As the train rolls out of a sleepy city in the south west of England, I’m excited and nervous in equal measures. Thanks to a travel grant from the Biochemical Society, I am traveling, with poster in tow, to New York for my very first international conference: the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories meeting on axon guidance, synapse formation and regeneration. The meeting aims to bring together a diverse range of scientists studying various molecular, cellular and genetic aspects of cell migration, axon guidance, synaptogenesis, and developmental plasticity of neural connectivity, with particular emphasis on unifying research in this field.
This all sounds very exciting, and I’m sure I can convince you it’s been good for my career development, but why was I one of a few first year graduate students attending? When I announced to my fellow students that I was traveling four thousand miles for an international conference, the replies were: ‘How did you get the time off?’, ‘I wish I could afford to go’, and ‘But you’re a first year’. Those responses sum up the three major hurdles –gaining your supervisor’s blessing, finding funding, and overcoming your own misconceptions.
HOW DID YOU GET THE TIME OFF?
The answer to this is simple: I asked. Do some research on the conference you wish to attend – is it worth your time? Does it complement and explore your current research theme? Are the speakers respected in your field? Add the icing to your request cake by looking into sources of funding and the provisos you have to consider. Use those skills of persuasion you are honing to perfection to convince your supervisor it’s worth both your whiles. With any luck, your supervisor may even be able to provide some financial support. Remember, you are enhancing your post-PhD employability, something you’ll find yourself pondering a lot.
I WISH I COULD AFFORD IT
It might seem like a huge hassle, but securing funding is possible. We students are always on the verge of not being able to balance the books, but there are lots of opportunities out there. Invest a little time and thought and you’ll at least get part way to subsidising your trip. You’ll more than likely get the chance to explore the locale or take advantage of a nearby city for a few extra days for that well-earned break you’ve been promising yourself. For my recent trip, the setting couldn’t have been more accommodating. The campus on Long Island is luscious, green and blissfully peaceful; the perfect place to let the nuances of every-day bench-life dissolve away and soak up new information. Money well spent.
BUT YOU’RE A FIRST YEAR
Conferences, in general, are not limited to the higher echelons of the scientific community. In fact, many organising bodies actively encourage student attendance. It doesn’t matter if your work isn’t on the verge of publishing, but what does matter is that you get the opportunity to receive critical feedback which will shape your future work. Despite the tight focus at Cold Spring Harbor, attending provided me with a unique opportunity to hear from a wide range of inspiring speakers, I was able to explore different aspects of my own research area, and discover the latest technical advances. Presenting at the poster session gave me the chance to converse with experts and students alike who imparted invaluable constructive criticism on my work. During those two short hours, my confidence grew and my own analytical skills were tested. As a bonus, then comes a different kind of opportunity: networking at the bar. It’s a heady blend of real science (the bit you avoid formally presenting) and real life, punctuated by a drink or two (real scientists are real people, too). Some useful suggestions and comments have since informed the ideas I have about the future of my project and the direction in which I am charging along.
If you’re serious about a career in science, then you’ll have many conferences ahead of you. I hope I have convinced you that attending a conference as a student is not impossible, and that taking the time to go will benefit you hugely in the long run. Good luck!
Guest Blog: Holly Hardy, 2nd year PhD student, University of Exeter, UK
Next General Travel Grant Deadline: 1 May 2015