Given that I binge-read blogs about SfN before going to my first one (I don’t know why. I just did), I thought I’d give back and write a bit about my experience. This SfN 2016 was set in San Diego, California. As years before, there were over 30,000 attendees. So, it was pretty intense. Prior to going I had discussions with SfN veterans (i.e. postdocs) at my university, so I thought I was prepared, but really it is pretty intense. So for first timers, here is my advice. It’s pretty general to any major conference.

Self Care

  • Arrive early. I flew in the afternoon before, but I think an extra day would have helped with jet lag. In the absence of this, I just slept fairly early (9-10pm) the first few days and consumed a lot of coffee. But a day to settle in would have meant I might have had more stamina to begin with.

  • Take breaks. It’s ok to miss a few things or not spend all your time staring at posters or sitting in talks. If you’re really not feeling it, sleep in or go back to recharge. If you do stick around, chill out by checking out exhibitor stands or sitting somewhere with a coffee. The morning I slept in was followed by the best I felt the entire conference, and made me much more ready to science than if I’d dragged myself there.

  • Live close-ish. Again, I didn’t get this chance but it probably would have helped, for cab fares if not having an occasional nap (I often got a non-essential hour free at the end of poster sessions).

Having fun

  • Go to socials (but take it easy). I had the most fun at SfN Banter but there are socials for different themes (topics, career levels, nationality, etc.). On average I went to two per night. FWIW I didn’t find the “SfN Sponsored Socials” very interesting so keep an eye out for other ones via Twitter.

  • Use (or get) Twitter. This is preaching to the choir but honestly, Twitter was so useful for finding stuff to do and saving me in many ways. I think I would have done 90% less in terms of meeting people and having good food if it hadn’t been for Twitter.

  • Explore elsewhere! I only stayed a couple days past the conference but I really enjoyed the opportunity to see other places and generally unwind from the conference. Although I was fine during the conference, it was only when I got to relax (by seeing sea lions in La Jolla!) that I realised it had been an emotionally intense experience.

Posters > Talks

I was repeatedly told this by SfN veterans and I’m glad I listened. The few talks I went to (that were directly incredibly relevant) were fairly useful but I definitely got more out of interacting with poster presenters. Also, for presenting, I would almost unreservedly give a poster for the longer interaction it offers with attendees (five minute Q&A vs. Four. Whole. Hours.).

  • Keep your eyes open. Due to the aforementioned advice, I ended up getting more free time than anticipated, and was able to randomly wander around quite a few times. The most interesting things I saw at the conference were often not planned. A few times I ended up double-taking because the poster I just walked past was being presented by authors of papers I’ve used as inspiration for my work or read because they were doing very similar things. Additionally I ended up walking past some very interesting work that may not be relevant but were still cool to learn about.

  • Budget for only a few posters per session. For me, 3-5 posters per session was the sweet spot for really getting the time to engage with posters (15-30 minutes each). However …

  • Keep a back-up list. In case the posters are busy or withdrawn, or maybe turn out to be less interesting than you anticipated, save a list of 5-10 others of secondary interests or friends if you get the time (which I did, frequently).

  • Priority label your itinerary. With the above said, it’s super useful (if you’re over-organised like me) to label your posters by priority (you can export your itinerary to google calendar!). Sounds like overkill but this gave me a quick way to see how many posters were essential per session and ration my time accordingly. Perhaps most importantly, it also let me (once) see which morning I could give a miss after a late night..

Things to pack you might not have packed

  • Notebook and pen. Really, there were a lot of things I wrote down that I completely forgot I had looked at.

  • Phone charger. Due to frequent use of Twitter (and Uber/Lyft) I quickly ran out of battery many times. Bring one with several charges.

  • Coffee thermos. I eventually abandoned this due to weight but in the initial few jet lagged days, it was a lifesaver to have a thermos full of filter coffee I topped up in the morning.