Last week our neuroimaging team attended the annual Flux Society Congress in Berlin. For PhD student Réka Borbás this was one of the first international conferences and she describes her impressions and learning experiences within the following blog post.
Réka Borbás (left), PhD student from Basel, Switzerland, together with Nora M. Raschle (middle) and Lynn V. Fehlbaum (right).
Written by Réka Borbás:
I have been a PhD student for almost a year and aside from meetings within our collaborative consortium and national gatherings, the Flux Congress in Berlin was the first meeting for me, where I knew I would get to see and meet many excellent scientists of the field I’m working in. I didn’t really know whether I should be nervous about this, but I felt great to be able to attend this meeting together with my team.
For this meeting, we planned that I would present a poster about my PhD work so far. To avoid the “deadline-stress” I started working on the content pretty early on, which gave me and my supervisor plenty of time to discuss the content, provide feedback and adapt where needed. I would absolutely recommend this for any student, but also in consideration for your advisors, who may not be available as much at the last moment as you need it. Even if you can only work on it each day for half an hour, it is nice to have some extra time at the end to work on the design, layout et cetera.
I was super motivated to prepare the poster and summarize my work to date, but as I started to make a list with background that I would want to include, it quickly became way too much content. I really struggled to cut down on all the writing I had so carefully collected. And of course I thought: “This is your first official introduction into the scientific society; you have to make a good impression, and show everything that could potentially be important”. Mistake! Thank god for my supervisor, who had no problem reducing the content without blinking an eye. Since we have talked about the art of cutting down a message, I knew this was not in disrespect to my work, but intended to improve the readability for the given presentation format. The best thing about the work coming along my poster preparation was that I really became aware of the amount of work that I did in the past year. I find academic work to be somewhat unsatisfying in the sense that it rarely creates something visible or tangible. It is unlike for example a construction worker, florist or cake baker (i.e., at the end of baking you got a cake in front of you). As an early career academic, where writing is often the sole output at the end of year-long work, moments like these, when one summarizes the work for a poster or a talk provide an opportunity to look back and be proud of the work that has been done.
At the conference I was somewhat nervous, especially before my poster presentation. But I was also looking forward to getting my first feedback on the work we have been doing for some time now. My poster was located at a pretty hidden spot, so I didn’t expect many people to come by, but in the end there were quite some people dropping by and asking questions. Before we had gone to the conference, I practiced a bit at home to be prepared to answer questions or give a short walk through my poster. This helped me to stay concise. My impression was that people tend to guide you with their questions and interests. My recommendation therefore would be that you don’t have to worry too much about preparing for all different scenarios. You are an expert on this topic after working on it for a while, and even if you do not know all the answers, there is no shame in admitting that and getting interesting input from the people around. It’s the bonus students still have. Use it! Experiencing the interested reactions and encouragement of the people coming by my poster gave me a boost of confidence and a feeling that it was worth to having previously invested all the time and effort in the project. Oh and don’t worry if there is no one coming by for 15 minutes. It feels like a life time to stand there, but it happens to all of us, is ok and not at all reflecting the quality of your work and poster. I would encourage you to stay put, and not to take down your poster too early. Ultimately, I stayed a little longer and a lot of presenters already took down their posters, but that’s your chance to chat with the more interested people.
Réka Borbás and her poster presented at the Flux Congress 2018.
Preparing a presentation for the first time is special, but there is much more to scientific conferences. Seeing the talks of leading researchers of your field gives you new perspective, novel ideas and very often also a boost of motivation for your own projects. The truly great talks are those breaking down really complicated knowledge into understandable pieces of information.
Getting the opportunity to meet the some of the best-known scientists of the field can be scary. I have to admit that I was really at a loss of words and felt super clumsy. I kept thinking that it is like meeting some rockstar backstage. What I did learn from these encounters was that most of the people are really approachable and interested to foster and encourage the upcoming generation of researchers. So, know when to give someone a break, but go for it!
There is no denying about the most common side effect of meeting big shot, amazingly great people. All the success and visible experience of people around you can give any researcher and particularly students the feeling of inferiority. I found myself thinking: “When will I ever get there? There is no chance of me ever being that good, so why bother? ” If this is not you, good for you! But otherwise, just know that you are most certainly not alone. There is probably someone thinking of you or the people around them in a similar way. Use role models as an inspiration and not a discouragement.
To sum this post up, here are some of the notes that I wish to remember and share with other students preparing for their first presentations:
- Start preparing early, even if you can only do small chunks at a time. This will help to avoid last minute stress and night-shifts
- Resist the urge to include everything on your poster
- Don’t spend too much time on the layout and design at the beginning (like I did), prepare content first and adjust design accordingly
- Don’t be afraid of presenting, after all-you’re the expert on your poster
- Be ready to summarize your content really concisely, highlighting interesting information
- You will almost always discover some small mistake or typo after printing, even after triple-checking – a smaller-version pre-print can help
- Don’t be discouraged if people don’t stop at your poster
- It can be intimidating talking to experts of the field, but it is totally worth it to do so
- Do not compare yourself to others, but use their success as inspiration
- Use the social events to socialize and follow-up on new connections post meeting
Hopefully, these are helpful to you. This meeting for me was a great experience and I am happy to having had the courage to speaking with many attendees.
Summary sketch of the Flux Meeting in Berlin (by Nora Raschle).