12 tips to get the most out of a conference without feeling overwhelmed and burned out

It is that time of the year again where we all travel around the world, showcase our work and broaden our network. It is conference season. I recently attended the Australian Marine Science Association (AMSA) conference in Cairns. It was the first in-person conference of my PhD and I had a great time.

Me and my poster at AMSA22.

However, let’s be honest: as inspiring and stimulating these conferences can be, they are also intense at the best of times. I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP), so these conferences can be a lot to handle. Being an HSP means that my central nervous system is more sensitive than the average person as a result of some unique differences in my brain. I kind of see myself as a human sponge – I soak up everything that is happening in my surroundings. It is a pretty common thing – in fact, about 20% of the human population is highly sensitive.

Being highly sensitive can be a great asset – I see small details and make connections that others may overlook, I pick up on emotional cues, and process things very deeply. However, along with these benefits to being an HSP come some disadvantages. Because I see, feel and hear everything that is happening around me, I get easily overwhelmed by bright lights, loud sounds, intense smells and other people’s emotions. And you get a lot of that at a conference.

So how do you get the most out of a conference without getting overwhelmed and burned out (as an HSP)? Here are 12 tips based on my recent experience:

1. Rest and avoid unnecessary stimuli before the conference

When you attend a conference, you better go prepared. Just like you make sure you’ve practiced your talk and printed your poster, the days before the conference can make or break your conference experience. In the days leading up to the big event, it is wise to take extra good care of yourself. Get some extra sleep, eat healthy food, do some light exercise and try to avoid intense social events. Eat, sleep, rest, repeat. I kind of see it as completely emptying my bucket of sensory input, so that when the conference starts, the bucket doesn’t immediately spill over.

2. Identify your conference goals

Everyone goes to a conference with a different goal. Setting a goal before the conference can really help to not get lost in everything that you can see or do.

  • Do you want to learn something new? What exactly do you want to learn and which talk or person could help you master that skill?
  • Find a solution to a research or technical problem? Who or what at the conference can help you solve it?
  • Looking for a job? Are there people attending the conference who you would be interested in working with?
3. Prepare an elevator pitch

While it is anyway smart to prepare an elevator pitch from a professional point of view, it also helps you when everything just gets a little bit too much. Imagine having spent a day listening to talks and talking to strangers. You’re tired and your brain is full. The only thing you want to do is to go to your hotel room and sit in silence. At that exact moment you get introduced to someone you’ve been wanting to talk to but didn’t have the chance yet. Having a strong and short elevator pitch prepared can help you make a great impression without having to use any of that last bit of brain power that you have left.

4. Don’t stay at the conference hotel

Staying at the conference hotel is the most straightforward and easy choice. It is close to the conference, and is saves you time getting to the conference venue. While this seems great, and you can a bit more extra sleep in after a few too many beers with your colleagues, it also keeps you in that ‘work’ environment 24h per day. You easily run into people from the conference during breakfast or when you’re just having a quiet drink at the bar. This makes it hard to take a real break from the conference and properly rest. A quiet hotel in the area is a better option to get that rest you’ll desperately need. Plus, a little walk to the conference in the morning is great to mentally prepare for the day.

5. Get a private room

While sharing a room with some of your fellow students can be fun and cheaper than a private room, it also makes it hard to get some alone time. Getting that alone time in the morning and evening will help you recharge for another busy day. If a private room is too expensive and just not an option, try to create some alone time. Get up before everyone else is awake, skip a session and go back to the hotel for an hour or two during the day, or go to bed while the rest is still downing their beers at the local pub.

6. Prioritise your own needs

I often feel guilty for wanting to leave social events much earlier than my friends or colleagues. I just operate differently and it has nothing to do with me not enjoying spending time with them. There are a lot of opportunities for social activities at conferences and it’s important to check in with yourself to see if an activity is compromising your need to take care of yourself. It’s okay to hit pause and excuse yourself. It’s not rude, it’s necessary to avoid feeling like sh*t the next day.

7. Take small breaks in nature during the day

There are numerous studies showing that spending time in nature can improve your mental health. Nature has a calming effect and it’s the perfect environment to clear your mind and reset. So instead of spending your lunch break or evenings discussing more science or business, why not go for a break in nature. Perhaps there’s a forest or beach nearby or even a little park. Any place with trees or other elements of nature will work. Leave your phone in your bag and just quietly focus on everything you see, hear and smell. Trust me, you’ll feel much better afterwards.

8. Dress for success

No, this doesn’t mean putting on your fanciest dress or suit. Instead wear something that makes you feel beautiful, confident and most of all comfortable. Pants that are too tight or shoes that are painful to wear can really affect how you feel mentally. It’s also smart to bring a jumper or jacket in case the air conditioning is blasting at Antarctic temperatures.

9. Find your conference anchor

Networking and meeting new people are exhausting. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed with no opportunity for some quiet alone time, then make sure you find your conference anchor. This is your go-to person that you feel comfortable around. Spending some time with this person can help you overcome those moments where you really don’t feel like talking to strangers.

If you’re attending the conference with people from your lab or uni, great! You probably already know them quite well, so no need for the awkward introductory conversation. If you’re flying solo, look for others who are attending the conference alone. Make a confident but friendly introduction and they are probably going to be as happy to talk to you as you are to talk to them.

10. Keep your survival kit with you at all times

People often make fun of me for taking my backpack with me everywhere I go. It holds all my essentials and it makes me feel safe and comfortable knowing that I have it with me at all times. It always contains a water bottle, mints, lip balm, tissues, sunglasses and a snack for when I get hungry (or hangry). Whatever is important for you, make sure you bring it to the conference.

11. Focus on creating authentic relationships with just one or two people

When I attended the conference a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that a lot of people were running around trying to talk to as many new people as possible. It almost seemed as if they felt a sense of victory depending on how many connections they made. Honestly, I think it usually doesn’t come across as very genuine and I don’t like that at all. This approach will undoubtedly work for some people, but I went into this conference with a different approach. Instead of talking to as many people as I possibly could, I focused on spending more time with a few people that I felt could help me with my PhD and my career after getting that Dr. title. I believe that this approach gave me far more value and allowed me to build more authentic relationships.

12. Recharge after the conference

Last but not least: take one or two days to rest and digest everything that you heard and learned during the conference. As inspired as you may feel, you will put that knowledge to a better use if you take your time to process everything instead of diving headfirst back into work. Plenty of sleep and some quiet time in nature should do the trick.

I hope these tips help and please let me know if you have more!

Rainbow Research – Harmony

Post provided by Renske Jongen

The Rainbow Research series returns to the British Ecological Society to celebrate Pride month 2022! These special posts promote visibility and share stories from STEM researchers who belong to the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Each post is connected to one of the themes represented by the colours in the Progress Pride flag (Daniel Quasar 2018). In this post, Renske Jongen shares her  journey on the way to studying seagrasses and their below-ground microbiome at the University of Sydney.

About me and my research

There we were, me and my best friend, sitting in the bushes with a dead mouse in front of us. Are we sure it’s dead? Were we really going to do this? Yep, we were, and it ended up being the gossip among the parents of the kids in my class.

The weird kid in school? Oh yeah, that was me. Instead of playing with dolls or barbies like most young girls do, I spent most of my time in the bushes looking for animals. Armed with a jar, a magnifying glass and a field guide on animals in Europe, I was determined to find all the animals listed in that book. The date of sighting and anything special I noted was carefully written down in a notebook. My desire to learn more about nature went so far that I even buried dead animals that I found, only to collect and study their skeletons later (I unfortunately never found any bones back…). That’s also how I ended up with that dead mouse I found. Only this time I wasn’t going to bury it, I wanted to study its anatomy. Me and my best friend decided it was a good idea to cut open that mouse and see what it looked like from the inside. I told you, I was weird.

Luckily, my weirdness didn’t hinder me much in making friends. I also had parents that encouraged my interest in nature. With my dad, I would spend my school lunch breaks catching frogs from the pond in the nearby forest, and my mom let me keep all kinds of animals as pets. Ranging from cats and birds, to lizards and albino African clawed frogs. She taught me to treat plants and animals with care and respect. Many weekends were spent washing cars to collect money for WWF, or collecting signatures to stop the wildlife trade. It may come as no surprise that I became a vegetarian at the age of 10, because loving animals and eating them at the same time made no sense to me. It still doesn’t by the way, and I became a vegan a couple of years ago.

Left: at the butterfly garden.
Credit: Renske Jongen.
Right: taking care of stray cats while on holiday in Spain. Credit: Renske Jongen.

At the age of four, I was convinced that I wanted to become a veterinarian. Later when choosing my bachelor program, I found out that studying biology actually suited me more. I wanted to know how nature works and save animals from extinction.

I’ll never forget Frederieke Wagner-Cremer, a professor at Utrecht University. She was the first professor during my bachelor’s that showed me that women in science can be inspiring AND funny. She has the most wicked sense of humour, and during her lectures most of the discussions where about environmental change. Ever since that course, this has been the central topic of all the research projects that I have worked on. She explained how the interactions between different organisms can change dramatically in response to climate change. To me this was really interesting; studying these variety of responses to climate change might help us understand which organisms are capable of adapting to the changing climate, and which ones may be in trouble.

For my master’s, I therefore ended up studying the seasonal timing of the winter moth, as well as fish behaviour in response to climate change. Right after my master’s I started working as a research assistant at The Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW), working on the interactions between plants and the soil. Working here made me realize that if I really wanted to save those animals I wanted to save as a young girl, the best way to do so is by conserving or restoring their habitat. And to do that, you need to know how that system works.

Seagrasses growing at Chowder Bay next to the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS). The water was a bit murky after all the rain of the past months. Credit: Renske Jongen.

And here I am, doing exactly that. For my PhD, I moved from The Netherlands to Australia to study the interactions between seagrasses and below-ground microbes in the context of climate change. Seagrasses are marine flowering plants, that evolved from terrestrial plants and then returned back to the sea around 140 million years ago. You could call them the ‘whales’ of the plant kingdom. They are incredibly important because they support many other marine organisms by providing food or shelter, for example to sea turtles and dugongs. They also protect our coasts from storms, trap plastic particles and sequester large amounts of carbon. Unfortunately, seagrasses are not doing very well in a lot of places. In fact, we’re losing an area the size of 20,000 soccer fields around the world every year since the 1980’s as a result of stressors such as coastal development and climate change. You don’t hear so much about this compared to the loss of coral reefs or tropical rainforests, but these important seagrasses are actually one the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Lots of efforts are underway to conserve and restore seagrass meadows but often only have limited success.  

Interestingly, most of the restoration efforts have only focused on improving above-ground conditions such as water clarity, while ignoring what is happening below-ground, in the sediment. For terrestrial plants we already know for quite some time that the soil, and soil microbes play an important role in the health of plants. For seagrasses not much is known about the importance of below-ground microbes for seagrasses, especially not in the context of environmental change.

Thinking really hard during the first experiment of my PhD at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS).

For my PhD, I’m therefore studying these interactions between seagrasses and below-ground microbes, and see how these interactions change with climate change. If we know which microbes and what sediment conditions help seagrasses do better, then we can use that knowledge to improve restoration or monitoring techniques. I hope that my work will give some tangible outcomes that will help with just that.

My identity and what pride means to me

There are two main things that make up my identity: being vegan and a lesbian. As far apart as these two things seem to be (being vegan is a choice, being queer definitely isn’t), they actually share a lot of common ground. The link between identifying as non-heterosexual and living a plant-based life is that both don’t fit in the world’s view of society as it is now. Because heterosexuality and eating meat are seen as the normal and natural thing. Pride to me therefore means challenging and normalising identities and practices outside social norms. I don’t necessarily think that being queer or vegan should be celebrated. Simply by being open about it, I hope to open the eyes of the people around me to things that might seem ‘different’ to them. I want to help create a society that respects and embraces different groups of people and extending that to different species.

For that reason, I chose the colour ‘blue’ of the Pride Flag, which stands for ‘harmony’ as the best reflection of me and my research. In the end, everything in life is about combining all of our diverse and competing needs in such a way that the whole system works.

I was lucky to grow up in a non-religious family and a country like The Netherlands where people are usually pretty open-minded. I never really had a big coming out. After being in relationships with men for many years, I fell in love with a woman. I then realized that I preferred women over men and that was it. It should be like that for everyone. Unfortunately, the acceptance of homosexuality in society is often lacking behind despite major changes to the rights of LGBTQ+ people around the world. The same goes for animal rights or environmental change: must of us agree that something needs to be done, but the actual changes in society are happening too slow. I believe that the world could thrive if we all just had a little more understanding and respect for every human, animal and plant that is out there.