animal-oriented conferences better than those for plants or microbes, so I wouldn’t be surprised). Let me know at maerniel@live.unc.edu.