Almost every field of study has a large gathering once or twice a year. Some have more, some less, some are broken down by region or sub-field, but they have a one big thing in common: people in your chosen field are going to get together to share their work. This will usually be done in papers given (little speeches often with power-point), or posters (large sheets of paper with all your data on them). As I am currently totally procrastinating writing my talk for next weekend (ugh!) I thought I'd touch on this topic a bit today.
I have a small confession about conferences: I really don't like them. Now, I know a lot of people do, and find them totally engaging and a great way to meet people. I don't. Just the thought of them kind of makes my stomach curl into a small ball and roll around my abdomen (wow, that was a strange image!). BUT, I still end up going to them, because they are a great thing to add to your CV, and a good way to get some traction for your work. For those of you applying to grad school, they are a great way to see what research is currently being undertaken by researchers of choice, and also a great way to introduce yourself to potential collaborators and advisers. Of course, if you're shy like me, you might also find yourself grumbling at the thought of talking to people you don't know, and quaking at the thought of having to get up and deliver a paper to a room full of people (why this is different from giving a lecture to a few hundred students--which I really don't mind--is totally beyond me).
|I swear this is what every room I've given a talk in looks like!|
If you are looking to speak with certain people while at the conference, making an appointment ahead of time is a good thing to do--a quick email of introduction and reason for why you'd like to take a few minutes of their time is fair warning. Then you should attend their talk and actively listen--maybe come up with some questions. If you know someone who is a mutual friend with the person, have them introduce you (this works best, imho, as I think it helps cement who you are and can make things easier to start a conversation). Also, be brief. Conferences are hectic with stuff going on all the time. If you're meeting afterwards for dinner/drinks (of which there are always a lot), that's a different story, but waylaying a person in the hallway to chat is probably not the best thing to do, at least for very long. Also, if the person doesn't look eager to talk, don't take it personally: they are probably trying to hustle to their next meeting. It happens. Sending an email later, with some detailed (but not trip-them-up) questions can also be good to do.
Dang, that last paragraph has a lot of random stuff in it. Overall, remember conferences can be great resources. But they're also chock full of presentations, meetings, and oftentimes beer. You can gain a lot if you're willing to put yourself out there and speak with people, along with listening to all the talks. If you're shy, as I said before, bring a friend. It makes things a whole lot better, and you don't have to look like a total dork wandering around for days by yourself (*ahem* like I have for the past several years *ahem*).
Okay, now I swear I'm going to go work on that talk. Really. Honestly. Right after breakfast.