Ten simple rules for attending your first conference

Published in PLOS Computational Biology, 2021

Recommended citation: Leininger E, Shaw K, Moshiri N, Neiles K, Onsongo G, Ritz A (2021). "Ten simple rules for attending your first conference." PLOS Computational Biology. 17(7):e1009133. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1009133

Conferences are a mainstay of most scientific disciplines, where scientists of all career stages come together to share cutting-edge ideas and approaches. If you do research, chances are you will attend one or more of these meetings in your career. Conferences are a microcosm of their discipline, and while conferences offer different perspectives in different disciplines, they all offer experiences that range from a casual chat waiting in line for coffee to watching someone present their groundbreaking, hot-off-the-press research. Here, we share tips for trainees and their mentors. Our recommendations are based on our experiences of attending conferences and mentoring students to improve their conference experiences. As you head to your first scientific conference, these rules will help you navigate the conference environment and make the most of your experience.

In-person conferences

Scientific meetings have historically been in person, where all attendees travel to one location to share and learn about recent work in the field. Conferences, especially when well organized, can provide valuable opportunities to meet and interact with other researchers. Our rules include considerations for all parts of attending an in-person meeting, including deciding whether to attend and present research, navigating travel and the conference schedule, and debriefing after the conference.

Virtual conferences

During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, many conferences have been and continue to be offered remotely. Even before 2020, some conferences had already moved to a virtual format in response to climate change and/or travel bans, noting the environmental, financial, and geopolitical challenges posed by in-person meetings. Virtual conferences are more inclusive than their in-person counterparts in many ways: More people can attend them from all over the world, virtual meetings are less costly and easier to organize, and attendees can participate from the comfort of their homes. Given that virtual conferences are becoming more commonplace, we include considerations for each rule when attending one.

For mentors

Academic mentorship takes many forms, including advising student research, teaching students in courses, and serving as a department chair or organizer for student activities. In many fields, graduate students mentored by a principal investigator (PI) are expected to disseminate their research at scientific meetings. Conference attendance is a valuable experience for undergraduate students, whether they are presenting research or just beginning to learn about the field. As mentors, you might be working with undergraduates, graduate students, or other staff who may be new to conferences. We offer guidance on ways for you to help mentees navigate the subtleties and assumptions of your field.

Web portal

We have also developed a web portal that contains far more information about these rules, tables of professional societies and conferences in different disciplines, and other resources that may come in handy for first-time conference attendees and their mentors. We encourage any reader to use, adapt, and contribute to these materials. The web portal is available at https://sites.google.com/macalester.edu/simplerules/home.