#SfN13: Tips and tricks for first-timers

I remember my first time at an SfN annual meeting. Overwhelming is a gross understatement. Back then I had way too much enthusiasm, way too little training and no concrete project of my own. I went in with the solid determination to take in as much as I can.

BAD idea.

There is NO way you’ll be able to attend every session, talk or poster you’d like to see. Especially when everything sounds interesting. Add in the pressure of trying to network (if you’re an introvert like me) or establish collaborations, and the experience may even deteriorate into terrifying.

What do?

Here’s some advice to first-timers from someone who’s gone a few times. I’m far from an expert (and can only speak for myself), so feel free to chime in if you have anything to add. (Edit: Scroll down to the bottom for advice from Dr. Tim Murphy, University of British Columbia)


That’s only part of it. Yikes. Source: brainscholars.blogspot.com

Prepare in advance. It’s close to impossible to get the best out of SfN without some serious planning. The meeting planner is your friend. Use the search function (it’s not Google unfortunately, so choose your terms wisely). Then when you have time, browse the itinerary – I always discover things I missed. Hubbian is an alternative planner that’s free to use. It lets you build and save multiple abstract lists and is mobile compatible. You can also upvote abstracts and see how many times they’ve been viewed in the Hubbian system.

Prioritize! I can’t stress this enough. Ask your advisor and senior graduate students on which topics to REALLY focus on; generally, this would be related to your project. If you have a project that solidly fits into a theme, then you’re lucky (say, Huntington’s). Check out abstracts of posters under that theme; list then from highly relevant -> less so. Unfortunately the meeting planner doesn’t have that function; so write it down. Limit the number of posters you see in a day; the more you see the less you remember. If you have time by the end of the day (which you probably don’t), look through your notes or discuss what you’ve seen with your peers. Helps you remember.

When you’re done, check out things (and people) that you’re interested in. If you’re an undergraduate looking for a grad advisor, or PhD grad looking for a post-doc, posters are a great way to start talking to the PIs (and their grad students) you want to work with. Ask questions about their work, how their labs are run. It’s like a less-formal interview. If you hit if off, go out for lunch/coffee together, then follow up with an email after the conference. Personally I find posters much better for networking than official socials. The latter always seem more stressful and people tend to stick together with people they know.

If you’re an undergrad or junior grad without a project or with a project that doesn’t fit any specific subfield (ie technique), it gets a bit trickier. Think hard about what you want to do and what your lab’s interests are – then talk to your advisor. If you’re working on a technique, think about what area it might be used for and scout out things in that area. I worked on developing a protein degradation method for most of my PhD studies; at meetings I tend to check out protein accumulation diseases. It’s not a perfect fit, but it tends to open doors to collaborations.

If you don’t have a solid area of interest yet, then I would suggest sticking more to lectures and seminars. Posters are great to check out advancements in a field, but not that great in introducing you to the field. It’s still best to have a vague idea of what areas interest you the most – think about it as applying to grad school, you will have to choose a lab. What would the lab’s focus be on?

Screen Shot 2013-10-31 at 11.29.47 AM

Freebies. I usually scout out the exhibitioners during lunch break or when my brain needs a rest. Don’t go when they’re still preparing. Tote bags and pens are a-plenty; cooler swag generally include T-shirts (I think F1000 gave some out last year), pipette-shaped pens, posters, pins (Elsevier has them), notebooks (Nature Publishing Group often has those), brain-shaped squeeze sponges and neuron plushies (above). Word-of-mouth is generally the best way to know what this year’s pickings are. Twitter is also a good source of info – follow the hashtag #SfN13, many vendors tweet.

If you take their stuff, don’t grab and run. Talk to them. I especially like talking to people from publishing houses – about open access, journal subscription, working in journal marketing etc. It’s a nice break from science and an opportunity to get a first-hand account of work options beyond the bench.


Socially awkward penguin scientist. Source: http://drawception.com/

Socials. The one that I make sure I go to every year is #SfNbanter. It’s organized by the GREAT! @doc_becca and always attracts a wide group of social media savvy-neuroscientists, science journalists, editors and publishers. Great conversations. I’m met MANY of my personal sci communication heroes there. I can’t recommend it enough.

I have to admit other than that I usually just chill-out in the hotel (introvert). UCSD generally organizes good socials; follow them at @UCSDNeuro on Twitter for news. Otherwise keep your eyes and ears open, there’s always something going on.

If you’re still confused, PDW07.Getting the Most Out of SfN: The Annual Meeting and Beyond (Saturday, Nov 09, 2013, 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM) might be worth checking out.

@Neurolore has a great packing list on her blog. I’d like to stress a few more things:

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  • Passport and US dollars if you’re international.
  • Comfortable shoes. You’re going to be doing a LOT of walking (I averaged around 30766 steps per day last year) so bring the best you own. Flip-flops are ok!
  • Poster tube strap (see left). I got this idea from @scicurious. Last year I used a present-wrapping ribbon and clipped it in on both sides; tape also works. You can free up a hand for other luggage, plus it makes your poster tube easier to find.
  •  Chargers for your devices. Wifi tends to be a bit shaky at the convention centre causing battery drain. I always make sure to have one on me at all times.

Let me know if I missed anything! Don’t worry if you don’t see everything or meet anyone your first time at the conference. If you keep running into the same people, you’ll make an impression. Bottom line, there’s no need to stress about it more than you have to. Plan to the best you can and then go enjoy yourself.

Edit: Dr. Tim Murphy has kindly provided additional advice from a PI’s point-of-view. Two things stood out for me: meet your funders, and get excited!

Here’s the full list!

1) Have a plan before you go. Use all modern tools available, itinerary planner, perhaps new, even social media tools that may be available. Share your itinerary with others in your lab to make sure all the relevant presentations are found.  Make sure you search key people in your field and search on particular methods you may want to explore.

2) Learn something new, branch out. I’ve seen too many people making rounds of posters of their colleagues at their own university. Make a concerted effort to see new work.

3) Fuel up; make sure you have enough food and water for the whole day. The Convention Centre food and drinks are notoriously bad and overpriced and there are long lines. Convention centres seem to be at least 5 km from reasonably priced food.  I typically buy a sandwich in the morning of the conference and take it with me along with some drinks and extra food. This allows me to get through the day and to see some key posters between 12PM and 1PM as the take down and put up time is often a quiet period over which one-on-one questions can be handled.

4) Dress comfortably and wear comfortable shoes. This sounds obvious, but one can walk at least 10 to 15k within the Convention Centre. One thing limiting you getting the most of the meeting is fatigue. Also, in a related note, try to plan your movement through poster sessions, so that you avoid backtracking.

5) Every day and every session has something truly amazing; there are no afternoons or mornings off. You all have given some oral presentations and you know how much time is put into this. Celebrate the presentations of others. If you are tired and you’ve seen enough posters, camp out in a symposium; perhaps learn something new, that is related to your topic of research. This is our opportunity to catch up on a lot of research. A few years ago in New Orleans I decided to go out to an evening presentation and had a joy of hearing Christopher Reeve speak. Sadly, this joy is no longer available.

6) Meet your suppliers. This is a great opportunity to ask technical questions from camera or microscope manufacturers or any manufacturer in that regard.

7) Know your funders. Quiz the people at CIHR/NIH about their programs and way they see trainee funding going. Give them feedback.

8) Get excited, empower yourself. There are two ways of looking at the meeting: first is that it is extremely intimidating. There are 30,000 neuroscientists here. The other way to look at this is: “This is exciting; I’m a part of the group of 30,000 doing cutting edge research on the brain”.

9) Take lots of notes. Perhaps, the easiest thing to do is to pick up an old-style composition notebook and write a few notes on each poster. This will go a long way in jogging your memory afterwards.

10) De-brief after the meeting. When you return to your home lab, tell people of what was good and what you learned. Also, share with your PI both strengths and weaknesses of your own work that you learned about by presenting your poster.

Above all, enjoy yourself and use the meeting as a key professional development experience that it is meant to be.


4 thoughts on “#SfN13: Tips and tricks for first-timers

  1. Great tips! I’d also tell people to attend the graduate school fair if they are looking into PhD programs. I will be helping out for my school. Also, comfortable shoes is a must and I like your prioritize by importance/session. I would also tell people, make sure you consider the map when deciding how you’ll approach your posters-to-see. E.g. If you want to see a poster at B4, D20 and ZZZ1, you should probably do the first two on the way to ZZZ since its almost a mile haha. See you at the meeting!


  2. Found your article in a retweet. My background is in Computer Science and I’d say your advice works for ANY CS conference I attended. It’s reassuring to read your tips since I’m headed to my first SFN conference this week. Thanks for the post.

  3. Wow … good recommendations. I agree that they are applicable to other fields. I’ll make sure to pass them on to first time conference-goers at my university. I’m from computer science and focus on human-computer interaction (and sometimes machine learning). Via the link of “software psychology” -> cognition, neuroscience is also of interest to me, which is what brought me to your blog.
    Regarding the topic: I already thought that the biggest conference in my field (CHI) is overwhelmingly big/intense with ~3.000 attendants … 30.000 just busts the roof. That poster-session looks crazy.
    Good thing you seem to have a strategy … from my perspective I’d add another item concerning “Get into social events”. If you have super-awesome work to show (which I’m sure, you personally do ;), chances are that some people who might become important in your future remember you from on-site interactions. However, the after-hours / off-site interactions with attendees have, to me, certainly shown to generate lasting shared memories and closer social bonds, which of course matter beyond pragmatic reason.

    Keep on posting 🙂 !

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